Alexander Calder's Hanging Mobile (1951)

The Concept of Potentiality: On Agamben

What is potentiality?  Potentiality is conventionally understood as that which is opposed to actuality.  This is an Aristotelian inheritance. By definition, what is potential [dynamis δυναμις] is something that is not-yet actual, but that which over time and through the principle of development has the power to actualize [energia ενεργεια].  Potentiality is therefore a kind of power, with an inertial, directional force whose aim is to manifest itself in actuality. This motif can be found in Hegel’s system.  For Hegel, Reason is what is capable of actualizing itself; it is a purposive activity that unfolds its inner potentiality (the “in itself”) into explicit actuality (the “for itself”).  Marx overturns Hegel and relocates this power of actualizability from subjective thought (Spirit) to the sensuous material activity of man (labor-power).  What unites Hegel and Marx is the idea of potentiality as the substrate for the actual world.  Yet, insofar as potentiality precedes actuality, it is something that disappears, becomes annulled in its becoming actual.  The idea of development intends to bring potentiality to its end [telos τέλοϛ], to realize the teleology of potentiality to actuality.  This is why in the contemporary discourse of development what remains merely potential risks the opprobrium of under-development.  Potentiality, on this view, is nothing more than what subsists in the peripheral, substance-less shadow of actuality.  Giorgio Agamben offers a radically different account of potentiality.  “On Potentiality” is Agamben’s critical effort to go beyond the binary of potential/actual.  His theoretical gesture is to give form to an aspect of potentiality that is not reducible to actuality, a potentiality that “conserves itself and saves itself in actuality” (184).  He therefore identifies a certain kind of persisting , a living-on of potentiality that remains in and for the actual world.  
First, Aristotle.  The opposition between potentiality and actuality is an opposition that runs through the history of Western philosophy and science; it is an opposition that can be traced back to at least Aristotle’s distinction between dunamis (δυναμις) and energeia (ενεργεια).  In De Anima,  Aristotle identifies an aporia in sense-phenomena:  Why can there be no sensation without an external object?  How is it that we cannot sense sensation in-itself?  Aristotle’s response to this aporia is that sensation is not actual, it is potential.  Because sensation in-itself is potential, it can only be sensed when it has an external object.  From this Aristotelian insight, Agamben specifies a mode of existence of potentiality: potentiality is the “existence of a non-Being, a presence of an absence,” that is to say, a form of privation (179).  Potentiality is an existence of a non-Being because to say that something has potential implies that this potentiality exists but that, at the same time, it does not exist as an actual thing.  As we shall see, the paradoxical existence of this non-Being will be of great importance for Agamben in developing a different notion of human action and freedom.
In Aristotle’s metaphysics and physics, there are two faculties of potentialities: generic and existing potentiality.  An example of generic potentiality is the potential of a child to learn.  The kind of potentiality expressed in an architect who is said to have the potential to build or a poet who has the potential to write poems is what is called an existing potentiality.  The distinction between the two is that in generic potentiality one suffers an alteration, as in a child who, in the process of learning, needs to become other than itself in order to realize its full potential or, what is the same thing, to be actual.  Existing potentiality, on the other hand, implies the idea of possession, a kind of “having,” in which one has the choice of whether or not to bring this knowledge/potentiality into actuality.  The architect does not have to build, the poet does not have to write, even if both possess, indeed are defined by, their respective potentialities.  Existing potentiality therefore contains the power of negation.  Agamben focuses on the second form of potentiality, and derives from it an extended notion of potentiality as not simply a potentiality to do this or that thing (i.e., a capacity), but also as a specific “mode of existence” that can simultaneously mean to not do or not be.  In doing so, Agamben isolates an aspect of potentiality that is irreducible to actuality, one that maintains itself precisely as potentiality.  Agamben wishes to give analytic priority and philosophical valence to this aspect of potentiality.
What would a potentiality that dwells in non-actuality look like?  What form does a potentiality that resists actuality take?  Agamben likens it to a shadow [skotos].  Agamben returns to Aristotle’s discussion of sensation, and focuses on his treatment of sight and color.  He points out that for Aristotle, where the “color” of actuality is light, darkness is the “color” of potentiality.  Insofar as potentiality precedes actuality, darkness forebodes the potentiality of sight/light.  The crucial point Agamben wants to make here is that even when we deprive our senses of sight, as illustrated in the act of closing our eyes (a form of privation in the sense noted above), we nonetheless are able to distinguish darkness from light, that is to say, we are able to see darkness.  But what does it mean to say we “see” darkness?  For Agamben, this experience of darkness is the experience of potentiality in-itself.  Rather than saying that we cannot see when we are in the dark, that we merely only have the potential to see, what happens when darkness itself becomes the object of our sight, when the “actuality” of sight is in the darkness of potentiality?
(Agamben’s treatment of light and darkness seems amenable to a critique of Western Enlightenment, thematized for instance by Fontanier: “Light [is] for clarity of spirit, for intelligence…for enlightenment; Blindness for troubling or clouding of reason.”  Irigaray in Speculum of the Other Woman observes that this chromatic metaphor of light maps onto a gender economy, in which woman is darkness: “She [woman] lives in darkness…She makes no show or display.  For if she were to shine, then the light would no longer, simply, belong to sameness.  The whole of the current economy system would have to be re-calculated.  And if she is granted the life of appearance [actuality], it will be a darkling affair.”  For a future post, in what way is the subsumption of potentiality into actuality also a gendered process?)
“Human beings,” Agamben remarks, “see shadows, they can experience darkness, they have the potential not to see, the possibility of privation” (181).  But why darkness?  Agamben plays with the motif of darkness because it evokes the idea of a potentiality that is outside the domain of actuality-as-light: when we are in the dark, external, phenomenal objects cannot take (actual) form, everything therefore remains in the domain of the potential.  The link between darkness and potentiality is crucial for Agamben’s argument because it points to the fact that if potentiality existed merely for the purpose of actualizing light, then we would never be able to experience darkness as such, we could not have potentiality in-itself, only potentiality for the sake of actuality.  Without this potentiality in-itself, without this ability to see darkness, sensation in general would be impossible, because sensation in-itself, sensation without an external object, is potential.
