SubStance 30.1&2 (2001) 254-258
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Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. x + 307.
In the reading of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" that concludes this collection of essays, Giorgio Agamben makes a distinction between the significance of the copyist's enigmatic response to his employer's injunctions--"I would prefer not to"--and that of Hamlet's more famous and equally resonant boutade. For Agamben, the prince's "To be, or not to be" recognizes merely an opposition between Being and non-Being, while Bartleby's formulation proposes a third term that transcends both existence and nothingness. This term is potentiality, a concept that has exercised Agamben's thought elsewhere and that dominates his reflections in this volume. It would be possible, of course, to read in Hamlet's celebrated soliloquy and in Shakespeare's play as a whole, a concern precisely with the theme of potentiality as the very stuff out of which the play's dramatic action is made. Such a reading would be justified both by traditional interpretations of Hamlet and perhaps also by Agamben's comments in Idea of Prose concerning the scholar as one condemned to dwell perpetually in the realm of potential: in the realm, that is, of study. The scholar, for Agamben, is one who persistently rehearses the redemptive yet terrible catastrophe that will bring to an end the dramatic narrative of study, yet who recognizes that it is in the very nature of scholarship to leave the work ruined, unfinished. The essays collected here, leading up to the analysis of Melville's story and this brief commentary on Shakespeare, suggest a vision of criticism as the effort to inhabit fully the experience of potentiality, an experience in which the opposition between potentiality and actuality is dissolved. Accordingly, it becomes the task of knowledge--as it is the task of criticism, for Benjamin-- "to read what was never written."
Agamben's reflection in the essay "On Potentiality" takes as its starting point a sentence from Aristotle's Metaphysics: "A thing is said to be potential if, when the act of which it is said to be potential is realized, there will be nothing impotential." This sentence, says Agamben, is emphatically not to be taken in a tautological sense; it is not simply a question here of the vanishing of potential and its replacement by the actual. Rather, Aristotle insists that potentiality is preserved at the very moment that it is actualized. As Agamben has it, "Contrary to the traditional idea of potentiality that is annulled in actuality, here we are confronted with a potentiality that conserves itself and saves itself in actuality. Here potentiality, so to speak, survives [End Page 254] actuality and, in this way, gives itself to itself " (184). Agamben identifies here a potentiality that can only be fully understood in the recognition that potentiality is first of all the potential not to. Generic potential (according to which, for example, a child has the potential to become head of state) is opposed by Agamben, following Aristotle, to potential as knowledge or ability: a potential according to which the individual is not obliged to suffer an alteration. This is the potential of the architect to build or of the poet to write poems, and it is defined rigorously by the capability not to bring knowledge into actuality, the possibility of not making a work. To cite an example on which Agamben has commented elsewhere, it is this potentiality that lies ruined in Albrecht Dürer's Melancholia: the discarded tools of the builder lie before the figure of melancholy as the fragments of an unfulfilled potential. If potentiality is defined in this way, as potential not to, it is thus a kind of existence of non-Being, the presence of an absence, the possession of a privation. As such, it returns us to the figures of the scholar, the student and the critic, those whose task is to dwell in potential and the object of whose reflection is a work that remains unfinished. The job of the critic is precisely the...