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Felix Ensslin: Potentiality in Agamben
Potentiality in Agamben
(p. 121 – 136)

Felix Ensslin

Potentiality in Agamben

PDF, 16 pages

The “I can” that Accompanies none of my Representations or Actions

Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer (published in the Italian original in 19951) can be read as a further elaboration of a thought he first expressed in a paper given in Lisbon in 1986 but published four years after Homo Sacer under the title “On Potentiality.” Perhaps the best summary of its impact will not be found in a technical elaboration relating the various meanings of “dynamis” or “adynamis” that the text finds in Aristotle’s writings, but in a rather startling proposition that can be found in its opening paragraphs and that might be summarized under the heading: “The ‘I can’ that accompanies none of my representations – or actions.” The talk opens with an account of how Anna Akhmatova used to visit the Stalinist prisons for months waiting outside with others during the period that lead up to the time she published the collection of poems called Requiem. Everyone waiting was in the same position, having experienced the disappearance or arrest of a relative, a neighbor or a friend and not knowing what exactly was happening or why it was happening. Asked by a woman waiting with her at the gates of this inexplicable and violent and sovereign Law if she could “speak of this,” Akhmatova answered, pausing, “Yes I can.” Agamben sums up this reference, which opens his early pre-Homo Sacer discussion of potentiality with the following sentence: “Beyond all faculties, this ‘I can’ does not mean anything – yet it marks what is, for each of us, perhaps the hardest and bitterest experience possible: the experience of potentiality.”2

Potentiality and Sovereignty Pose a Paradoxical Relation

It is a startling proposition because the language of “potential,” “potentially,” “having potential” or “faculty,” or, more scientifically, the “potency” of a number or a chemical agent – not to speak of sexual potency – are all terms that portray positive, or minimally neutral and expectant states of affairs: those which can become or will become actualized precisely as they are now “potentially.” Agamben makes the claim that this understanding goes back and “appears for the first time” in Aristotle and that from this ‘sending,’ as one might call it with regard to the Heideggerian heritage within Agamben’s thought, “the vocabulary of potentiality” has “penetrated so deeply into us” that we cannot even pose the problem of its historicity or question the point of its appearance.3 I will only point out in passing that the language – perhaps not without a link to the topic at hand – might, for psychoanalytically sensitive ears, betray a certain phantasm: that of the Imaginary Father, who “penetrates us all.” A power so forceful that it makes unthinkable any problem or conception outside of it, of anything that might not already be in some ways a product of, or in the gaze of this violent power and unpredictable force. The “I can” and Agamben’s “potentiality” set out to think this unthinkable. As Agamben will say in Homo Sacer, we can call this force sovereignty even before splitting it up into what to him – following Walter Benjamin – are its elements, i.e. a “constitutive” and a “constituted” force or power. Importantly the “I can,” of which Agamben says it might be the “hardest and bitterest experience possible,” emerges precisely here, as the example of Akhmatova amply demonstrates. It emerges in a situation, which, in the language of another book by the same author, can be called a “state of exception.” This, we might recall, is a state in which the two elements of sovereignty located by Agamben in State of Exception in the Roman law, the notions of “potestas” and “auctoritas,” have become indistinguishable. The private power of the paternalistic “auctoritas” becomes conflated – according to Agamben in the figure of Caesar Augustus – with the public power of magisterial “potestas”; that is, the anomic state of the private and the normative sphere of the state are united in such a way that the normative becomes a “nomos empushkos,4 a living law in the body of the emperor.5 Thus it can be explained, the argument goes, that the term “iustitium,” originally a call for a kind of state of exception when a “tumultus” – i.e., an invasion, a public upraising, etc. – had befallen the state, became the term to designate a death in the family, most importantly the death of the body of the law, the emperor. But what interests us here most is the conflation of the two aspects of sovereignty and its effects: “But when they [auctoritas and potestas, F.E.] tend to coincide in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine.”6

However, even when the aspects or elements of power become indistinguishable, this does not eradicate the fact that “sovereignty is always double because Being, as potentiality, suspends itself, maintaining itself in a relation of ban (or abandonment) with itself in order to realize itself as absolute actuality (which thus presupposes nothing other than its own potentiality).”7

