The Case Against Agamben’s Impotence

Álvaro Daza “rotando en el tiempo” 2008. Reproduced with permission.

Another appraisal of Aristotle´s configuration of potentiality and actuality and the latter as a division between Entelecheia and Energeia may open up a new consideration of being and power. Through it, we may dispel Agamben´s interpretation of power that shrouds political action in impotence. When we read Energeia as power without transcendent finality, contingency, as the order of the political, is released and with it the possibility of becoming-other is open anew. Contingency means that only when beings exist, not as a necessity, is the meaning of being necessary.

In between potentia and actuality hinges not only the definition of power but the utter possibility of existence, of what is possible and impossible, logical, contingent, necessary and time. We have called the relation of potentiality and actuality the ‘dyad’1.

Aristotle clearly saw in the dyad the precipice of what exists, what does not exist, and what could exist. Within its dense context two fundamental outcomes are decided. First, how does anything come about and perish? And, second, how can anything persist in its being (the thing that makes it what it is) through the changes occurred to it in time and space? The dyad is then not solely the passage from inexistence to existence but the index of its possibility; it marks the discernibility between being and coming to being, and the exact determination of its possible occurrence in time.

The central operation of the dyad is the explosive and constitutive relation between being and non-being. Non-being is the breaking point of ontology, the extreme and unaccountable force that can destroy any certainty and predictability when confronting being2. Western philosophy is the sustained effort to banish non-being from existence, to impede the new, and Aristotle´s dyad, is the prophylactic of the explosivity of becoming. The primordial aim is to prevent contingency through the primacy of actuality over potentiality.

Aristotle uses one word to describe potentia – dunamis (δύναμις) – while he uses two to describe actuality: Energeia (ενέργεια) and Entelecheia (ἐντελέχεια). Energeia and Entelecheia are far from being equivalent or interchangeable. They stand in stark contrast, and said contrast is crucial to any differentiation between power as domination (potestas) and power as the immanent and infinite exercise of difference.

The division of actuality and potentiality spears the neutralization between contingency and necessity. Its objective is to transform non-being into a consequence of being, as it were its insubstantial shadow. Subsequently, when being comes to be, it is necessary that it came to be from a given potentiality, an emptiness that prefigures the shape of things. What is potential now supposes the contingency of its becoming, hence, the contingency of the future is harnessed in the necessity of what is presently actual. Nonetheless, it is not that potentia is contingent; what is contingent is the coming to be of what is potential: what is in potentia may come to be or it may not. Contingency is reduced to a very precise procedure within the dyad3. A caterpillar may grow into a butterfly (where becoming is contingent), but when it becomes to be this butterfly, its actuality is necessary as a retrospection that knots together potentiality and actuality.

For Aristotle potentia is a source of movement or change which is in another thing than the thing moved or in the same thing qua other4. Accordingly, some things hold potentia in themselves, while others behest an external agent to acquire change. According to Aristotle, ‘a child has the potential to become a man’, but also has the potential to become a great musician, in this second case an external intervention is compulsory. We have thus a first and ad-hoc division of potentia between natural and acquired.

Through potentia, Aristotle has found two ways to award primacy to what exists. The first is to explain potentia as a kind of privation, and the second (explained further below) is the structuring of the primacy of actuality in regard to potentiality through a theory of causes5.

Privation supposes that natural potentia is only capable of becoming itself, while acquired potentia is capable of producing both itself and its contrary. Aristotle´s typical example of the former is the pharmakon that can produce both disease and health.

What Giorgio Agamben sees in the actualization of potentia is the irreversible loss of contingency and hence the utmost frustration of there being anything new. The sheer death of politics. Agamben´s response is to take refuge in impotence6. In the face of what he deems the collapse of potentia, Agamben rushes to preserve its power in full passivity, in the passion of impotence. I believe he runs amiss, as the core of the problem lies not in the definition of potentia but of actuality. Agamben is categorizing actuality simply with one of its forms but utterly overlooking the other.

To break the shackles of necessity we propose to actualize difference, a maneuver that is no less than a heresy for the vanguard political thinkers of our era. Besides the concept of privation, Aristotle deploys his theory of causes to checkmate contingency within the dyad. Accordingly, actuality is prior not only in time but in logos to potentiality, so actuality is the material, formal, and efficient cause of potentiality7. Aristotle gives priority to the final cause over the rest. This is the muscular element of the dominance of actuality over potentia. For Aristotle the final cause is the end (telos) for which a thing is done. Pure actuality is attaining such an end, and in it stands the perfection of being.

Entelecheia (ἐντελέχεια) and Energeia (ενέργεια) are the names Aristotle uses to define actuality. The compound of Energeia is ergonó, it means activity, action, or an operation, it stems in the adjective energon, meaning active or working. The etymological complex builds Energeia, from en (in, within) + ergon (work)8. In this first approximation, we have a first meaning not only of actuality but a very specific finality of actuality which is the work required to maintain the state of a substance through the being-at-work of the substance9. The being-at-work means that the capacity qualifies the work and the work the capacity, the relation of capacity, qualification and work is not tautological but immanently necessary.

The second form of actuality is Entelecheia, attained by combining entelēs (ἐντελής, ‘complete, full-grown’) with echein (hexis) which means to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on to that condition10. Behold, a third term is subtly added by Aristotle to the composite through the word endelecheia (ἐντελέχεια, ‘persistence’). Here, something new and uncanny is unexpectedly added unto actuality, the insertion of telos (τέλος, completion) as the nuclear component of the concept. Etymologically, Entelecheia is the aggregate of en (within) + telos (end, perfection) + ekhein (to be in a certain state).

