By what authority are we to follow?

Humberto Maturana, speaking at a workshop I attended many years ago, spoke of his experience under a military dictatorship in Chile.  He spoke of being threatened by a policeman with a gun pointed at him, and explained: “There is no such thing as power.  There is only obedience.”  We use the word ‘power’ to refer to that which commands obedience, but his point is that ultimately we choose to what we give authority.[1] So how are we to understand by what authority we follow?

The question of ‘by what authority’ came up in the paper on Reflexive Team Supervision, and lies behind the tension between ‘power-at-the-centre’ and ‘power-at-the-edge’, spoken of in the challenge to leadership. This tension represents as much an ethical challenge facing the leader as it does an ethical challenge of the case, in which the individual must confront a question(ing) of faith to the extent that he or she chooses to act as if s/he knows while knowing that s/he does not. This involves the individual taking responsibility for his or her relation to drive functioning, placing him or her between two deaths: between dying to the illusion that an answer can be guaranteed by an external authority qua the illusion of phantasy, and dying itself.

But what are the consequences of this ethic for the organisation? ‘Power-at-the-centre’ refers to the way processes of delegation devolve power from the top to the bottom of a unifying hierarchy.  Such processes depend upon acceptance of and/or obedience to the powers ‘above’. So what are the consequences for the organisation of ‘power-at-the-edge’? [2]

From Roman times, the word “auctor” (from which both ‘author’ and ‘actor’ derive) had two meanings: one who is recognised as being the ‘originator’, or as being the ‘recognised owner’.   Either way, the status of auctor derived from being recognised as such by a social process based on the relation of the auctor to the people. Behind this conferring of authority (auctoritas) by a social process was the power (potestas) to impose its particular forms of recognition, whether based directly on the power of the people, or indirectly on the power of the military over life and death.  But we can see in this difference between originator and owner the difference between power-at-the-edge and power-at-the-centre. The difference is in whether or not the people’s recognition of origination was direct or was mediated by those in authority, although of course the potestas behind the authorities could make it difficult not to recognise the mediating authority.[3]

A story that shows this difference was in the response to the authorities’ questioning of ‘by what authority’ (Matthew 21:23) Jesus taught. Jesus’ reply was in the form of another question concerning the basis of authority of his baptism by a prophet recognised as such by the people (i.e. by John the Baptist) [4].  If the authorities acknowledged that the prophet was the originator, then they undermined their authority directly; and if they denied it, then they angered the people, undermining their authority indirectly.  So the authorities kept quiet.

So questioning by what authority brings us ultimately to a third version of the ethical challenge – the challenge facing the individual person in deciding what is to be authorised.

We can approach this third version of the challenge by looking more closely at what the individual recognises as authoritative in terms of what is performative for him or her i.e. by what has illocutionary force. In Lacanese, this is shaped by the individual’s social being within the structure of discourse. This brings together the individual’s relation to the three ‘asymmetries’ implicit in the structure of the drive (i.e. the quadripod); and the ways in which these asymmetries are identified with particular ways of being inscribed.  The performativity comes from the identification between the individual’s way of being and the particular form of inscription: the difference between recognising an already-established ownership and recognising an origination is in recognising the origination of the particular form of inscription as being in relation to some previous time or in relation to the present moment.[5]

Staying with Lacanese, these three asymmetries are three ways of being-in-relation-to, each one equally present in human being, and each reflecting a relation to the registers of the Lacanian Imaginary, Real and Symbolic [6]:

  • The ‘Cartesian asymmetry‘ separating the model from the modeled.
  • The ‘Endo-Exo asymmetry‘ or the ontic/epistemic asymmetry, separating the outside or epistemic (exo) perspective of the observer from the inside ontic (endo) experience of being, in relation to which moments are experienced within the context of a succession of moments that is experienced as irreversible. This asymmetry is about being embodied – being ontologically committed.
  • The ‘Heisenberg asymmetry‘ separating the non-local context (i.e. generalisable contexts) from the local context (i.e. non-generalisable contexts). This asymmetry reflects the idea that the very formation of the differences that we use in modeling the non-local context is as unavoidably entangled with a ‘larger’ whole as is the formation of the local contexts with which we interact – such that each experienced moment is also a relation to a local that remains radically ‘other’ to our efforts to know it.

These three asymmetries are seen as lying ‘behind’ the ways in which performativity is constituted for the follower/listener, articulating the nature of being itself, but also the relation to which is experienced as a manque à être.  It is perhaps for this reason that we turn to religious terms as a rich source of metaphor for elaborating on the nature of being, but also for how we approach the lack. I will take this up in a subsequent blog, in order to examine the crises of delegation that come to face existing authorities.[7]

[1] The Greek roots of the word ‘heresy’ mean ‘choosing’, and the chapter I wrote on The Twitter Revolution in Halina Brunning’s book on Psychoanalytic Reflections on a Changing World suggests that the internet is enabling new forms of heresy to emerge in our times, such heresies emerging through the effects of Freud’s Third Identification.
[2] This is the difference between power-at-the-edge and power-at-the-centre and is the difference between alliance versus affiliation, the third dilemma in the dilemmas of ignorance, referred to previously in the journey at the edge.
[3] Again drawing on the Greek roots of the word, to be ‘martyred’ is to ‘bear witness’, the martyr being one who points with their life.
[4] To be martyred meant refusing obedience to this potentas. The Greek roots of the word “prophet” mean an interpreter, proclaimer or spokesman, especially of the will of the deity.  In lacanese, it as the relation to the invocatory partial drive.
[5] This is the third dilemma that, in its Foucauldian version, is the retreat or the return of the origin.
[6] The way the Lacanians represent these as being equally present is as the Borromean Rings, a fourth ring forming the sinthome with which the individual is identified, and which binds the other three rings together as a single unity.
[7] These crises precipitate changes in the scope of the social aggregations for which power-at-the-centre can be kept working, each crisis having the form of a dilemma of affiliation versus alliance.

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