Everybody thinks Radiohead’s 2003 album, Hail to the Thief, is a nod to the US Presidential election of 2000—an election that may have been stolen amidst confusion and debate about election-results reporting, voting booth design, hanging chads and recounts that were finally ended by a Bush-friendly supreme court decision.
But Thom Yorke and other band members denied this, with Yorke eventually telling Rolling Stone (in May, 2004) that he had a different presidency in mind—that of John Quincy Adams whose election in 1824 was similarly deadlocked, decided by the House of Representatives, and beset by rumors about back-room deals among powerful Washingtonians.
Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive
(Open Court; US: Apr 2009)
But I wonder if Yorke was being entirely candid. For what better occasion is there for thinking about famous shenanigans and power-plays in US political history than contemporary shenanigans and power-plays, especially when they have historic and bloody consequences? For after September 11th and during the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Yorke and Co. were planning, writing, and recording the album in question.
In fact, Yorke thinks about political power a lot. But you’d be wrong to assume he takes a narrow, traditional view that associates political power with small groups or individuals—Kings, Presidents, Superheroes or media moguls, for example. As Brandon Forbes shows in the book Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Yorke takes power to be something that resides, at least partly, in those over whom it’s exercised.
If so, Yorke is in fine philosophical company, including Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt. And so video director Jamie Thraves, whose stunning video for “Just” (from The Bends) is, as Forbes explains, a perfect illustration of Yorke’s and Arendt’s conception of social power: When you’re being controlled, “you do it to yourself”—at least in part, “and that’s what really hurts.”
As I write, there’s a lot of pain in Iran. Some are predicting that a stolen presidential election will energize the population to finally reject the regime that’s held power since 1979 and seems bent on using violence to maintain it. But, as Yorke’s “Planet Telex” should remind those progressive Iranians who may feel that their own democratic power has been crushed or taken away, the truth is the opposite: “You can crush it but it’s always here/you can crush it but it’s always near.”
Kid A cover (partial)
Adapted from, “Where Power Ends and Violence Begins”, by Brandon W. Forbes, in Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Open Court, 2009, 173–81.
“All power tends to corrupt,” goes the tired aphorism from Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One need only look to recent political history to see the resonance of this statement, as the list of despots and dictators that haunt the 20th century, as well as the 21st, is long indeed.
In our current political climate in the West, we associate such evils as torture, terror, and the existence of a dreaded secret police with totalitarian power—the ultimate form of absolute power, a power that crushes individual freedom, the fundamental principle of liberal democracy, through violence and terror. The many books and films about the problem of totalitarianism speak not just against the possible rise of absolute power in our governments, but also of our intense fear and anxiety about losing freedom and democracy to a violent power. The War on Terror’s desperate co-opting of the Manichean rhetoric of the World War II/Cold-War era is one example of this fear’s hold on contemporary America’s national conscience. Its very name is another.
Radiohead seem especially attuned to this fear of the tie between violence and power. From OK Computer to Hail to the Thief, their records consistently portray a world rife with terror, despondency, and violence. Piggies squeal, bruises don’t heal, and police arrest citizens for random crimes like offensive hairdos or annoying conversational habits. Knives come out, armies are taken out, and bodies float down muddy rivers. Little men are erased, young blood is effaced, and the feeling of being strangled, beaten, and skinned-alive is never far. Radiohead seem to live in a violent world.
This world not only sounds nightmarish, it looks it, too. Stanly Donwood’s sleeve art, from Kid A and after, especially, depicts wide-eyed demonic creatures weeping, screaming, or perpetrating violent acts. The hidden booklet behind the CD tray on Kid A is especially disturbing. Creatures kick each other with razor-sharp feet, drip blood from their claws, and gather with machine guns and masks under the ironic headline “Glamorous.”
The cover of Hail to the Thief, which uses a painting of Donwood’s called “Pacific Coast”, further exemplifies the terror and anxiety found in these disturbing creatures. Utilizing blocks and blocks of text, the painting translates social anxiety into a wall of media-crazed buzz words like “Oil”, “Fear”, and “Security”, all the while aping a map of Los Angeles. One can easily recall the alienated fear of Pink from The Wall here, as each block adds yet another moment to the individual’s feeling of separation and powerlessness.
Yet Radiohead also present an optimism—of sorts, at least—in the face of power. They depict moments of resistance in which they rear a defiant head. The moving “I Will” from Hail to the Thief features a resilient Yorke promising to “rise up” in the face of overwhelming odds, promising not to let anything happen “to my children.” Amnesiac’s “I Might Be Wrong”, while channeling an anxiety that sees “no future left at all,” still urges us to “think about the good times and never look back.” And Kid A’s “Optimistic” offers the consolation that trying the best you can is good enough, even if one feels utterly powerless, like “nervous messed up marionettes floating around on a prison ship.”