Potentiality for darkness is the domain of the potential in general.  In Book Theta of Metaphysics, Aristotle writes, “Impotentiality [adynamia αδυναμία] is a privation contrary to potentiality.  Thus all potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same.”  From this passage, Agamben credits Aristotle for articulating the originary structure of potentiality: all potentiality [dynamis δυναμις] is impotentiality [adynamia αδυναμία].  We are now far away from the standard, binary account of potentiality as that which is not-yet actual.  Rather than emphasizing potentiality as that which can (and should) be actual, Agamben’s rhetorical gesture reverses the movement:  it is no longer the teleological movement from potentiality to actuality, but the return of potentiality unto itself, the movement of potentiality to its own privation, its own non-Being.  To say “all potentiality is impotentiality” means that what is potential can both be and not be. After all, were potentiality always only potential to be, everything potential would always already have been actualized, and potentiality in-itself would never exist as such.  Agamben thus aims to focus our concentration on this “not-being” of potentiality, the impotentiality to be found at the very core of all potentiality.  Agamben writes,
“[I]n its originary structure, dynamis, potentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation, its own steresis, its own non-Being.  This relation constitutes the essence of potentiality.  To be potential means: to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity.  Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential.  They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being.  In potentiality, sensation is in relation to anesthesia, knowledge to ignorance, vision to darkness” (182).
After identifying impotentiality in all forms of potentiality, Agamben proceeds with a discussion of human freedom and action, and asks, What distinguishes us from other living beings?  What is it that defines the singularity of our human existence?  Agamben argues that what separates human beings from other living beings is that we are the only “animals who are capable of their own impotentiality” (182).  We are human to the extent that we our capable of our own privation, our potential to be not-be.  Agamben here departs from a long philosophical line of thought about human freedom and action.  Freedom is often regarded as the final expression of human power overcoming finitude, either in terms of absolute spontaneity (as in Kant’s moral philosophy), the self-actualization of the concept (Hegel), or the teleology of labor (Marx).  From Kant to Marx, human freedom is regarded as the potency of an act manifesting itself in actuality.  The passage of freedom is nothing less than this passage from potentiality to actuality:  freedom, as such, is the annihilation of impotentiality, or what is the same thing, the annihilation of all that is merely potential, the disavowal or denial of our potential to not-be.  (In the realm of economics, freedom, as Amartya Sen has argued, can only be achieved through the path of development.  This is why it becomes almost impermissible to say “No!” to development, for to say to “No!” to developmental prescriptions would be tantamount to one’s own ruination, one’s own unfreedom).  Agamben does not follow this line of thought and takes us to another route. What makes us human, according to Agamben, is precisely not our power of actualization, but the potential to not-be, which refers to the fact that we are capable of our own incapacity.  Agamben therefore relocates freedom on the other side of the spectrum, not in actuality, but in the domain of potentiality, which, as we have seen, is also home to impotentiality:  “To be free is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing.  To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation” (183).  If impotentiality is the essence of potentiality, the root of human freedom can be found in our capacity to not-be; the power of freedom and human action lives and subsists in the “abyss of potentialty.”
What are the political consequences of defining freedom not in terms of actuality, but in terms of the potentiality to not-be?  Is it even possible to consider the “actuality” of the potentiality to not-be?  If all potentiality is always already impotentiality, what does the “actuality” of the potentiality to not-be look like?  Is it perhaps akin to Derrida’s concept of the specter, a kind of non-present presence, like a ghost, a paradoxical form of corporeality?  Agamben’s argument concerning the “act of impotentiality” is where his text becomes most dense.  He invites us to a thought experiment: if the actuality of the potential to play the piano is the performance of a musical piece, what is the actuality to not-play?  If the actuality of the potential to think is the thinking of this or that thought, what is the actuality of the potentiality to not-think?  How do we give ontological credence and certitude to the potentiality to not-be if it does not pass into actuality?  To put it more simply, in what way can something that is not actual exist?
Agamben returns to Aristotle to resolve these antinomies.  He cites another fragment from Metaphysics, it reads:  “A thing is said to be potential if, when the act of which it is said to be potential is realized, there will be nothing impotential.”  As Agamben remarks, this sentence is usually interpreted as if Aristotle had wanted to say, “What is possible is that which there is nothing impossible.  If there is no impossibility, there is possibility.”  This interpretation is inadequate for Agamben because it merely commits a tautology.  Agamben offers a different interpretation, what Aristotle says instead is,
“[I]f a potentiality to not-be originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such.  This does not mean that it disappears in actuality; on the contrary, it preserves itself as such in actuality.  What is truly potential is thus what has exhausted all its impotentiality in bringing it wholly into the act as such” (183).
If we follow Agamben’s reformulation, actuality is no longer simply the using-up of potentiality; it is the full realization of impotentiality, the potential to not-be.  Actuality, on this account, turns out to be simply a form of potentiality that is, so to speak, capable of not not being.  This is why, when rigorously followed, pure potentiality and pure actuality are indistinguishable.  In the traditional account of potentiality, it is precisely impotentiality that is obfuscated in the passage from potentiality to actuality.  Agamben challenges us to turn potentiality back upon itself, to return and be faithful to its constitutive essence as impotentiality, and to see what kinds of knowledge and truth-claims this perspective allows.  It seems to me then that this would require us to produce an entirely different methodological procedure, a new analytical framework that would enable us to understand and trace the movements and, I would even say, labor of impotentiality.  This form of critique would presuppose the potential to not-be as the very condition of actuality, that is to say, impotentiality as the condition under which all potentialities can realize themselves as actual.  It would also be vigilant to the ways in which disavowing the constitutive work of impotentiality can be the grounds for exploitation and expropriation.  What strikes me as so radical about Agamben’s reconceptualization of potentiality is that it systematically undermines discourses and ways of thinking that presuppose the primacy of actuality/actualization.  Focusing on the originary structure of potentiality as impotentiality allows us to question the grounds on which an idea, a statement, or an action can present itself as a self-certain actuality.  I am trying to think here more about how impotentiality may bear a powerful critique of the rhetoric of development.  For what is development if not the seduction of the actual?  Contemporary economic development, to borrow Agamben’s metaphors, has placed the postcolonial global South in the shadows of actuality that is global modernization.  It is in this sense that the Third World lives in a state and condition of non-actuality.  The critical task for us is to understand what this mode of existence means and what forms of the political this makes possible.
Image: Alexander Calder’s Hanging Mobile, 1951.
This entry was published on April 4, 2010 at 11:30 PM. It’s filed under Critical Theory, Development, Philosophy, Potentiality and Actuality, Reading Notes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “The Concept of Potentiality: On Agamben

