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Anatomies of Power:
Praxis, Violence, Rule

CSPT Annual Conference

Columbia University, May 13-14, 2022


Political theory has long been animated by the search for the norms, regimes, institutions, and practices which constitute the legitimate exercise of political power.  Conceptions of political legitimacy and illegitimacy necessarily involve analyses about what power consists in, how it is wielded, and with what effects – although these questions about power are not always explicitly theorized. Foregrounding such analyses, this year’s CSPT conference explores the ways in which political thinkers, past and present, have theorized different modalities of power. Beyond questions of who ought to have political power, and what makes it (il)legitimate, the conference delves into the specific infrastructures, social bases, moral psychologies, and ideologies of power. 


The 2022 CSPT conference explores anatomies of power along three interdependent dimensions—praxis, violence, and rule— as different ways to understand the nature of power and how it shapes political life.


Praxis underwrites power as the capacity to effect and affect outcomes. However power is conceptualized, it depends on acting/doing, the signification of praxis in ancient Greek. Influential theorists of power have often opposed praxis – in its situatedness, context-sensitivity, and strategic orientation to means – to theory, with its abstraction, idealism, and orientation to ends. At the same time, familiar contrasts of praxis to theoria and poeisis obscure important interdependencies across the activities of doing, making, and thinking power, not least, how praxes of power generate theory. The conference explores the gamut of power praxes, from governance, domination, and “subjectification,” to revolution, resistance, and refusal.


Violence haunts political theories of power, from the very definition of the political to the foundations of the modern state. Whether violence is taken to be the purest instance of political power or its polar opposite, violence seems imbricated with “civil” politics as a permanent menace and resource. This conference invites reflections on the nature of violence, coercion, and force as expressions of political power.  What is the appeal, purpose, specificity, and effect of political violence?  What kind of power is constituted by the display and/or performance of violence?  What kinds of dispositions are activated in wielding, benefitting from, resisting, submitting to violence? To what extent is mass nonviolence a remedy to state and civil violence?  To what extent do political foundings or radical social transformations require acts of coercion, force, violence?  How can political community be reconstituted in the wake of sustained violence? 


Rule has been a central category through which power has been conceptualized, perhaps especially through the related concept of sovereignty.  The reduction of political power to rule has also been continuously criticized by some of the most influential theorists of power, from John Dewey to Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt to Michel Foucault.  Familiar debates over who rules and how often obscure ambiguities inherent in the idea of rule itself, and deflect serious consideration of the different textures and modalities of rule across different contexts.  Some of these complexities are already suggested in the conceptual history of rule.  The ancient Greek archê and archein, for example, did not only signify “rule” and “to rule,” but at the same time “beginning” and “to begin.”  Our plenary panel explores the fraught and contested relationships, conceptual and historical, between political power and rule, reconsidering the ways we understand this relationship, and analyzing the distinctive problem space opened up by the idea of democratic rule.

Conference schedule and registration here

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