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Elizabeth Balskus “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Giorgio Agamben”

April 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Balskus, Elizabeth 2010. Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. Macalester Journal of Philosophy, 19(1): 158-180.

Both Aristotle and Agamben maintain that anything potential is capable of not existing in actuality, and that “what is potential can both be and not be, for the same is potential both to be and not to be”. (160)
Aristotle states that nous, or the intellect, “has no other nature than that of being potential, and before thinking it is absolutely nothing”. This statement leads Agamben to establish the intellect as the perfect example of pure potentiality, a potentiality “which in itself is nothing, [but] allows for the act of intelligence to take place”. (162)
When viewed as the ability to know or reflect, pure potentiality of the intellect becomes extremely important. This potentiality can exist apart from the actualization of any thought of a particular object because it is, in fact, this potentiality itself that allows for an object to even be thought. Therefore, the potentiality of the intellectnot only allows for thought to maintain a supreme position ontologically, it is also the foundation of thought in general. (163)
“Inoperativeness… represents something not exhausted but inexhaustible—because it does not pass from the possible to the actual”. The reason that Bartleby is so disturbing to his employer (who is the narrator of the short story) is that, in removing himself from the constraints of reason and, indeed, the constraints of society as a whole, he is the paradigm of the inoperative, of “the other side of potentiality: the possibility that a thing might not come to pass”. And because Bartleby never offers a reason for his refusal to work and never actually denies the requests made of him, the authorities at hand are completely bewildered as to how to deal with the scrivener. (167 – quotes „Agamben: Critical Introduction”)
Through his phrase “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby challenges the principle of sufficient reason. If the laws of reason do not apply, then there is no legitimate justification for why this world exists and the infinite number of potential worlds were never actualized. This is why Agamben refers to Bartleby as a messiah who has arrived to “save what was not”. Because the laws of reason do not apply to him, Bartleby asserts the right of those possibilities that have never and will never exist to be actualized. (172)
In decreation, contingency is returned to all events, causing us to rememberthat, along with the few potentialities that are actualized, there are an infinite number of potentialities that will never be and, yet, will continue to shape and influence our lives. (174)
The sacred realm of capitalism is, according to Agamben, consumption, and capitalism in its most pure, extreme form is concerned with making experience unusable or unprofanable by separating our actions from ourselves and presenting them back to us as a spectacle, to be observed and not used. A good example of this attempt to alienate ourselves from ourselves is pornography: the human form is appropriated, filmed, and then presented to us as something that can be watched but never experienced. Agamben calls this phenomenon “museification.” “Everything today can become a Museum, because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing”. (175)