In light of an excellent discussion with Michael of Archive Fire today, I’ve come to realize that the concept of potentiality, of potency, is the theme of all of my philosophical work. This is always an odd moment where you realize that you’ve been writing and thinking obsessively about something without realizing that you’ve been doing so. And here, before proceeding, I hasten to add that despite our differences, I am both very fond of Michael and deeply sympathetic to his positions. After a somewhat rocky start, we’ve found a place of discussion where we are able to mutually respect each others work while also disagreeing. If there is one fundamental difference between Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology, it is that he is staunchly and heroically committed to actualism, whereas I am thoroughly committed to the existence of potentiality or potency. For Harman, objects are thoroughly and completely actual. For me, objects are always split and divided (in the Lacanian sense) between a virtual domain of potencies, powers, or potentialities, and actuality or whatever qualities they happen to actualize or manifest at any particular point in time. Salt, for example, harbors all sorts of powers within it such as the power to melt ice even when salt is not melting ice.
It’s damned difficult to think the concept of potentiality, potency, or power. In Prince of Networks, Harman follows Latour in criticizing the concept of potency or potentiality because it undermines the possibility of novelty. For Harman and Latour, the problem with the concept of potency or potentiality is that it treats the object as already containing what it will become. Here we need only evoke the example of the acorn evoked in classrooms across the world when explaining Aristotle’s concept of δύναμαι, dunamis, or potentiality, as opposed to energeia, entelechy, or actuality. In these cases, we say that the acorn is the potentiality of the oak tree. The oak tree would be the actuality the oak tree or what the acorn is to become. The problem here is that this seems to suggest that the acorn already contains the oak tree, that there is nothing truly novel about the emergence of the oak tree, and thus that the concept of potentiality completely undermines novelty.
I fully endorse Harman-Latour’s critique of the concept of potentiality as it is posed. In my view, the challenge is to think a concept of potentiality that does not treat an object as already containing actualities of what the object will be in virtual form (as in the case of an acorn already containing the adult oak tree, but virtually). Along these lines, I’ve tried to argue, following Deleuze, that there is no resemblance between a power, potentiality, or potency, and the actuality that it comes to actualize. Potentiality, power, potency is pure capacity, pure “can-do”, pure ability. As such, it tells us nothing of the form that the actualized power will take when it becomes a quality or what I call a local manifestation. These potentialities are what I call, following Spinoza, “affects”, or the capacity to affect and be affected. They are structures of the object, they aren’t featureless, yet they do not embody any determinate qualities. In this regard, it is completely misleading to suggest that the power of an acorn contains an oak tree. No, acorns contain the possibility of all sorts of unique and aleatory movements (under specific conditions) that might become an oak tree.
Quality or local manifestation (the actual), by contrast, is purely creative, a genuine and novel event in the world. This is because power, potency, or potentiality, in actualizing itself, must negotiate all sorts of material differences to become what it is. As a consequence, the quality that an object will come to embody can never be fully anticipated on the basis of the power that an object possesses. Here I distinguish between “endo-qualities” and “exo-qualities”. Endo-qualities refer to qualities produced as a result of the contingent path that internal processes of the object trace in actualizing themselves. Objects must contend with their own past materiality in actualizing their powers. The thoughts that I have at this moment must contend with the thoughts that I have had, with the things that I have experienced, with the things that I have written in reaching actuality. I have a power to think, yet the actualization of this power must navigate this materiality or actuality of my being in becoming actual. As a consequence, the thought that I now have becomes a novel event, a new creation, or something that couldn’t have been anticipated based on the power to think alone. Such is the lesson of Bergson’s account of memory in Matter and Memory as well as Freud’s “Notes on a Mystic Writing Pad”. I can’t think the same thing twice.