Before going further into the analysis of the last of these couplets, or rather, its own exception, we can hold fast to the fact that what is established here is a parallelism between the Roman legal distinctions and the Greek philosophical ones, that is, that the distinction (and its collapse) between “auctoritas” and “potestas” is related – by sovereignty – to the logical and ontological distinction between “dynamis” and “energeia.” While realizing this, we can bear in mind that this parallelism of Greek ontology and Roman legal thought has (joined by Abrahamic monotheism) another long history related to the question of sovereignty, namely that of the medieval distinction between the potentia (dei) absoluta and the potentia (dei) ordinata. This is not the place to elaborate on this relation further; I mention it only because of its relation to the history of the absolute and, in turn, its relation to the Kantian “transcendental apperception” as the ground of all experience, and to the version of the absolute which subjectivity becomes in German post-Kantian Idealism as both the guarantor of indeterminate creativity (heritage of potentia absoluta) and of predictable and predicable unity (heritage of potentia ordinata), that is, of experience tout court again. Obviously, the choice of calling the “I can” of which Agamben speaks the “I can that accompanies none of my representations – or actions” draws a relation to the modern inception of this German Idealist conception in Kant’s First Critique.8 However, as I will show below, the “accompany none of my representations” will prove with Agamben to be something like a spectral “accompany as none…”


What is implied in the scene described in “On Potentiality” is the collapse of two doubles or contraries. Sovereignty itself is “always double.” But it is this not only in the aspects of “auctoritas” and “potestas,” but also in its (subsequent and logically prior) effect as an experience – in an other (of sovereignty). Even if they were previously nothing more than aspects, no more than logically distinct, the collapse of the “power that confers legitimacy” and the exercise of this thus legalized power is what is confronted by Anna Akhmatova and the woman asking her the question if she could “speak of this,” while waiting in front of the prison walls of the 1930s Stalinist purges. This collapse contracts, as it were, into a point of “potentiality” in an other. The contraction of sovereignty at the most radical level exercises, in other words, a kind of appellation (or subjectivation). Thus the collapse of the distinction de facto collapses into an appellation effective in – in this case a literally exemplary case for Agamben – Anna Akhmatova. Only after this does the address, “Can you speak of this,” call forth, awaken or repeat this contraction, bringing it into its own. (This “after,” however, is not to be taken in a linear temporal sense, but logically.) Now we can understand why there is talk of “experience.” Agamben can speak of an “experience” because it arises out of being thus confronted with sovereignty’s hidden double, the experience of “potentiality” exposed by the collapse of sovereignty and its double, both being the “condition of possibility of experience” in the first place. Having collapsed, it contracts or collapses “into” her, as it were, into the addressee or appellated subject of sovereignty as a kind of zero state, not accompanying any particular act or potency or thought, but potentiality as such. Thus the “I can” certainly does not, as Agamben rightly points out, refer to the exercise of talents or the realization of a practice; it is not an “I can” that could refer to any epistemological or aesthetic or practical “habitus,” which the famous poets had been given by nature or acquired through practice. She experiences that she has something, an “I can,” but it is nothing that is present or presentable. In front of the prison Akhmatova is bound to/banned by the situation, she stands addressing it. The “I can” becomes the reality or the real of a kind of waiting or expectancy. She is waiting, with thousands of others, not petitioning, suing, nor even attempting to stage a “storm at the Bastille.” But perhaps waiting is also not the right term; she is simply there, outside of the reality of sovereignty proper, but instituted or constituted by its collapse with and in the “I can.”

“Being-outside [the legal order, F.E.], and yet belonging: this is the topological structure of the state of exception.”9 Here we have one of the more general descriptions of Agamben’s transformative gesture, which picks up Carl Schmitt’s preoccupation with the theological heritage of state-theoretical concepts. Interesting and worth noting is the fact that he does not identify this “being-outside [the legal order, F.E.], and yet belonging” with the prisoner inside the prison, for example with Akhmatova’s son who is behind the prison walls, but with the witness of his blight standing “before” it. We need to hold fast to this: “potentiality” is an “experience” and, topologically, it is an experience emerging in the topos of the state of exception. When one reads this early example of “potentiality” in the light of the later writings of Giorgio Agamben, one can grasp his main opposition to Carl Schmitt. Hans Blumenberg ridiculed both Schmitt and Hegel for hypostasizing a logical necessity into the existence of a secularized Person-God.10 In the same vein, Agamben no longer focuses on who makes the decision, but rather on the creation of a spectral life – a nomos empushkos – which precisely is not identical with any empirical body or decision-maker, but shows itself rather in a move from a state of indeterminacy (iustitium in its original, post-tumultus meaning) to a supposedly determinate mourning (the death of a family member or, most iconically, the sovereign)11. So Agamben wants to extricate the ghostly reality as real reality, one might say, of sovereignty, which is accessible as and in what he calls experience or a specific kind of experience. The reference to topology is more than a hint here; he points towards the “experience” of a structural effect, of an appellation of sovereignty and vice versa, of sovereignty as this structural effect.

