It is an incredible honor to be here with you today and to be entrusted with the task of speaking to you in this moment. You are here with your friends and family to celebrate what is, so far, the culmination of the journey you have undertaken to educate yourselves — to not only learn things, but to learn how those things fit together and what they might mean to you. I hope you always continue your education, in this sense.

And yet, like all endings, this is a beginning too. A magnificent one, in which this strange and awesome new part of your life, is opening up to reveal a vast, uncharted landscape called “the rest,” a landscape as thrilling and uncertain as possibility usually is. And the task before you now is to somehow interpolate this vastness, this newness, this possibility, while striving to create a path and purpose and place for yourself. It is a tall order. An order that, as far as I can tell, somewhat down the road from you, never stops being both a colossal and exciting demand.

And, as I considered the intimidating prospect of trying to distill something worthwhile to share with you today, the thought that I kept coming back to was this: I want them to know that they are powerful.

Now, what do I mean by this and how shall I convey it? Those more skilled in literature could show you something about power using a series of troupes and a moving conceit, others, with more talent for humor, could teach and amuse you with a series of witty personal anecdotes. But, I am a social scientist, and so, I will simply disclose my method and make you an argument.

So, what do I mean, when I say that you are powerful?

In the Politics department here at New School, we say that the study of politics is the study of power. This doesn’t mean that the study of politics is the study of people who have been appointed or elected to make decisions about polities. The study of power may include such people and the positions that they inhabit, but to have position is not the same as being powerful. Some might think that to study power means to study how some people can cause other people to do things that they would otherwise not do. But like position, this phenomenon, which is properly called force or coercion, is not the same as being powerful. Instead, what we mean, or, at least what I mean, when I say I study power is that I am interested in understanding how people imagine, interpret, and participate in co creating what Hannah Arendt calls “the world we share.”

To me, these capabilities: imagination, interpretation, and participation are constitutive of power because they are faculties that can not only cause people to act — that is, do that thing you want them to do — but also, and more importantly, can cause people to change the reasons why and ways that they act. In an imperfect world, filled with imperfect people, and challenges both great and small; personal and political, it seems to me that the ability to inspire and implement change is the very essence of power. And, I submit to you that each of you can exercise this faculty, if you remember how it is constituted, that is, what it is made of.

So, let’s take each of these elements of power in turn. Let’s start with imagination. Any of you who have taken my classes know that I’m a big Geek. I love fantasy and science fiction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes got me through college and much of grad school, I read the Harry Potter series, with relish, as an adult, and consumed the entire Hunger Games trilogy during one week, in the sleep-deprived early months of my first child’s life, when it seemed that all it was possible to do was to sit on the couch and nurse him. When I was a kid, I thought that this interest of mine was simply a quirk of my personality, a side-effect of being a bookworm who socialized with other bookworms.

As I’ve grown, and my enthusiasm for these genres has not diminished, I realized that my avid curiosity about alternate worlds comes from the same place as my passionate interest in this one. This is because, in order to be immersive, imagined worlds have to be plausible. Though they are full of fantastic things, those things cannot be random, they have to function according to rules. And those rules, be they physical, law, or custom, can neither be so rigid as to proscribe the action of the characters, nor so fluid as to render the world impossible. Well-crafted fantasy worlds present us with a bounded freedom — one that gives us a set of circumstances and then allows us to imagine the multiple possibilities of how the rules of the world will interact with the choices the characters make, both individually and in their social and political accumulation. This is also the state of affairs in the world we actually inhabit, but it is often harder to see. We are more likely to think of the forces shaping this world as inevitable, self-evident, natural, or immutable and we are more likely to forget that imagining the multiple ways that our choices, both as individuals and in tandem through collective action, can interact with the physics, laws, and customs of our place and time to yield fantastic outcomes.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but that’s not true. Necessity is the motivation for invention, but imagination is where the genesis takes place. And imagination is not just for scientific and artistic invention, but for social and political invention also. The power of imagination, is the power to “Dream a world” as Langston Hughes put it. It is imagination, that made Harriet Tubman believe that there could be such a thing as freedom and that she could achieve it, not only for herself, but for as many as she could lead ahead of the dogs and rifles in pursuit. It is imagination of other possible worlds that pushes people into the streets to demand the vote, or fair pay, or the right not to be shot in the street. So, in order to exercise power — in order to be able to not only act, but act differently — one must dare to imagine that things could be otherwise.

Let’s now consider interpretation. Interpretation sounds like a technical task. The interpreter is not the originator of the idea, but merely translates, the conduit of information that someone else has found out. What can it have to do with power? But interpretation is not just a task that we undertake in the face of obscure ancient languages or inscrutable tables full of data. We interpret every part of our lives. Interpretation is a fundamental element of understanding. It’s the way we figure out what anything — from a momentary encounter with a stranger on the street to the current contest for the American presidency — means to us. Interpretation is how we answer what we call in the social sciences, the “so what” question, on issues big and small. In this way, every act of interpretation that we undertake, shapes the world we share.

I passed by three homeless people on the walk from the subway to the place where I work this morning.’

So what?

I am struggling, like every recent college graduate I know, to find a job that will allow me to pay off my college loans and invest in my adult life.’

So what?

I am afraid, like the parents of black and brown children all over America, that my baby is not as safe from the suspicious and lethal gaze of the state as they would be if they were walking around in white skin?’

So what?

The way you answer these questions matters. The way you express the answers to these questions to other people in your life matters. The way you communicate these answers to the world matters.

It matters not only intrinsically, but also practically, because our interpretations of the world are all we can know of it. After all, happiness is a matter of interpretation. What counts as political is a matter of interpretation. Justice, is a matter of interpretation. So, in order to exercise power — in order to be able to not only act, but act differently — one must dare to interpret the answers to the “so what” questions in our lives in new ways.

So, now, what about participation? When we think of power, we might be more likely to associate it with a word like “action,” rather than participation. Action, in both its common colloquial usage and in the literature that comes from political theory implies something bold and unique, the paradigmatic method of getting stuff done. However, in thinking about the ways that each of us is powerful, through our ability to imagine other worlds which are possible, and to interpret the significance of the joys and challenges that face us, it is important to remember that this imagination and interpretation does not and cannot take place inside a vacuum. We are all born into a context — family, town, culture, region, nation — and that context provides the starting point for our imagination and the concepts and values that first impact our interpretations. Indeed, power itself is a relational concept. It is not a thing that exists solely within us, it is something that exists between us. We become all that we become in a context and the “world we share” both predates us and must be shaped by us. Our power lies in acting, both individually, and with others, to shape and re-shape that context. And that kind of action-in-context, is participation. So, in order to exercise power — in order to be able to not only act, but act differently — one must dare to develop new milieus, new compositions of “we” who create new ways of being in the world.

To me, these are the things that constitute power. They are things that each of us and all of us do in the course of a lifetime. We imagine. We interpret. We participate. The trick, I think, is in knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Knowing that habit doesn’t always have to supersede purpose. Knowing that this kind of power, the power that is ultimately the power to change ourselves and the world, is and always has been in the hands of ordinary, extraordinary people, like each and all of you.

One thought on “I Want You To Know You Are Powerful: Commencement Address to Eugene Lang College

Leave a Reply