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  • Potentiality or Capacity?— Agamben's Missing Subjects
  • Nina Power (bio)

Discussions of the link between practice and action in European thought in recent years have come to resemble something of a merry-go-round, circulating between optimistic ontologies and pessimistic diagnoses, celebrations of passivity and predictions of activity. Changes in the nature of work and attempts to keep up with, diagnose or explain various forms of social resistance have seen the re-emergence of a curious pantheon of outsider literary figures - Kafka's Josephine the Mouse Singer, Melville's Bartleby, the Bible's Job.1 Work and its refusal are embodied in these troubled symbols of aesthetic excess (Josephine just wants to sing, not work like the other mice), obstinate potentiality (Bartleby's "I would prefer not to") and Job (the progressive withdrawal of all meaningful things and attachments). There is something minimal in all these figures, reduced to their ability to merely persist or to refuse in the last resort. We are reminded a little of Marx's early claims regarding "a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society… a total loss of humanity" which can only redeem itself through "the total redemption of humanity."2 But there is a crucial difference between Marx's universal class and these isolated, broken figures: the collective dimension is absent. Has contemporary philosophy become so withdrawn from organized struggle that it can only conceive of transformations in the attitude to work by recourse to minimal individuals? The last line of Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street may be "Ah, Bartleby! Ah humanity!" but this is more like a sigh of despair than a radical loss presaging redemption, political or otherwise. Is this all we can hope for? It is arguable that transformations in work and the composition of labor have made older, classically Marxist analysis seem outmoded, or at least in need of radical overhaul, but contemporary thought seems to have opted for two extreme responses: the radically pessimistic (or minimalist) or the baselessly optimistic. If Agamben falls into the former camp, then Hardt and Negri represent the latter with their concept of the multitude:

The contemporary cooperative productive capacities through which the anthropological characteristics of the multitude are continually transcribed and reformulated, cannot help revealing a telos, a material affirmation of liberation.3

Just as it is altogether too quick to see the "material affirmation of liberation" in the exploitation of basic human capacities in work, it is altogether too slow to see in the obstinacy of a Bartleby the only response to sovereign domination. Agamben plays a central role in this recent "minimizing" turn, turning to an older Aristotelian concept of "potentiality" to explore, albeit paradoxically, the primacy of inactivity. In his discussion of Bartleby, he notes: "Our ethical tradition has often sought to avoid the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity… Bartleby is capable only without wanting."4 Agamben shares Heidegger's distaste for 'activity' and "will," deeming such concepts insuperably metaphysical. He thus demeans, unintentionally perhaps, the real forces at work in labor; Hardt and Negri, on the other hand, see all too clearly the politically productive elements of labor but miss crucial steps and antagonisms in the relation between production and emancipation. In the case of Hardt and Negri, this is perhaps a consequence of their affirmative ontology which sees potential everywhere. Agamben's paradoxical treatments of potentiality, on the other hand, seem to leave room only for reduced or promissory subjects. "The messianic concept of the remnant" may well permit "more than one analogy to be made with the Marxian proletariat"5 but only as "the unredeemable that makes salvation possible,"6 the part "with all due respect to those who govern us" that "never allows us to be reduced to a majority or a minority."7 There are other, far less deferential ways of conceiving of political opposition - do we need to say that all activity is necessarily metaphysical? Agamben's Aristotelian conception of potentiality entails, in the highest instance, "that potentiality constitutively be the potentiality not to (do or be)," which suggests that even if potential is realized, it is...

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