“Dynamis” and “Energeia” in Agamben

The guiding premise of Agamben’s investigation into “dynamis” and “energeia” in Homo Sacer is his conviction that in order to understand the relation between “constituting power” and “constitutive power” – or violence – one needs to understand the “autonomy of potentiality.”12 With this he picks up the investigation of the earlier “On Potentiality” in order to align it more clearly with the problem of sovereignty. There is a contradiction in this project, however. Maybe it is one which, in the eyes of Agamben himself, is and must be constitutive of getting to see this problem at all, starting from within the scope of the “Geschick” of metaphysics, as we invariably must. Here is the contradiction: on the one hand he wants to “cut the knot that binds sovereignty to constituting power” and claims only this achievement will make it possible to “think a constituting power wholly released from the sovereign ban.”13 On the other hand, he wants to show with and in Aristotle, that it is what appears precisely within this “ban” as a “capacity not to,” which is the answer to this question itself. It is, as we have seen, this ban, after all, that produces the “I can” of “On Potentiality.” Even granted that it itself is outside the ban, one still does not get around it also being its product. The only way to keep both (the production through sovereignty and a constituting power completely separated from it) would be to address the banning sovereignty as a necessary, yet phantasmatic production itself – that is, ontologically less real or a real clothed, wrapped in something else in a sense.


Let us look briefly at the claims Agamben makes in relation to Aristotle. Just as important as the fact that the “I can” in “On potentiality” is an experience, is the fact that “potentiality” in Homo Sacer is not simply “potency as a logical possibility,” but the “effective modes of potentiality’s existence.”14 This too, already appears in the earlier work, where – in a parenthesis – he states:

(It is often said that philosophers are concerned with essences, that, confronted with a thing, they ask ‘What is it?’ But this is not exact. Philosophers are above all concerned with existence, with the mode (or rather modes) of existence. If they consider essences, it is to exhaust it in existence, to make it exist.)15

This then, is what he claims potentiality intends to say, if we take the earlier writing to hand as well: a modality of existence, which is neither something – no act or actualization – nor “simply non-Being” nor “a simple privation”; but the “existence of non-Being.”16 The reference to “steresis,” the Aristotelian term for “privation,” is important for reasons of the modification “simple.” Aristotle wants to distinguish what is said in “adynamis” from this notion he calls “simple privation.” According to most interpreters steresis or privation means the presence of the opposite of a determination, either by a contrary (enantion) or by an opposite (antiphasis); and the determination regards generally secondary categories, such as a quality, a place or a “having.” However, it is clear that in Aristotle the meaning of steresis is quite open. And while Agamben argues against reading “potentiality” as a “simple privation” in the generally accepted sense just outlined, he leaves the door open to attach an interpretation to “adynamis” as a term dealing with a kind of privation that is other than “simple privation.” It is also clear that Agamben does not want to attach “potentiality” to negation (apophasis) either. In a simplification, one could say that “privation” in Aristotle adheres to secondary categories, while negation adheres to the absence of something of the first category, that is, to substances. Negation is the absence of a substance; privation is the opposite determination of a secondary quality or predicate. In an argument that aims at showing that metaphysics really deals with unity, Aristotle makes the following classification and shows how each, negation and privation, refers to “unity”:

Now since it is the work of one science to investigate opposites, and plurality is opposite to unity, and it belongs to one science to investigate the negation and the privation because in both cases we are really investigating unity, to which the negation or the privation refers (for we either say simply that unity is not present, or that it is not present in some particular class: in the latter case the characteristic difference of the class modifies the meaning of ‘unity,’ as compared with the meaning conveyed in the bare negation. For the negation means just the absence of unity (apousia gar hae apophasis ekeinou estin), while in privation there is also implied an underlying nature of which the privation is predicated. (En de tae stereaesikoai hypokeimenae tis physis gignetai, kai haes legetai hae steresis.)17

