Stefan Hölscher_What is the Meaning of Potential Today?

What is the Meaning of Potential Today?


Paolo Virno, in a chapter of his A Grammar of the Multitude dedicated to biopolitics, reminds us on an only apparently all too old-fashioned word which today indeed sounds as if it had originated in past centuries and a very long time ago: Labor-power. He tells us that labor-power first of all means “potential to produce. Potential, that is to say, aptitude, capacity, dynamis.“ (1) Therefore he makes an important distinction between labor-power and effective labor. Whilst the latter refers to something already carried out or rather actualized and always implies specific forms or modes of production, the former, as potential, “is something non-present, non-real.“(2) According to Virno biopolitics would aim at exactly these impalpable aspects of labor-power – “not the spoken word but the faculty to speak; not work actually done but the generic capacity to produce“(3) Its procedures tried to integrate living bodies as such into an encompassing calculus: “Life lies at the center of politics when the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power.“(4) In Capital and Language Christian Marazzi outlines what, in contrast to the appropriation of effective labor, is at stake in the case of labor-power being given only virtually and the appropriation of human potential itself by capital: “In biopolitics the living body of the work force is governed/regulated exclusively as a ‘substrate of a mere faculty‘, as a receptacle of the only thing that is truly important to capital, or the work force as a collection of the most diverse human faculties.“(5)

Previously the term potentia, as an idea as much as a problem, before Deleuze and Guattari on one side and Negri and other postoperaist theoreticians on the other side, each as one of their core concepts, developed it further from the late 1960ies on, had been introduced by Spinoza in his Ethics from 1677 when he famously stated that we did not know yet what a body could do. Subsequently in his The Savage Anomaly Negri claims quite enthusiastically that it were “our“ – whoever that might be – potential as the power (potentia) of the multitude that could oppose the Power (potestas) of what he later, together with Michael Hardt, would call “empire“. In his not all too unconventional Marxist reading of Spinoza “these singularities are not mediated by anything; rather, they simply pose themselves in an immediate relationship of the production of substance. Potentia against potestas.“(6) Whilst in Spinoza potentia is a constituent power of bodies and opposed to the the Power (potestas) of an already constituted body politic, in Negri, as much as in Deleuze´s and Guattari´s later works on Capitalism and Schizophrenia, potential is related to the forces of production which work through the relations of production in order to affirm themselves as singularities contrary to already constituted political forms. So Negri continues in an overly optimistic manner: “Potentia is the dynamic and constitutive inherence of the single in the multiplicity, of mind in the body, of freedom in necessity – power against Power – where potestas is presented as the subordination of the multiplicity, of the mind, of freedom, and of potentia.“(7) In the course of his consecutive examination and quite willful interpretation of Marx´s theory of a real subsumption of living labor and general intellect under capital he even, in his Time for Revolution, comes to the inviting conclusion: “At the level of real subsumption, no standard, no meaning is given outside of collective time; no nature is given because nature is realized subsumption. It is comprehended, reproduced by collective capital.“(8)

In what follows I want to demonstrate in how far in contemporary capitalism, if not to say in capitalist realism, this rather binary scheme has become deeply prone to its own inversion. In doing so my starting point is a very simple and admittedly slightly polemical assumption: The Empire is us! We are living in a time and under circumstances when our potential itself, understood in the sense of potentia just as something never really present and not yet actualized, is not only subsumed, but also subjected under a world-wide biopolitical calculus, rendered into finance, and thereby integrated in (not repressed by!) a continuously expanding territory of Power as potestas, a territory that is all the same smooth and striated. Ultimately there is no clear boundary between potentia and potestas. Our problem is that any clear distinction between constituent acts and already constituted agencies – naturing nature (natura naturans) and natured nature (natura naturata) in Spinoza , respectively the difference between Multitude and Empire, has almost vanished and cannot be defined easily.

