. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

On Potentiality, #1

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

But the fantasy of life as accumulation or accumulated impact is only one model for assessing what it means to be in life, not that capitalist society proliferates alternative models to performative vitalism and adding up to something. That’s our job, the queer job, the lefty job–the work of assessing other ways to matter in the long, thick present moment.

I really love this friend. At my father’s funeral she jabbed me in the ribs laughing when the rabbi said, “I didn’t know him, but I am sure he was a decent, ethical man.”

But at the same time she extended to me what she suffered from, and I’ve barely just gotten rid of it. Was it also at that funeral? I can’t remember because it was genuinely traumatic, the world fading out into nothing but what my eyes could see, her face after saying, “You’ve done your best work by now, haven’t you? How does that feel?” I gasped. That would have been 2002.

Then, last week, she sends me this message: someone we know has just discovered having inherited the gene of a debilitating illness. Now he too embodies potential cut short, in an entirely different sense than the bourgeois drama I’ve described. It’s Flowers for Algernon time, tragic. He equates the loss of his agentive brain with the end of everything good. I can’t start or stop thinking about it.

This post continues the research thread (I typed threat!) for Detachment Theory that links the vernacular of optimism to a variety of accounts of its form. Here, I am adding an inquiry on the discourse of potentiality to the problems of optimism, anxiety, and attachment (to persons and to life). The expansion of potentiality discourse bothers me, even though I’m attracted to it. In contemporary critical theory potentiality points to a focus on what’s immanent and imminent about the event that marks the present moment. It focuses on what we know affectively when there isn’t yet a world to confirm our senses of what it could be. Negri talks about this in The Savage Anomaly as the activity or materiality of what he calls joy. Potentiality describes what’s simultaneously already being lived and is always available for organization into the revolutionary reconstruction of the conditions of life. It is a rhetoric of temporality or historicity (that sense of the present moment) that manifests confidence in the endurance of singularity despite the mortality, imperfection, and unfinishedness of individuals.

In this discourse, what we understand as politics is banished to being just one vector of the human negotiation of life. That’s what always bothers me about it. I want humans to have available many idioms for making a claim that would enhance the conditions of living, of mattering. In the potentiality literature, though, potentiality is linked to the autonomous activity of affect. It is not what requires government, but a place in the imaginary of lived freedom, and liberation from being governed (Savage Anomaly, 220). The “workings of historicity as potentiality,” the impossibility of stopping the activity of remaking life and therefore of being defeated, are bigger than the story of one person or another’s being in the world (Empire, 52); and therefore politics as we know it becomes equated with the self-organizing potentiality of the activity of life. See also J. K. Gibson-Graham’s A Postcapitalist Politics for a rousing cheerleading on behalf of potentiality as something like the drive to remake living that we find not in structures of power or individuality, but the reinvention of community dependencies and modes of recognition. But their book is more conventional in its address to community and the local than what we find in Negri.

But I think I think that there is no politics without loss, without a serious shifting of the terms of living of the sort that produces incompetence at life, an incompetence we can look forward to if we can bear it but that has to be lived at best awkwardly, at worst, dramatically. Potentiality discourse feels too sunny to me. There, we are already all potential. Our solidarity is structural and comes from a thing we cannot be rid of: the vital right to belonging as such. At the same time, though, the work of solidarity, the activity of being not just in existence but in desire together, requires being in the room with the possibility that people don’t share your objects or your imaginaries, and that people will have to give up different things to get to the place of the better good life that you’re risking making imaginable, let alone available.

This is why intellectuals and artists invest so hard in the brain. The act of ideation itself embodies the form of optimism, because whatever its content, impact, or relation to the consensual real, it forces into being some unfinished business, which is something like that phantasm my friend no longer has access to, that living on (in potentiality) is all there is, which is a lot.

12 Comments so far
Leave a comment

A whole lot, yes. This is powerful and moving, Lauren. Thanks.

Comment by cathy davidson

This is incredibly interesting. What I’m not sure about is the sunny-ness of the potentiality position. For me, I want to hear more about how you see it as sunny–or what sunny stuff it motivates etc. The transition between the 3rd to last paragraph to the 2nd to last loses me a bit. Isn’t loss compatible with the potentiality stuff? I mean, already?