Here we find the two readings or concepts which, in Agamben’s understanding, potentiality cannot be: It is neither negation – for it is not apousia, where there is definitely no kind of existence – nor is it (“simple”) privation as it refers to a definitive “hypokeimenon.” Summing up the options that Agamben says he is not referring to, one can say that negation is the absence of a presence, apousia, whereas privation is the presence of an absence, which, however, refers to another presence, since it is said of secondary categories, thus implying a substance or subject on which it can be predicated. Neither can be said to cover what Agamben wants to draw out of Aristotle with the reference to adynamis. Rather he wants to show that “having a faculty – dynamis – means to have a privation.”18 To achieve this reading, he, as it were, needs to get between what he calls “simple privation/steresis” and “apophasis”: from the one – steresis – he wants to have the presence of the absence; and from the other – apophasis – the lack of a substance. As far as I – not being a specialist in Greek philology and philosophy – can see, it is hard to find direct corroboration of this in Aristotle. But it is true that the terms, particularly steresis and the alpha-privative in adynamis, are quite open to interpretation in Aristotle. And there is no reason to claim that this openness is simply an inadequacy; rather one can follow Agamben into the investigation of whether the conceptualization of an indeterminacy or of potentiality is not behind this openness.

Further Considerations of Privation

Three interrelated issues need further be pointed out in Aristotle’s use of privation in order to corral the semantic implications of the use Agamben makes of “potentiality.” One is that negation and privation are related in some way, though there is no determinate or rather systematic way to account for it. The second is that steresis also appears in the discussion of the pros ti category, that is, the category of relation. The third is that it is also related to violence.


In the Metaphysics, there is discussion of the alpha-privative. It has been said that Aristotle is the one “who most of all defined the technical terms of negative theology” but that he did so “unknowingly.”19 This is worth noting, because one way of understanding Agamben’s project is that he attempts to free negativity as potentiality from the heritage of negative theology. Like the scholastic God of the metaphysicians, negativity derived from this heritage aims at indeterminate determinacy – thus implying substance – that is, an indeterminate existence; one much like the “God-Person” of which Blumenberg writes so derisively in relation to Hegel and Schmitt. What Agamben wants to get at is not quite its exact contrary, but a kind of existent indeterminacy, thus avoiding substantialization, (since no substance can be completely indeterminate, not even “nothing”) while claiming a certain efficacy for it; namely the efficacy of the (appellation or) production of the indeterminate “I can” that accompanies none of my – determinate – representations or – determinate – actions. In Book Delta of the Metaphysics we read: “Privation (steresis) has as many meanings as there are negations (apophasis) by the alpha privative.”20 Thus, privation, here seemingly a species of negation, is related to a kind of violent act (“The violent taking away of anything is called a privation”21), while it is related to the negation of whatever by the alpha privative, as, for example, in adynamis. Raoul Mortley, in his discussion of the origins of the terminology of the “via negativa,” points to the fact that later Neoplatonists who engaged in negative theology sharply distinguished between the “ouk” of negation – pointing precisely to one indeterminate existence – and the “a” of privation, pointing just as precisely to one existing indeterminacy – that is, the thing thus “deprived” could be anything but this thing of which it was deprived. Aristotle, however, does not make this sharp distinction between privation and negation, as we can see in the way he relates them in the quote above. As Mortley points out, for Aristotle it is also not the case that “hypokeimenon” is simply “negation of quantities or of any of the categories which normally characterize matter.”22 That is, it is not simply ontologically a determinate non-existence to which then secondary qualities can adhere or not. Rather, even outside of secondary qualities there is – as a/dynamis – something the matter. With this he unconditionally ascribes to matter – or generic matter – a status outside of simply being the negation of qualities or any other secondary categories. In the context discussed here, this implies that the Aristotelian indeterminacy emerging between negation and simple privation points to a kind of active passivity or “potentiality” of matter itself. (This would then lead to considering the problem not simply a linguistic or logical one.) But this is only an aside, which we can return to at some other point.23 For Mortley however, the “zone of indeterminacy” (as Agamben will call it) emerging here in Aristotle between the two – between steresis and apophasis – is simply “dictated by etymological considerations”24 since the “apo” of negation (of apophasis) points to a reversal or rather removal – which should, in a traditional view of Aristotle, be reserved for steresis (in which case the “removal” should still leave a kind of hypokeimenon from which such a removal can take place). This is to say, for Mortley (if we anachronistically make him a reader of Agamben) it is an etymological heritage that might lead one to find between apophasis (which started its career to become the negativity of negative theology) and steresis (which became the condition of negative identity – anything but this) something like Agamben’s potentiality. This has to do with the fact that the “apo” points to negation being originally simply a kind of privation, the “reversal” of a determination. To stress this etymological viewpoint Mortley quotes a rhetorical work of Aristotle, “On Interpretation,” where it is said that: “Assertion is a statement with respect to another thing: negation is a statement of something away from (apo tinos) another thing.”25