Hence it is also very difficult to derivate any emancipatory tendencies from desire, construed as assemblage and universal striving, since it is desire as assemblage and striving itself that is immediately translated into new financial flows and hence deeply partakes in the expansion and creation of new and never finalized territories which are embraced by the procedures of a globally operating biopolitical calculus immediately. Effectively every distinction between emancipation and oppression becomes quite blurry: This is the main conflict and it takes place within each of us, not between us and an external apparatus of capture or appropriative instances of measure in general. The biopolitical calculus touches not on our effective labour or our already actualized activities but has an impact on what has not happened yet, on our subjectivity and future time even. By way of contrast in his Insurgencies Constituent Power and the Modern State from 1992 Negri assumes a bipolar and dialectical conflict between the limitlessness of constituent power and its potential on the one hand and the measurements and norms of constituted Power on the other hand.

“The rationality of constituent power is first of all defined by the limitlessness of its proposition. The limit is for it only an obstacle. It poses the limit only as condition of its own being, of its own expansion, and thus as condition of its own producing. Consequently, measure – this internalized limit – tends to be destroyed. Constituent power is boundless. Its only measure is the limitlessness of the multitude, the absolute versality of its relations, and the powerful and constitutive interrelations that compose its concept and determine its real dynamic. Measure can reappear only as the content (and not the norm) of creative relations. There is no longer measure; there exist only measures that we construct at the moment itself when we produce the reality to be measured.“(9)

Exactly at this point we can detect some sort of wishful thinking being rehearsed by Negri since especially by no later than 2008 we should know to what extent easy-going polarizations like the one between limitlessness and measure have been turned upside down… by capital, not by any force being in a conflictual relationship with it. There is no constituent acts that were able to introduce limitless propositions into already constituted agencies because it is limitlessness itself that has become the driving force not only of capital (this we know since Marx and it is part of a much older story) but even of state power. If it is the state itself that operates beyond sovereignty and behaves like a multitude rather than as an already constituted authority it gets quite difficult to imagine potential as something oppositional or antagonistic. The same goes for the economical spheres: It is too simple to oppose a multitude of forces of production as bodily potentials against the given relations of production as a body politic they then ought to revolt against. In contrast to Negri´s optimism Deleuze and Guattari were rather pessimistic when in their common Anti-Oedipus they maintained:

“But capitalism doesn’t begin, the capitalist machine is not assembled, until capital directly appropriates production, and until financial capital and merchant capital are no longer anything but specific functions corresponding to a division of labor in the capitalist mode of production in general. One then re-encounters the production of productions, the production of recordings, and the production of consumptions – but precisely in this conjunction of decoded flows that makes of capital the new social full body, whereas commercial and financial capitalism in its primitive forms merely installed itself in the pores of the old socius without changing the old mode of production.“(10)

Already before, in his Difference and Repetition from 1968, Deleuze had spelled out however with regard to the economical flows and beyond the given social relations we have to be aware that an actualization of potential is not something which might disagree with them, but a core engine of their development even. Potential as something that shall be rendered effective and be translated into actual activities even supports the continuous development of what Deleuze calls “the economic instance“ as such which is the flow of always more raw materials, new commodities, and surprisingly precarious and inventive work forces.

“In what Marx calls ‘abstract labour’, abstraction is made from the particular qualities of the products of labour and the qualities of the labourers, but not from the conditions of productivity, the labour-power and the means of labour in a society. The social Idea is the element of quantitability, qualitability and potentiality of societies. It expresses a system of multiple ideal connections, or differential relations between differential elements: these include relations of production and property relations which are established not between concrete individuals but between atomic bearers of labour-power or representatives of property. The economic instance is constituted by such a social multiplicity – in other words, by the varieties of these differential relations. Such a variety of relations, with its corresponding distinctive points, is then incarnated in the concrete differenciated labours which characterise a determinate society, in the real relations of that society (juridical, political, ideological) and in the actual terms of those relations (for example, capitalist-wage-labourer).“(11)