So how are we to understand power and violence as political subjects? Does power always give birth to violence? Are power and violence even the same thing?
I Am Born Again
From Radiohead’s Just video
I Am Born Again
Immediately following World War II, political and social philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) penned a three-volume investigation into the origins of totalitarian power. Covering the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” and in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she suggested that the bureaucratizing of barbarism—the meetings, memos, uniforms, and schedules that Eichmann described during his trial—blunts the psychological power of violence, allowing normal people to facilitate horrific ends. Arendt’s treatise On Violence and her earlier study of modern political subjectivity, The Human Condition, offer the best interrogation of the philosophical concepts of power and violence.
In The Human Condition, the philosophical concept of action is the fundamental element of politics. Action is made possible only by the “human condition of plurality,” and allows humans to begin anew, to create new possibilities and break with the mistakes of the past. (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, second edition University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 7) Arendt calls the possibility to create the new in action “natality”, in reference to the new beginning of human birth: the concept is all over OK Computer. The air crash survivor in “Lucky” says “It’s gonna be a glorious day! / I feel my luck could change.” Similarly, after having emerged unscathed from a car crash on album opener “Airbag” Yorke proclaims: “I am born again.” These near-death experiences create a space for the narrator in each song to realize his capacity to act again in society, as if he was given a second chance at life.
The power of these emotions is the power of “the new beginning inherent in birth” (Arendt, p. 9), a power that presupposes a plurality of social actors. Arendt says “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse” (p. 200). Power can only exist within community, within the human plurality that is the presupposition of politics. It cannot exist without both the support and existence of the populace. When the tyrant forces his subjects to kneel before him, his power is actualized by the kneeling itself, by the action of the populace, and not by a power that is independent of social relations.
This means that tyrannical power is essentially only the obedience of the people; it is not a thing or substance or supernatural power held by the tyrant or the dictator. As Arendt defines it in On Violence, power is “never the property of an individual,” but is rather the ability of humanity “to act in concert.” (Hannah Arendt, On Violence Harcourt Brace, 1970, p. 44) In fact, when we use the phrase “in power”, we are actually referring to a leader “being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name” (p. 44). For Arendt, power is ultimately the social relation between political subjects that keeps any leader, dictator or democratically-elected president (even Supreme Court-installed president), for lack of a better term, in power.
They Do It to Yourself
In the famous video for “Just”, a man lies on the sidewalk, refusing to get up despite the protests and requests of passers-by and police officers. He tells us (via subtitles) that he cannot tell everyone why he is lying down on the street. When finally forcefully pressed, he breaks down and gives the reason for his bizarre action to those surrounding him. The subtitles cut out for this revelation, leaving us in the dark as to what the man says. As the video ends, an aerial shot of the street now reveals that everyone is now lying prostrate on the sidewalk alongside of the man.
Most react, I think, by supposing that the power here is in what the man says. After all, everyone is standing before he speaks his piece and then lying on the ground after they hear him. But Arendt would say power is not found in the man’s words, but in everyone’s reaction to those words. If the man had said something ridiculous like “I know aliens will swoop down and capture us unless we lie down right now,” the spectators could easily have passed it off as lunacy and gone about their business. But the fact that everyone lies down in active response to these words makes them, even if they are supposedly nonsensical, incredibly powerful. For Arendt, it is in a plural action like social obedience where power finds its essence. The fact that the viewer of “Just” never knows what the man says, in fact, underscores Arendt’s interpretation: power is not in singular word, but in plural deed.
What does this say about Acton’s aphorism? As our look at “Just” shows, Arendt might respond that it is not power itself that corrupts, since power is ultimately not a thing but a group action. It is rather that power allows the possibility of corruption in the political sphere. Arendt’s definition of power is not pejorative; power is not necessarily bad or evil. Instead, power creates a space for good or bad political action —we don’t know whether what the man said is good or bad, but we do know group action was taken, and therefore power was exercised. When it comes to a moral decision on power, then, it is up to the group, to the populace, to decide whether or not to obey, follow, and empower. If the people don’t want the loonies taking over, as “Go to Sleep” opines, then they must not participate in empowering them. Or, in the visual language of “Just”, they shouldn’t lie down.
George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.
Brandon Forbes is a freelance writer in Chicago who often covers indie rock and is co-editor of Radiohead and Philosophy (Open Court Publishing Company).