Mortley and most other commentators are therefore unwilling to draw any ontological conclusions from these facts. Even so, he turns a phrase that might well serve as a further guide in the search for the meaning of “potentiality.” Speaking still of the alpha-privative, he says that

if one accepts Aristotle’s linguistic observations, the negative adjective may be better regarded as providing an attenuated affirmation [sic!]. To say that God is invisible or unknowable may simply mean that he is seen and known only with difficulty, and it is clear that the rather airy use of the alpha privative in this period [i.e. of the emergence of negative theology, F.E.] suggests nothing more than a new awe of the transcendent.26

He does not see a possibility similar to the one Agamben wants to assert: that the negative adjective is in fact neither a clear privation, in the sense of referring to another hypokeimenon shown above, nor a negation, in the sense of asserting the apousia of the thing negated, but a kind of indeterminacy that is neither “affirmative” nor “negative.” One can think here for example, of the Kantian “functions of thought” in the judgments according to the category of Quality.27 Following “affirmation” and “negation” come the “infinite judgments,”28 which are not predicated with “not,” but, in German, with “un-,” or – retranslated into the Aristotelian language – an alpha-privative, as it were. However, this reference is heuristic in the sense that, where Aristotle leaves the door open to mix ontology and logic, it is precisely Kant’s attempt to “abstract from all content”29 in order to categorize these logical functions of judgment.


Returning one last time to Aristotle himself, we find him discussing “privation” also in the category of pros ti, referring at first to “capacity” and “actualization” (dynamis and energeia), which he says are always implied when discussing “the active and the passive,” poetikos and pathetikos.30 He first discusses those capacities related to movement, that is, to something that is “not numerically one” since it implies the movement from one state (not being able to play the violin, for instance) to another (being able to play the violin). Something becomes other, for example, the child that learns something, as Agamben points out31; but other relations, Aristotle says, “imply privation of capacity, i.e. incapable (adynaton) and terms of this sort, e.g. invisible (aoraton).”32 That is, it relates to something that is “numerically one” in the terminology of Aristotle. Here we have the place of the alpha-privative as pointing towards what is neither not one thing nor not something in relation to another, but, since it is negated with a privation and not a negation, still points to a presence or existence of some sort. And, since it appears pros ti, we can say it is a certain relating existence. With this we might find a model for thinking of potentiality in the case of the “I can” as an appellation, which is, after all, a relation, something pros ti. And, in the language of German Idealism, with the paradox of this relation being both after and prior to its effect – the “I can” – one might even venture to say it is a kind of self-relation. But even without this speculation Agamben finds another foothold for his intuition, for it points to a kind of hexis of a capacity one has that is something and, at the same time nothing. Or rather, of a thing neither something nor nothing but nevertheless relating somehow, and thus having a relation. A bit earlier, Aristotle himself states:

but if privation is in a sense having, everything will be capable of having something, so that things are capable both by having something, i.e. a principle and by having the privation of the positive principle, if it is possible to have a privation. And if privation is not in a sense having, things are called capable homonymously.33

It is here that we have precisely the scope of the “constitutive ambiguity of the Aristotelian theory of dynamis/energeia,”34 which Agamben claims and on which he builds his case for potentiality.

