“Soft Power”: The History and Its Place at Pacific

Jan 18, 2021
The Pacifican

By: Angel Zhong

From October 2019 to February 2020, the SFMOMA hosted an exhibition entitled “soft power,” addressing the “ways in which artists deploy art to explore their roles as citizens and social actors.” It acted as a transnational manifestation of how culture, in the form of art, can incite meaningful thought and action. Nevertheless, as maintained by Dr. Ahmed Kanna, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Pacific, it’s critical to consider that the term first gained prominence during the Cold War, and was used to denote how the United States spread its influence and empire through non-coercive means in the latter half of the twentieth century. Consequently, “soft power” has historically been burdened with the weight of U.S. imperialism, hegemony, and geopolitical interests. However, like many other words and phrases today, “soft power” is being reclaimed and appropriated as a medium of counterculture, exemplifying how subversion can emerge from the inversion of existing power structures reflected in our ever-changing language.

One can trace the prefiguration of “soft power” back hundreds of years. Though the term obviously didn’t exist in the sixteenth century, the spirit of “soft power” — as it is being remade presently — was captured by the ethos and writings of renowned playwright William Shakespeare. According to Dr. Courtney Lehmann, Professor of English and distinguished Shakespeare scholar, Shakespeare was “prescient” — i.e. profoundly forethinking- — in the sense that he understood the issues of race, gender, and class before they became tangibly rooted in our intellectual and societal landscapes. He repeatedly included and represented marginalized groups in his work, as illustrated by Othello and The Merchant of Venice, despite the fact that he was required to entertain and please aristocrats with his plays, i.e. those who benefitted the most from the stratified and discriminatory social structure of that era. As a result, much of Shakespeare’s career was defined by a complex “social calculus”, whereby he performed for the upper class while simultaneously speaking sincerely to the “groundlings,” those who stood at his plays because they were too poor to purchase a seat. Shakespeare’s quietly subversive body of work epitomizes the power of art to become a voice for the voiceless — to humanize, mobilize, and revolutionize by reinventing dominant ways of thinking and sparking a discourse of activism that, in his case, spans generations.

The ripples of soft power can be observed among our own community as well. Inside the classroom, discussions initiated by literature, art, and other products of culture are leading to expanded worldviews. Liz Malone, a fourth-year English major and prominent student activist, asserts that dialogues of discomfort constitute the bedrock of societal progress, as we can’t make important external changes until our internal preconceptions are addressed. She continued by contending that art and literature invite us to have these often disquieting conversations because they enable us to empathetically experience circumstances different from our own; thus, partaking in art and literature is activism, and by doing so we are all activists displaying radical empathy. Moreover, art created by students and faculty also illustrates on-campus conceptions of soft power. Jennifer Little, Associate Professor of Art and Graphic Design, devotes much of her work to examining the dynamic sociopolitical climate of the United States. One of her ongoing projects, “Gun Culture”, visualizes and delves into “the relationship between right-wing gun culture, conservative politics, white supremacy, poverty, and lack of ethnic diversity in rural America.” In addition, this past summer, a recent Pacific graduate organized an initiative to paint a “Black Lives Matter” mural on Argonne Drive in Stockton, showing how both the creation and contemplation of art facilitate solidarity and progress.