  1. keni on said:

    When the potential to not-be has exhausted itself in impotentiality, impotentiality brings forth into the actual a powerless power, the origin of all power. Political power is thus not specialized in the hands of a few, but comes from the suspension of separate powers.

    Powerlessness is true power. And the source of all forms of power. Power can be defined as wither superseding, or refraining..
    But if to supersede is to refrain, then power as the collective ability to not-do and not-be political is the source of the political as such.

  2. keni on said:

    that should have been ‘either superseding..’

  3. What’s the difference between Agamben’s darkness and Deleuze’s concept of distinct obscure respect to sensation? And what’s the difference between Agamben’s impotentiality and Deleuze de-actualization or absolute deterritorialization? It’s seems to me that Deleuze’s relative deterritorialization is what can be defined by actualization as merely potential in Agamben’s term or development (in your application of the concept) while absolute deterritorialization is a sort of changing a threshold, a discontinuity respect to the code of the development. A sort of actualization of the being of not-being. In fact Deleuze speaks of subtraction that is similar to the negative concept of Agamben even if Deleuze philosophy is said to be affirmative. I mean I have to subtract myself by the dispositive, by the form-of-life to integrate the zoe into the bios, to refrain the singularity of my potential. ( Probably I haven’t understood anything…tell me I do not offend…)

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