Hence the constitutive ambiguity of the Aristotelian theory of dynamis/energeia: if it is never clear, to a reader freed from the prejudices of tradition, whether Book Theta of the Metaphysics in fact gives primacy to actuality or to potentiality, this is not because of a certain indecisiveness or, worse, contradiction in the philosopher’s thought but because potentiality and actuality are simply the two faces of the sovereign self-grounding of Being.35

If we go back to the quote from the Metaphysics we can either read – so says Aristotle – an ontological fact in the “hexis of a privation” or we can simply say it is a homonym; in the latter case, if we recall the Categories it would simply mean it is a linguistic hypostatization, since what is equivocal “has a common name” (here dynamis), but “the definition corresponding to the name differs for each.”36 Therefore the ambiguity of which Agamben speaks is to be understood in the following sense: Either there exists a having of a privation, adynamis, or it is simply a trick of “ordinary language,” a kind of “systematically misleading expression.”37 Yet, it seems it is never to be decided once and for all. This seems to come close to Agamben’s reading, when he makes it the place of “freedom”:

To be free is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing. To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation. This is why freedom is freedom for both good and evil.38

Concluding Summary
of the Reading of Potentiality in Agamben

If we remember, lastly, Aristotle’s dictum, that “violent taking away of anything is called privation,” which in fact opens into the discussion of the workings of the alpha-privative, we can summarize the semantic scope of what “potentiality” contains in a preliminary way:

It refers to something numerically related to itself – i.e., not to a movement, and is as such not strictly of the order of “realization.” Rather it points, in modern language, to a self-relating. Yet, this is neither substance nor subject, but rather a kind of “in-between” (thus, maybe, a ghostly apparition of both, substance and subject.)

It refers to something best captured with a noun or adjective of the alpha-privative, heuristically understood analogously to the qualitative predicate of Kant’s infinite judgment. I add “heuristically” because, of course, in Kant, these are pure forms of thought (i.e. a priori and not concerned with the labor of getting between privation and negation ontologically). This form of thought means it is neither a negation nor an affirmation, but an “infinite judgment.” However, its infinity is not due to a lack of determination of something that potentially would be determinable as such. (For instance, it is not the case that it is simply a reason too limited to understand because of finitude, while reason in itself would be perfectly capable of understanding – a path that leads to the sublime and to negative theology.) Rather, the “un-” of infinite judgment points to the spectral quality that “accompanies none of my representations – or actions” as “un-,” i.e., as a “hexis of a privation.”

It remains constitutively in ambiguity. It is either there as “not there,” or it is simply understood as an equivocal misunderstanding, or “systematically misleading expression.” But this ambivalence is a true one; the matter is not decidable, once and for all, for then it would fall (back) into the relation of sovereignty (i.e., that decision would be a “realization,” very much in the way in which that term is used colloquially today in the phrase “he had a realization”).

Potentiality is a product of a “violent taking away” or of being exposed to a violent power. Here we return to the beginning. It is the ban of sovereignty to which Akhmatova was exposed that leads to the “I can” that is not the realization of any capacity, but the capacity of an incapacity (“freedom” in Agamben’s statement above). It is both the product of sovereignty and its overcoming in the sense of being separate from it. (Here also would be the relation to the phantasm of the Imaginary Father noted in passing above. But this is an argument for another place and time.)

1 Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1995).

2 Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 179. Emphasis added.

3 Ibid.

4 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 69.

5 What can clearly be seen here is the possibility of re-splitting the body of the king in subsequent thought on sovereignty.

6 Agamben, State of Exception, p. 86.

7 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 33.

8 For the discussion of “transcendental apperception” as the condition of experience in Kant’s First Critique see Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 224–5 and pp. 434–6.

9 Agamben, State of Exception, p. 35.

10 Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).

11 It is striking to realize how close this narrative then is to that of Freuds Totem und Tabu. Is not the living law that emerges here, after the collapse of potestas and auctoritas, and the ensuing or parallel shift from state-iustitium to family-death quite similar to the erection of the totem law of the dead father, more powerful than any literally embodied living law or rather, its necessary double, spectral support? However, to grasp this in its full subtlety one needs to bring Lacan’s differentiation of that law to bear on that of the symbolic father, the imaginary father, and the real father, which exceeds the confines of this argument.

12 “The relation between constituting power and constituted power is just as complicated as the relation Aristotle establishes between potentiality and act, dynamis and energeia; and, in the last analysis, the relation between constituting and constituted power (perhaps like every authentic understanding of the problem of sovereignty) depends on how one thinks the existence and autonomy of potentiality.” Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 31.

13 Ibid. As a summary statement of his project regarding potentiality, perhaps this bears a full quote: “And only if it is possible to think the relation between potentiality and actuality differently – and even to think beyond this relation – will it be possible to think a constituting power wholly released from the sovereign ban. Until a new and coherent ontology of potentiality (beyond the steps that have been made in this direction by Spinoza, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) has replaced the ontology founded on the primacy of actuality and its relation to potentiality, a political theory freed from the aporias of sovereignty remains unthinkable.”

