In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Potentiality, Actuality, Constituent Power
  • Kevin Attell (bio)

What is potential is that for which, if the act of which it is said to have the potential comes about, there will be nothing impotential.

—Aristotle, Metaphysics 1047a 24–26

In theoretical debates of recent years, the issue with which Italian thought has been most closely associated is that of “biopolitics,” and it is probably not controversial to claim that within this milieu there are no more influential figures than Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri, two thinkers who have been in dialogue with each other long before the largely Italian rediscovery of the question of biopolitics in Michel Foucault’s work in the mid-1990s.1 As compatriots and near-contemporaries, Agamben and Negri have developed their ideas with an awareness of each other’s work, and their conceptual itineraries have often run a parallel course, though for much of the 1980s and 1990s in a rather understated fashion.2 For all their evident similarity in vocabulary and set of concerns, however, Agamben and Negri nevertheless represent increasingly incompatible—or at least contesting—accounts of biopolitics.

Without a doubt, a significant question about contemporary biopolitical thought is that of the legacy of Foucault’s work and the ways in which the Italian biopolitical theorists who to varying degrees acknowledge their debt to Foucault are developing this line of inquiry. More crucial, however, than the legacy of Foucault’s thought, at least as regards the central difference between Agamben and Negri, is the way in which their biopolitical positions emerge out of the divergent and indeed competing concepts of potentiality and constituent power that they respectively developed prior to their entry into the biopolitical field. That Agamben has drawn heavily on Heidegger in his conceptualization of potentiality is well enough known (though the precise nature of that influence is a matter for debate); far less well appreciated, however, is Agamben’s relation to post-war Italian thought—dominated by (post-)Marxism, “workerism,” autonomia—a context in which Agamben is something of an outlier. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is Negri who most forcefully of all of his commentators situates Agamben at this nexus, identifying his uniqueness as a thinker precisely in the way he negotiates between his Heideggerian influence and the context of Italian Marxism of the 1960s and 1970s [“Discreet Taste” 109–14]. Out of this latter milieu, of course, Negri himself went on to do the work that would lead to the development of what can be called his own signal concept, constituent [End Page 35] power. Negri’s account of Agamben’s early influences and milieu thus helpfully points to the fundamental question that will determine the development of his and Agamben’s very influential but divergent versions of biopolitics. As others have noted [Neilson, “Potenza Nuda?” 63–71 and Mills 74–76] and as the following pages will seek to illustrate in greater detail, the dividing line between Negri’s and Agamben’s contesting versions of biopolitics can be most fundamentally drawn between their earlier analyses of potentiality and constituent power.

It is well known that a major point of divergence between Agamben’s and Negri’s biopolitical thought is the “question of the productive dimensions of ‘bios’” [Hardt and Negri, Empire 421n11], and a survey of the texts shows that this question lies at the root of virtually every criticism Negri has launched against Agamben over the last fifteen years. Negri’s references to Agamben’s The Coming Community (1990) in Insurgencies (1992), for example, are muted but sympathetic, but since the publication of Homo Sacer (1995), he has offered a number of pointed critiques, the most openly polemical being found in a 2001 piece titled “Il mostro politico. Nuda vita e potenza,” in which Agamben’s notion of “bare life” [nuda vita] is unfavorably characterized merely as a figure for a human life—bios—stripped of its free and productive potentiality and pared down to a minimum of inert and brutally dominated biological life, a figure that Negri finds highly doubtful as a politically useful paradigm. Here Negri attacks what he feels is Agamben’s mystifying and quietist—in any case apolitical—concept:

When one stakes and/or flattens...