If we follow Deleuze´s observation with no illusion we cannot agree with Negri simultaneously and proclaim the potential of the multitude as something that were simply opposed to or could easily attack the universal movement of capital. In contrast, the desire of the multitude is capital as the translation of our striving into our monetary circuits. Or, as Bifo, looking back a little bit more melancholically than Negi at Autonomia and 1977, an almost magical year, not only for Italy, admits in his recent The Soul at Work:

“The multitude can speak hundreds of thousands of languages, but the language that enables it to function as an integrated whole is that of the economic automatisms embodied in technology. Seized in a game of mirrors of indeterminacy and precariousness, the multitude manifests its dark side and follows automatisms that turn its wealth into misery, its power into anguish and its creativiry into dependency. The multitude does not manifest itself as autonomy at all, but rather as dependence from the automatisms that biopower builds and activates in everyday life, in our sensibility and psyche: we become a swarm.“(12)

What can a body, as part of such a biopolitical swarm, do? How could we keep open our capacities to affect and to be affected and not subsume them under the universal movement of capital as the last economic instance? How would our activities not be integrated by a globally effective biopolitical calculus and be determined by finance or, as Éric Alliez, together with Guattari, once put it, the most powerful “semiotic operator“(13) ever? Does it still make sense to privilege bodily potentials as potential forces that ought to overthrow an enclosed body politic? Are there other ways to think potential and not consider it a potential activity anymore but as something passive, being radically opposed to all kinds of activity, something that remains “non-present“ and “non-real“ in Virno´s sense, something that shall not be actualized?

There is a whole series of juxtapositions which have become catchphrases, sometimes even buzzwords or empty signifiers, nowadays. Among them are e.g. the couples of actual vs. virtual or the already given possible vs. the real and a thousand loose intensities and singularities it consisted of. It was the core impetus behind Deleuze´s early works to attack the assumption of any agency difference as such might be derivated from. According to him pure difference were a difference in itself, not secondary, but primary to every form. In the end any idea of a whole in which its parts would be given already did not exist, it were dead, in a manner of speaking, since “the whole constitutes a virtuality, a potentiality“(14), as he expects in order to conclude what he found out so far. It is not the parts that result out of an already constituted whole but the whole which emerges, always only potentially, from the activitiy of its loosely connected constituents. In this context potential is not an absolute outside in relation to the actually given, but its relative outside. It is what connects it to the virtual as the real and as the exact opposite of the actual.

“The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. […] The reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements and relations along with the singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements and relations which form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a reality which they have.“(15)

Following Deleuze´s inversion of a certain structuralist logic it seems that what biopolitics is aiming at is a utilization of all differential elements and singular points of the real through an actualization and activation of their virtual and abysmally real relations. Or, as Michel Foucault, on the 14th of March 1979, with an ironic eye-blink toward the former Anti-Oedipus, remarks in one of his lectures on biopolitics: “We should therefore view the whole as a machine/stream complex, say the neo-economists […].“(16) Because of biopolitics not only everything solid melts into the air. Biopolitics also renders concrete all the abstract points the real consists of and materializes what beforehand was immaterial, non-present, and non-real in Virno´s terms: In our context labor not-yet done, labor which thereby is committed to the universal movement of capital, the universal economic instance, as a potential being forced to manifest itself in effective labor.

In an essay on what he calls “preemtive power“, Brian Massumi detects an extremely flexible kind of power that operates within the moments of emergence of just potential bodily qualities, a power that does not repress their emergence, but one that clings to them and modifies them almost imperceptibly. Following Spinoza´s logic he diagnoses that preemtive power operated on the side of naturing nature (natura naturans), not in natured nature (natura naturata): “Preemptive power is the cuckoo in the nest of naturing nature. Preemptive power is environmental power. It alters the life environment’s conditions of emergence.“(17) Consequently it is between here and nowhere where a weighty battle takes place. At target: A labor not yet done, labor to be done, labor as dept, our lifetime. Since Deleuze´s own Postscript on the Societies of Control we know that it is first of all dept that subsumes potential under a biopolitical calculus. Through dept we never will be done, we always have to continue, there always is more and something beyond the already done to discover. Dept is what prevents potential from remaining potential and continuously pushes it toward its own actualization. Dept enters the stage of biopolitics and subsumes lifetime when we have to recognize that we owe something to the world without knowing what exactly we owe. All we can say is that our dept hints to an activity to be performed and the urge to pay back our dept here and now. What exactly will be activated through our activity does not count beforehand. What matters is that something will be activated and our potential becoming activity in general.

