On Potentiality


My Children, Abbott H. Thayer, 1910

by Lauren Berlant

I have a childhood friend who is just a tiny bit younger than me but always so much younger, her skin never showing her age, her cheek marked with a birthmark so Hawthornian it seemed impossible ever to finish looking at her, my eye caught forever in the optimism of her incompleteness.

She always had her face tilted up toward the sun. Yet she had also contracted the illness destined mainly for men in my family: they could have been a contender. Smart, hilarious, winning, full of life and potentiality, energetic-depressed rather than just depressed, eloquent, almost smooth, and unsettled, unsettled so deeply that nothing, no project, could absorb them. There was rarely a career; just jobs, while the creative energy sought out just the right outlet. People defined by having potential. People whose observational intelligence takes your breath away: they’re Dorothy Parker, write the best letters to the editor, blog with perfectly formed opinions. Quipsters, they blaze hot and then enter a fallow time, until they forget somehow that they’re there and then say something revealing their brilliance, which restarts the arc of almost sustaining its energy into something like a life, but not quite.

Our story, in short, has been the story of the potentialized. It’s never too late to have optimism, right? Thwarted potential is an endtime discourse–involving deep knowledge of the time you have wasted, the relationships you have scuttled out of fear or laziness or the blithe cruelty of being unwilling to be inconvenienced. The sickening sense of knowing that you’re what gets in your own way; and the complexities of living with it when it’s not you producing the blockage, when it’s your DNA or your bank account, your lack of the architecture of confidence or your cluelessness; your rage and sorrow: structural discrimination and exploitation; your ambivalence. The world wearing you out as it wears itself out. That model of the subject-in-potential looks at achievements and intimacies as proof that one really did deserve to have lived, after all, despite everything; that model puts the agent’s will to feel undefeated in the face of the “ego’s exhaustion” at the center of the story of optimism that represents modernity’s promise to everyone.

But the fantasy of life as accumulation or accumulated impact is only one model for assessing what it means to be in life, not that capitalist society proliferates alternative models to performative vitalism and adding up to something. That’s our job, the queer job, the lefty job–the work of assessing other ways to matter in the long, thick present moment.

I really love this friend. At my father’s funeral she jabbed me in the ribs laughing when the rabbi said, “I didn’t know him, but I am sure he was a decent, ethical man.”

But at the same time she extended to me what she suffered from, and I’ve barely just gotten rid of it. Was it also at that funeral? I can’t remember because it was genuinely traumatic, the world fading out into nothing but what my eyes could see, her face after saying, “You’ve done your best work by now, haven’t you? How does that feel?” I gasped. That would have been 2002.

Then, last week, she sends me this message: someone we know has just discovered having inherited the gene of a debilitating illness. Now he too embodies potential cut short, in an entirely different sense than the bourgeois drama I’ve described. It’s Flowers for Algernon time, tragic. He equates the loss of his agentive brain with the end of everything good. I can’t start or stop thinking about it.

This post continues the research thread (I typed threat!) for Detachment Theory that links the vernacular of optimism to a variety of accounts of its form. Here, I am adding an inquiry on the discourse of potentiality to the problems of optimism, anxiety, and attachment (to persons and to life). The expansion of potentiality discourse bothers me, even though I’m attracted to it. In contemporary critical theory potentiality points to a focus on what’s immanent and imminent about the event that marks the present moment. It focuses on what we know affectively when there isn’t yet a world to confirm our senses of what it could be. Negri talks about this in The Savage Anomaly as the activity or materiality of what he calls joy. Potentiality describes what’s simultaneously already being lived and is always available for organization into the revolutionary reconstruction of the conditions of life. It is a rhetoric of temporality or historicity (thatsense of the present moment) that manifests confidence in the endurance of singularity despite the mortality, imperfection, and unfinishedness of individuals.

In this discourse, what we understand as politics is banished to being just one vector of the human negotiation of life. That’s what always bothers me about it. I want humans to have available many idioms for making a claim that would enhance the conditions of living, of mattering. In the potentiality literature, though, potentiality is linked to the autonomous activity of affect. It is not what requires government, but a place in the imaginary of lived freedom, and liberation from being governed (Savage Anomaly, 220). The “workings of historicity as potentiality,” the impossibility of stopping the activity of remaking life and therefore of being defeated, are bigger than the story of one person or another’s being in the world (Empire, 52); and therefore politics as we know it becomes equated with the self-organizing potentiality of the activity of life. See also J. K. Gibson-Graham’s A Postcapitalist Politics for a rousing cheerleading on behalf of potentiality as something like the drive to remake living that we find not in structures of power or individuality, but the reinvention of community dependencies and modes of recognition. But their book is more conventional in its address to community and the local than what we find in Negri.

But I think I think that there is no politics without loss, without a serious shifting of the terms of living of the sort that produces incompetence at life, an incompetence we can look forward to if we can bear it but that has to be lived at best awkwardly, at worst, dramatically. Potentiality discourse feels too sunny to me. There, we are already all potential. Our solidarity is structural and comes from a thing we cannot be rid of: the vital right to belonging as such. At the same time, though, the work of solidarity, the activity of being not just in existence but in desire together, requires being in the room with the possibility that people don’t share your objects or your imaginaries, and that people will have to give up different things to get to the place of the better good life that you’re risking making imaginable, let alone available.

This is why intellectuals and artists invest so hard in the brain. The act of ideation itself embodies the form of optimism, because whatever its content, impact, or relation to the consensual real, it forces into being some unfinished business, which is something like that phantasm my friend no longer has access to, that living on (in potentiality) is all there is, which is a lot.

Piece originally published at Supervalent Thoughtin June 2008. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.