What is Authority?
Authority is often dismissed as something tied to hierarchical or opaque forms of politics. Our project is to rescue the concept of authority from a narrow definition that just associates it with conservative ways of life or with authoritarian states, towards a more nuanced account of the production and experience of authoritative relations that can dominate and alienate, but also empower, enliven and enable attachments. The concept of authority helps us think about the ways in which knowledge, expertise and experience are valorised, and for providing a way of understanding how new voices can be effectively heard.
We are building a new theory of authority as forms of advice that carry a strong force deriving from inequalities in peoples' access to what is thought of as objective knowledge, universal ideals or ‘real life’ experience and experimentation.
Authority relations are material, and tend to lodge in bodies, objects, and practices. They are generated in many ways: through knowledge-sharing practices, and also through practices of representation and performance that create a sense of awe, gravity or distance. They frequently work through particular figures (whether human or nonhuman), such as individuals seen to possess charismatic aura, or invested with weightiness via testimony or links with the past. 'Experiential' or 'experimental' forms of authority are associated with the production of forms of objectivity. We seek to pluralise and enliven modes of objectivity.
Authority cannot exist without being granted: subjects of authority help to produce authority even as they are regulated or subject to it. Authority works through the generation of openness, answerability and trust between participants, and as such, is essential to democracy. We argue that authority needs to be given a broader definition than one of simple command/obedience. It might be understood more generally in terms of a capacity to demand a response, in the sense that its advice cannot safely be ignored. Granting authority can be as simple as learning to see or hear a previously marginalised voice, recognising it as possessing expertise from which one can learn and be guided.
The idea of a ‘crisis of authority’ is a popular cultural trope, where authority is seen to be something that we have lost, and that society suffers as a result (for example, in the responses to the London ‘riots’ in 2011). In contrast, we argue that authority is not lost, or waning, but is proliferating and pluralising. The grand institutions of church, family and state no longer have an oligopoly on authority, if indeed they ever did. Authority has always appealed to something
outside of itself, produced through technologies and traditions that are very much of this world, that create the sense of distance that the authority relation promises to traverse. These outsides are invoked in myth, in practices of storytelling, in the production of social and cultural imaginaries. The outsides of new relations of authority, as we have found in our own research, include markets, vitality, wealth, extreme despair, trauma, and spiritual experience. They provide the key to understanding the compelling emotions through which we make attachments and devote our lives. They tie us to each other, to destructive forces of exploitation and to the possibilities for collective production of alternative knowledges and worlds.