14 Ibid., p. 31–32. “What Aristotle undertakes to consider in Book Theta of the Metaphysics is, in other words, not potentiality as a merely logical possibility but rather the effective modes of potentiality’s existence. This is why, if potentiality is to have its own consistency and not always disappear immediately into actuality, it is necessary that potentiality be able not to pass over into actuality, that potentiality constitutively be the potentiality not to (do or be), or, as Aristotle says, that potentiality be also im-potentiality (adynamia).”

15 Agamben, “On Potentiality,” p. 179 (parentheses in the original).

16 Ibid.

17 Aristotle, Metaphysics, in: The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. II ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 6th printing with corrections, 1995), Meta. 1004a 11ff, p. 1585.

18 Agamben, “On Potentiality,” p. 178.

19 Raoul Mortley, “The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa,” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 103, no. 4 (Winter 1982), pp. 429–439, here p. 431.

20 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1022b 33, translation altered, see the Complete Works, p. 1615 where this reads: “There are just as many kinds of privations as there are of words with negative prefixes.”

21 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1022b 32, p. 1615.

22 Mortley, “The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa,” p. 434.

23 I discuss this more fully in my dissertation on the Privation of the Absolute in Martin Luther’s early thought (written in German and entitled Die Entbehrung des Absoluten. Martin Luthers Subjekt der Nichtigkeit in der Magnificat-Auslegung. Eine philosophisch-psychoanalytische Untersuchung). The dissertation was defended in July 2009 and is currently being prepared for publication in the Subjektile-Series of Diaphanes Publishers.

24 Mortley, “The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa,” p. 436.

25 Ibid., p. 434; the reference is to Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” 17a 25.

26 Mortley, “The Fundamentals of the Via Negativa,” p. 433.

27 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 206.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1021a 16ff, p. 1612.

31 Agamben, “On Potentiality,” p. 179.

32 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1021a 25, p. 1612.

33 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1019b 7–1, p. 1610.

34 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 32.

35 Ibid.

36 Aristotle, Categories, Part 1.

37 This is an expression of Ryle’s, with which he describes terms that are “systematically” misleading, since we understand them perfectly well, but if we analyze them, they seem to imply terms that cannot be asserted or denied truth-functionally. See Gilbert Ryle, “Systematically Misleading Expressions,” Logic and Language, ed. Anthony Flew (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), pp. 11–36.

38 Agamben, “On Potentiality,” p. 183.

  • politics
  • emancipation / liberation
  • change
  • justice
  • potentiality
  • ethics

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Felix Ensslin

Felix Ensslin

Felix Ensslin, Professor of Aesthetics and Art Mediation, Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, curator and dramaturg; founding member of pli-psychoanaysis after Lacan in Munich, Stuttgart, and Berlin; publisher of the series Subjektile (with Marcus Coelen).

Latest publications: »Messianischer Rest, Gedächtnis und Urverdrängung: Eine Untersuchung zur Rezeption des Apostels Paulus in der zeitgenössischen Philosophie«, in: Politische Lesarten des Neuen Testaments – neutestamentliche Lesarten des Politischen (2010); »What it thinks and how it’s interrupted: Testament, index and frame as formal elements of art in the oeuvre of Dor Guez«, in: Dor Guez. Al-Lydd (2010).

Other texts by Felix Ensslin for DIAPHANES
Mark Potocnik (ed.), Frank Ruda (ed.), ...: Beyond Potentialities?

Nearly the whole history of political thought is spanned between two poles: one of founding, establishing, and justifying a stable and just order on one side and of justified transformation and necessary break with that same order on the other side. Between institution and emancipation, reform and revolution, the question of possibility is always arising for politics. Are there possibilities to change the order of society? Are there possibilities for a different justice? Where to find them and how to define them? Are they already present in the situation, or do they have to be actively created? Or does one have to rethink collective emancipation in a way that it does not rely upon given possibilities?

The question of possibility is raised in philosophy itself in different terms: as a question of potentiality and potentials but also as a question of the impossibilities of changing political order. In recent political discussions this question is more present than ever and is newly posed in fundamental ways by thinkers such as Agamben, Badiou, and Deleuze, or Lacan and Žižek. The present volume assembles articles that investigate this question and the new guise it took from different perspectives and highlight its relevance for contemporary political thought.

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