Comment by Mandy

And there I was struggling to articulate (to someone who knows more than me) some of my dissatisfaction with the genre of sociality I see mobilised in much affect discourse in cultural studies. You’ve made me realise that I was missing what was underlying my feelings, that they were not just about european methodological individualism uninfluenced by the collective rupture of colonisation that is constitutive of that subjectivity (along the lines of Christopher Miller’s excellent take on D&G back in diacritics), as I had thought. It’s more what you capture in your closing, about the procedural importance of difference and incommensurability in the practical, ethical work of solidarity. Thanks so much for sharing your thinking in progress.

Comment by danny

[…] Potentiality, #1 Posted in June 28th, 2008 by in Uncategorized On Potentiality, #1 Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, […]

Pingback by » On Potentiality, #1 All Living Fear: What The World Is Saying About All Living Fear

I´ve had an interesting experience with potentiality just in moving from high school to college…in the course of a few weeks or so I went from having immense and infinite potential that would be, I assumed, tugged or pulled out of me into some kind of tangible achievement, to being responsible for this enactment of my own potential. The optimistic side of potentiality harkens back to your entry about trauma and the life drive in which the possibility of repetition´s interruption is what keeps one going. It seems to me that there are also interesting issues about potentiality and responsibility, or the deferment thereof. There is something very limiting and enigmatic about potential; when it comes down to it, at the pivotal moment, one has either lived up to one´s potential or failed to do so. And in the face of this question it seems that one can only ever fail, since the infinite promises of potentiality are so sunnily optimistic.

Comment by a.feenstra

I’d like to preserve the difference between the idea of potentiality as a power immanent to history and the concept of potentiality as a concept constitutive of persons and their moral status.

I think, for example, of a poet like Yeats, who vacillated endlessly between two poles: believing that everything that mattered about persons was a function of what you call their particular and differentiating “objects and imaginaries” (Or as Yeats would put it “Think where mans glory most begins and ends,/ and say my glory was I had such friends.”)

and knowing that the only thing that mattered about actual persons was their derivation from the One Thing to which he gave various and lunatic names: what you are calling potential, he would call Great Mind or “Celestial Body” or soul (thus “All dreams of the soul/ End in a beautiful man’s or a beautiful woman’s body.”)

Poets, oddly enough, tend to have a less wooly (and less sunny) understanding of the implications of an investment in potentiality than do some of our recent theorists of the concept. Thus for Yeats (as for Whitman, as for Shelley…) potentiality is not optimistic but tragic. It is the name of an ontological gap between two necessary and incompatible models or levels of the real– the potential and the actual; a unbridgeable gap for which “the future” is just a kind of conceptual patch. (Here’s Whitman: “(Not every century nor every five centuries has contain’d such a day, for all its names.)” That’s ostensibly presented under the rubric of patient waiting for the total actualization of potential (Whitman’s name for it here is “The Answerer”) but it has come not once! and will not ever.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the poetic guardians of the idea of potentiality KNOW that there is no politics of potentiality, precisely because there’s no negotiating it or with it. That’s part of its power and its virtue: It answers the terrible crises of history (the misrecognition of other persons) by relieving us of the idea that persons are dependencies of being recognized.

They also know, however, that the ontology of “potentiality” unleashed on the world is a leveling wind incompatible with contingency and individual life and uninterested in the negotiations between desired ends. All claims made under the rubric of the person defined as potentiality are total claims: If it could be a person you cannot kill it. But likewise if you are person, nothing else about what you are may factor into the ways in which you matter.

Perhaps potentiality is a regulative ideal that must be maintained as the possibility condition of the COMMON life and endlessly deferred as the antithesis of the common LIFE. Still, I would want to make the case for a discourse of potential (a chastened one, not a sunny one) serving a need under certain historical conditions—perhaps conditions not totally unlike ours.

Comment by hz

Wow. I dont know what I did to put the smiles in there, but they certainly add a little something to the thought.