By contrast, exo-qualities are qualities that result from an interaction of the powers belonging to two or more objects. The way in which my body interacts with a particular wine is an example of an exo-quality. Wine is not drunk. Nor can we speak generically about drunkenness. Rather, each drunkenness has, as Bergson taught us in Time and Free Will when talking about actualized states of affectivity, has its own unique tenor and qualities. The way in which my body interacts with a cabernet or a pinot grigio will differ from the way in which another person’s body interacts. Moreover, my body’s reaction to the cabernet will differ from instance to instance. Cabernet will affect me differently on one day than it affects me on another day. The wine contains certain powers, yet it doesn’t contain these drunkennesses. Rather, each particular event of intoxication will result from a synthesis of powers and materiality under these singular circumstances.
If potency is so damned difficult to talk about, then this is because we can only talk about the actualized qualities of an object and never the powers themselves. To be sure, we can begin to map relationships between variables at the level of actuality and how they relate to the sort of qualities that come into being, but we can never quite get at the power of an object. That power is structured without being qualitative. And these powers are capable, in principle, of producing an infinite and inexhaustible number of unique qualities. Power always seems to slip away. When experimental scientists vary the conditions under which an object exists, placing it in contact with a variety of other substances, what they are trying to do is develop a diagram of the powers of an object by inferring the capacities it has by discerning the effects that it produces when interacting with this or that substance. In this way they hope to gradually develop a portrait of the substance’s powers by seeing the variations of the effects (local manifestations) it produces under a variety of conditions.
Some people seem to conflate the concept of potency, power, virtuality, or potentiality with possibility. In these cases, it seems it is asserted that the advocate of potentiality is introducing something spooky into ontology, claiming that it is possibilities that are really real. Yet there is a massive difference between the capacity of gasoline to burn, and the possibility of a president named Barack Bush that would be a strange synthesis of democrats and republicans. Around the former you take care when smoking a cigarette at the gas station, around the latter you merely entertain the possibility of what the world would be like if such a being existed. Barack Bush has no potentialities, whereas the gasoline is rife with all sorts of possibilities. Potentiality is the reason that we wear pressure suits when we ascend to altitudes over 50,000 feet. Potentiality is an entirely real dimension of objects, whereas possibilities are not. Potentialities are no less real than the hardness of water when I hit it after falling from 6,000 feet (an exo-quality), whereas possibilities nowhere exist in objects. In my view, people that entertain these worries conflate the real with the actual. There are all sorts of entirely real powers in objects without these powers being actual in the form of determinate local manifestations.
I confess I have tremendous difficulty understanding the position of actualism or the thesis that all things are entirely actual. For me, “actuality” implies what is frozen or complete, retaining nothing in reserve. Something is fully actual when it retains nothing whatsoever in reserve. Yet if this is the case, I find it difficult to see how anything can ever change. Repeating Aristotle’s argument, if I am fully actual how can I ever stand up (I’m currently sitting) and walk across the room? Because there would be nothing in reserve in the case of a fully actual being, it’s difficult to see how, short of magic, anything could change or move. The only viable actualist position I can see is something akin to Lucretian or Democritean atomism. For Lucretius, the ultimate atoms that compose beings are themselves changeless. They have their fixed shapes, are impenetrable, are indivisible, and therefore are eternal and unchanging. What changes is their combinations. The combinations are changed, yet the atoms remain unchanged. As a consequence, in atomism it seems to me that there is, in atomism, no genuine novelty in the universe because the fixed atoms already contain all possible combinations. I do not see how any position can be actualist without ultimately (implicitly) advocating an atomism of this sort.
The ethico-politico need, I suppose, that animates my militant commitment to potentiality is the need to believe that nothing is ever fixed by its position in an assemblage. This is my gripe with relationism. In reducing objects to their relations with other things, I fail to see how anything can ever change. Things here are their relations. If things are their relations then there’s no possibility of change, revolution, or transformation. As my writings testify, I am deeply fascinated with relations and what takes place when entities enter into relations. Yet I always reserve the possibility, the potentiality, of things breaking with their relations; especially those relations that are oppressive and horrific. What we fundamentally need, I believe, is an ontology that holds forth the possibility of things locally manifesting themselves differently where relations are changed and where things enter into new relations. This cultivates a practice of not simply analyzing relations, but also of engaging in experimentalist forms of praxis that actively seek to shift relations.