As a paradoxical result of dept potential becomes possibility. It is no longer what Virno would like to locate on the side of labor-power as a pure human capacity and gets assimilated into the movement of exchange or, finally, finance. In this context what Negri enthusiastically wrote a few decades ago simultaneously seems right and, because of his strong enthusiasm, far away from a situation when potential continuously is urged to be actualized by capital: “Constitutive human power is set free on an open horizon. The world is what no longer exists. It is the future. It is this projection. This is also the human essence, a fundamental element of its definition.“(18)

Maybe we constantly have to remind ourselves on one important datum: Potential only remains available to bodies if it is not actualized and recorded on the 1000 surfaces of our all too well-known decoded and decoding global socius, when a thousand surfaces stay as indefinite islands in open waters. Maybe the only exodus possible out of captital cannot be constructed through action and would mean not to act anymore, to become passive, to produce rather like Michel Tournier´s Robinson Crusoe like the one originally invented by Daniel Defoe, and, as Deleuze once wrote, to become invisible. Concerning Deleuze´s ideal of a desert island what Peter Hallward sugests in his Out of this World, albeit the various valid criticisms of his reading, is not only wrong.

“Because we imagine it as separate from the rest of the world, an island can figure as a place invested with an uncontaminated potential. A truly deserted island, Deleuze suggests, is a place from which the world itself might be created anew. Unfortunately, actual islands rarely are deserted. Most islands are populated, and by owning and inhabitating them their human occupants thereby attach them to the mundane routine of the world as it is. The inhabitants of an island trap it in a static actuality.“(19)

In his book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, published parallely to Difference and Repetition in 1968, too, Deleuze himself declared: “Affections that can be completely explained by the nature of the affected body are active affections, and themselves actions.“(20) Maybe what we are still missing nowadays are active affections and actions in another sense, passive actions. Active affections would maybe, in contrast to how we imagine them mistakenly, result in our potential remaining non-present and non-real, in a potential not being acted out and not actualized. This, at the very end, brought us back to Marx who rightly had been sure already a long time before his disciples that every actualization of labor-power and its potential were necessarily its own estrangement as well. Exactly in the same moment when it takes place even.

Stefan Hölscher, 23. Dezember 2011

1 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude – For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 81.

2 Ibid., p. 82.

3 Ibid., p. 84.

4 Ibid, p. 83.

5 Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language – From the New Economy to the War Economy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008, p. 157.

6 Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 63.

7 Ibid., p. 190.

8 Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution, New York: Continuum Press, 2003, p. 65.

9 Antonio Negri, Insurgencies – Constituent Power and the Modern State, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 329.

10 Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, p. 226.

11 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 186.

12 Franco “Bifo“ Berardi, The Soul at Work – From Alienation to Autonomy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 194.

13 Éric Alliez/Félix Guattari, Capitalistist Systems, Structures, and Processes, in: Félix Guattari, “Molecular Revolutions“, Newcastle: Peregrine, 1984.

14 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 186.

15 Ibid., p. 208.

16 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 225.

17 Brian Massumi, National Enterprise Emergency: Steps Toward an Ecology of Powers, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 2009; 26; 15, p. 167.

18 Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 134.

19 Peter Hallward, Out of this World – Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, London/New York: Verso, 2006, p. 23.

20 Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, New York: Zone Books, 1990, p. 219.