Comment by hz

Your comments are fantastic, and veer between potentiality as vernacular (a.feenstra and Mandy) and the theoretical models that I’ve been thinking through (nz and Danny). A little more brainstorming is called for.

One way to make the distinction is that when we say that someone or some thing has potential we are thinking about what’s done as loss and what’s not yet done as a wide-open horizon (see optimism, babies, any relation of idealization, etc.) But to have potential is different than to be the scene of its impersonal activity. The current theoretical discussion presumes that potentiality is a condition of being and history, not of history as pastness. Sometimes that gets too quickly and unselfconsciously metaphorized as exuberance and joy.

But nz’s contribution is to talk about the relation between actuality and potentiality through “poets” as “tragic”–an “a unbridgeable gap for which “the future” is just a kind of conceptual patch”—I love that phrasing. Futurity in this view masks so many blockages, though, and it would be great to play those out: the future masks the living actuality of the present as ongoingness that is being shaped; it masks the tragic actuality of the present apprehensible in normativity and violence of overorganized consciousness and value; it masks the indeterminacy of the locatedness of the utopian, I can think of at least ten more variations. This is why it’s so much easier to be Zizek than Negri or Agamben, because if you focus on the mechanism of disavowal you don’t really have to make a claim on all of the ways that the unthought known is already and might materialize. I guess there’s queer normativity but what I love about the ideal antinomy of queer and normativity is that the former always demands that the latter be revealed for the convenience (“patch”) it is. Potentiality is a patch-test discourse that forces the relation of determination to rub up against unfinished business. (in haste, argh, my ride is here)

Comment by supervalentthought

this is great–I share your skepticism toward potentiality discourse and agree that politics necessitates loss.

Comment by Jodi

This is brilliant and moving. Since I’m in different worlds these days I’d forgotten how incredibly sharp your writing is. Afraid that I’m one of those defined by potentiality but happy to share the skepticism about the term as a form of politics or ethics. Politics is by definition about loss and *reduction.* Maybe it is me, but I cannot imagine a non-reductionist politics. All saying is negation, all politics is negation. The turn to potentiality, multitudes, plenitude and so on also strikes me as very American– in all the strengths and limits of that. But I speak as one who has never been all he can be, so to speak. 🙂

Comment by dfv

I couldn’t help but think, when reading through this post and comments, especially in relation to to to this in the original post–

“the work of solidarity, the activity of being not just in existence but in desire together, requires being in the room with the possibility that people don’t share your objects or your imaginaries, and that people will have to give up different things to get to the place of the better good life that you’re risking making imaginable, let alone available”–

of Sara Ahmed’s current project “On Being Directed: Promises, Happiness, Deviations,” a portion of which I was fortunate to hear her present in Dublin this past May. In that work, she argues for the important significance of what she calls the killjoy in any community [or communitarian project]–the angry feminist or angry black woman, the unhappy queer, etc.–who refuses to ever be quieted, ever be happy, and who acts as an important blocking agent to any kind of collective “happiness” or satisfaction that would, effectively, bring certain things to a standstill [which might signal, in one sense, the end of politics]. Perhaps what is needed is not a discourse of potentiality but a politics of purposeful arrested development that always works alongside and cuts across various potentiality imaginaries. In this scenario, the future never arrives [except through mortality] and the present keeps re-arriving while remaining open.

Comment by ejoy

Is the incompleteness of the singularity ever fulfilled except through the order that incorporates it? What does the long, thick present moment require other than the history that is born from it and eats it up?

I love this post. I love especially the word _vernacular_ in “the vernacular of optimism.” With _vernacular_, incomplete optimism acquires a richness and saltiness, from the old audacity of discussing big questions outside of the holy tongue. It reminds me what kind of song you’re singing for the life that politics should have better organized, but the experience of which might be exactly the loss politics necessitates. The thought of that loss, and of the incomprehensibility of what isn’t organized, kills talk–optimism– about the experience. But vernacular is also the promise of the form of appearance– a new language we could learn if we stopped translating from the mother tongue…

Comment by gheenga

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: