There’s been a discussion unfolding at Larval Subjects on the status of potentiality, along with some of the questions that the concept raises for object-oriented philosophy. Levi’s gone back and forth with Michael of Archive Fire, generating a lot of content for discussion and disagreement. Since I’m working through Harman’s Prince of Networks, and fortuitously ran across some stuff on potency, I’d like to add some thoughts on potency to the discussion, particularly as they arise in Latour’s concept of actants.
The concept of potentiality is a necessary one, I think, but it has at least a couple of senses to it that may be easily run together. The first is its teleological sense, which we find in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The second is less determinate and might be called the indeterminate sense, which is what I take Levi to have in mind when he talks about capacities for affection. Another way to characterize this difference would be to say that there is a filled and an empty form of potentiality, the former being teleological and the latter indeterminate or vanishingly small. Let’s take the ready-to-hand idea of an acorn to flesh this out.
We can look at the acorn as potentially a full-grown oak tree, which is to say that in some sense it is actually a tree. We can mean that this potentiality is in the acorn, really in it, and that the acorn is destined to be an oak tree. It posses the algorithm or recipe that will results in an oak tree. On this reading–which is the teleological reading–the acorn is read less as what it actually is, an acorn, and more as what it is supposed to become. The potentiality of the acorn is thus full of the reality of the tree, which is not to say that the acorn contains the fully-formed oak tree, but that something like the oak tree-as-telos is really in the acorn. (It’s cheating to ask where this is, so don’t ask that.) This potentiality enables the acorn to change into a tree, but it constrains the acorn to change only into the tree. Any other sort of change or failure of growth must be seen as a kind of corruption of the acorn’s potential, or a malfunction of the program that is supposed to generate the tree as a result.
Another way of looking at the acorn is to look at is as fully actualized. This is taking the acorn on its own terms, rather than reading it as something that is not-yet-a-tree. I would prefer to take the acorn on its own terms, just as I think we need to see children as actual entitires, rather than immature proto-adults (as I touched upon in a distant post). Leave them kids (and acorns) alone! This is just another way of saying that we should look at immaturity affirmatively, rather than negatively (or as a lack). If the acorn is seen as fully actual, with no potential, then we get the question, ‘But how do we then explain change’? This question is quickly answered if we take the acorn to be fully actualized, but with potentiality (in its indeterminate, empty form) as part of that actuality. Potentiality would merely be the capacity to change or be changed, instead of a predetermined fate or essence. And here we may say that the indeterminate form of potentiality is effectively a kind of virtuality, if we mean by this term a form of potentiality that is real without being actual (this may entail an inconsistency, but I don’t feel like thinking through that proposal right now). In any case, with the empty form of potentiality we must regard change as coming from the outside of the acorn; change must be seen as an ecological event, not something explained on the basis of some superstitious plan that resides inside of the acorn and constitutes its really true essence. What the acorn becomes or changes into, then, is completely dependent on the other objects, actors, and agents conspiring with or against it. Here is where I think Latour is quite helpful.
Before moving onto Latour, let me just add that if we hold to a teleological notion of potentiality, then we cannot see the acorn as being anything but an immature oak tree. We might find it obvious to think that the acorn cannot grown into the north tower of the World Trade Center or anything else besides and oak tree. That’s fine. But if we begin to think of the promise of genetic modification, then we quickly come to imagine future acorns that look like your standard issue acorn but actually grow into, say, an elm tree. It is politically dangerous, too, to think of an infant girl as fundamentally a potential adult woman. This kind of thinking only sets us up to judge any deviations from womanhood–social, aesthetic, behavioral, biological, surgical, performative, what have you–as a form of deviance, and not in a positive sense. The full sense of potentiality can only see deviations as accidents or corruptions, which is wrong. Such thinking leads us to the absurd conclusion that an acorn that fails to grow into an oak tree is somehow unreal or only partly real, and this simply because it did not fulfill its destiny. The mistake is to align potentiality with destiny or fate. Likewise, it seems to imply that a person’s profession or social role is external to who they are, a mere accident tacked onto their true nature. An infant is a potential adult, an adult is an actualized person. That’s the nature of things. Unless you want to say that a person is born a blue collar worker or born a CEO, but I don’t suspect that many want to say such things anymore. That they are a professional writer, dancer, or plumber is not an expression of their potential (it would seem), but just a contingent accessory that can be removed like a layer of clothing. This seems both true and false. On the one hand we tend to think of person’s as defined or constituted by what they do, but on the other hand we do not want to say that this constitution is necessary. But it is necessary, because given the actuality of things (and the series of events leading up to tending from this actuality) the world could not have been otherwise. This is not the work of potentiality, but the result of a series of actual events whose dynamic generation we cannot possibly diagram or imagine (I’ve got Spinoza on the brain here).
Latour’s concept of actant does a better job at dealing with things and accounting for their action. It does so by letting things be what they are at any given moment. (Most of this is taken from Harman’s Prince of Networks, pp. 28-29). Harman points out that Latour dismisses the idea of potentiality just like he dismisses the notion of power, both of which explain nothing and tell us nothing about objects. Latour is a full-blown actualist. Now, I think it’s possible to see Latour’s actualism as compatible with what I’m calling the empty form of potentiality. So, besides the fact that it doesn’t explain anything, what’s bad about potentiality, for Latour? For one thing, it absolutely neglects the way in which objects depend upon others for their capacities to act or to be. It is to regard the acorn as something that does not need water, sun, and soil to grow. As though an acorn left on its own would become the oak tree it was meant to be. Potentiality, then, leads to a kind of metaphysical isolationism that simply does not exist in the grand scheme of things (but see Levi’s recent post on ‘dark objects’), and at the practical level leads us to ignore all of the ‘minor’ players–valets, janitors, gusts of wind, dust particles–that are needed to sustain the ‘major’ figures–heads of state, business executives, college deans, medium-sized objects like tables, dirt mounds, cars. As Harman puts it (p. 28), ‘The claim to have potential is the claim to be more than what one currently is, without admitting that one must haggle and borrow to change one’s current state’. And sometimes, or perhaps always, the haggling and borrowing is an asymmetrical affair where one side is the dominating force and the other the quiescent. Just think of the Strauss-Kahn business lately. See how fragile his ‘power’ is, and notice all the things conspiring against him, from texts and tweets to large-scale media coverage and New York law enforcement officials. Potentiality is not something possessed, it is rather something that is enacted by the allies and enemies to which one finds oneself attached.
Thinking about objects as actants compels us to see them as fundamentally relational and dependent on others for their actuality and change. Does this mean, worries the object-oriented philosopher, that object reduce to their relations? Not necessarily. It does not follow that an object lacking potential will be exhausted by its relations, for none of those relations fully capture the object or cause it to be everything it can be. Objects, as Harman puts it, withdraw from any given relation. To take a common example in this discussion, a cotton ball will not be exhausted by the application of flame, just as the application of water does not exhaust that same cotton ball. We need not say that the cotton ball is potentially flammable and potentially soggy, and so sogginess and burning are already contained within it. It is possible to simply take the wet or burning cotton ball as disparate events, neither of which contains–or is deducible from–the other. Harman cites Aristotle, Metaphysics IX: does a sleeping builder cease to be someone who builds while asleep? Of course not, answers Aristotle, because the ability to build is potentially in the builder. But why say this? Why not say that the builder is only a builder upon awakening provided that the tools, crew, materials, and mental and physical abilities that conspired before going to bed actually conspire upon awakening. Failing this conspiracy, the builder ceases to be a builder actually and potentially. Everything hinges on the actual ecology of things, to use Bennett’s phrase.
If it takes a whole confederation of objects and forces to actualize something, and if potentiality does not exist fully formed in an object, then in what sense might something be said to have potential? To the extent that it can negotiate or vie, or be compelled to act, by other actants–this is the empty (or minimal) form of potentiality. Objects change. Perhaps we have to postulate an originary clinamen to explain how the chain of change got started; so maybe we have to hold to that speculative proposition to get things off the ground. Once in motion, I think that seeing things as actants does just as much to understand them as framing things in terms of teleological potentiality. Instead of looking for ghostly potencies, however, we have to get on our hands and knees to see how things actually interact.