As shown, there is a crucial addition to the construction of Entelecheia. A burden that is foreign to Energeia. A bleak axiom according to which reality and beingness can only come forth when they are in a ‘perfect’ form, when they have achieved an end that is not in them and thus is given by another thing that lies in another confine, another world altogether. Telos, finality is outside of work, it breaks the immanence of it as it defines what work must strive for: a kind of completion that does not belong immanently to it. Telos is thus introduced as the fulcrum between en-telēs (being within), and echein (hexis), turning the plain meaning of holding on to into a qualified being in possession of an end11. Again, an inaccessible and invisible transcendent model descends its storm to knead the things of this world.

A fundamental teleological split befalls actuality. Natural, or rather ‘existential’ final causes are involved directly in Energeia: it is the being-at-work to preserve substance that defines being12. For natural things, formal, efficient, and final cause are the same: the actualization of being qua being. Energeia is thus immanent as the principle of generation is already included in it; hence, ‘One thing is potentially another when, if nothing external hinders it, it will of itself become the other’13. Being a butterfly carries no negation of itself, as its actuality does not derive in any kind of qualification. A boy that becomes a woman a man or a them does not recrudesce in any form of negation of being, it is Energeia through and through. For Energeia, perfection (as a final cause, a telos) is itself immanently constitutive of being. Henceforth, if we are searching for the meaning of politics and the configuration of the body politic, we are besieging the question of who belongs to it and under what conditions. The answer, through radical non-liberal democracy, cannot be other than everyone and everything, with no further condition or qualification than life itself and no exception that can be imposed beyond the production of difference14.

Potentia as Entelecheia is capable of its contrary, thence it is consecrated by privation (as Agamben fittingly teaches us). Insofar, to the extent that ‘rational’ potentia can produce effects contrary to its finality, it follows that to be a true actuality it must produce those effects well. Health of illness depends on the way the pharmakon is employed.

Agamben is trapped in the connection between Entelecheia and power. His response is to build a protective and impenetrable wall against actuality as Entelecheia, as he recognizes it only as the sign of actuality corrupted in the form of potestas and domination. Entelecheia means that only those who acquire perfection are part of the political. The problem is if the (ontological, existential) definition of the political falls under a rational telos (Entelecheia) or an Energeia as a being-at-work. This is the axis of the political that defines power and beingness. What if the world and its possibilities are defined simply by Energeia and its negation (simulacrum) by Entelecheia?

For Aristotle the telos of a polity is virtue, according to his Nicomachean ethics. Virtue (the doing well of politics) is the perfect exercise of reason15. ‘Hence, the traditional interpretations that run through the infected veins of the West, in line with Aristotle, consider that politics follows Entelecheia, and so Plato’s virtue (areté) and Aristotle’s Eudaimonia demand that politics be defined as a question of refinement, perfection, excellence. The perfect polity is as such because it has achieved an actuality through virtue as a telos’16. Colonialism and coloniality are not only happy to run along these tracks but to declare that such truth is inexpugnable.

Agamben is stuck in Aristotle´s division. He clearly sees how actuality qualifies life into a certain life (zoe tis), as the rational actualization of potentia. Politics, then, can only be determined as such by a certain finality that involves a stringent qualification of life: a division between the rational and irrational, the virtuous and the vile, of the oikos and the politikos and of life (bios) and bare life (zoe)17. Agamben is confusing the raw fact of the world (how potestas has simulated power through Entelecheia) with the world (that the world, in order to be the world, must be unqualified difference).

For Aristotle, the passage from potentia to actuality is anchored fully in perfection; a qualification of potentia is the final result of the work. Consequently, Agamben ravages the metaphysical drawers to lock labour within passive potentia. The catch, is that for both Plato and Aristotle, the qualifications for belonging to politics are defined by natural conditions, a doing well, but the very demarcation zones of the definition of ‘doing well’ can only be logically postulated by those who already are inside the body politic. This is the mortal ruse of Entelecheia.

The only order of politics is a non-qualified actuality. Agamben’s interpretation of actuality as qualification of life goes awry. ‘Politics can only be considered when every being that makes a difference is considered as the condition of the existence of politics, with no further qualification’18. The sole condition of politics is Energeia. Regarded from Energeia, humanity’s work is to relate power to power; it is before all synergy, it means to communicate incessantly and infinitely among differences.

Under what conditions can difference become actual? The first condition is obviously that actuality will not be imposed as a finality, as the end of being-at-work. Second, that the creation of the common language of politics does not function as privation. This is where our interpretation of Energeia purges the dead matter of politics. Staying the same through work brings a necessary redundancy to politics, according to which, whatever changes, changes into that into which it changes; ‘this means the possibility of transitions of power and the possibility of overcoming the thick and decrepit cluster of potestas, but it basically means that contingency and immanence are at the heart of power’19. Privation as the root of the legitimate exercise of a technique explodes when we define politics through no particular virtue. Life (and only life) is the very condition of politics. When politics is not understood as a qualified exercise but as solely being under the condition of being a common it leads us directly to work that is not qualified, but incessantly and relentlessly producing the conditions of life on its own (living labour), as the integration of difference through immanent difference.

Energeia is its own immanent condition of perfection, with no further qualification or obedience to any transcendent model. And, what would this immanent condition of perfection be like? An open unending infinity, an intensive constitution of being where every difference is its means and scope of truth.

Ricardo Sanín-Restrepo is Visiting Professor Instituto Autónomo Tecnológico de México (ITAM)

Show 19 footnotes

  1. Sanín-Restrepo, Ricardo. 2016. Decolonizing Democracy: Power in a Solid State. London: Rowman & Littlefield International
  2. Ibid. p. 84
  3. Ibid. p. 89
  4. Aristotle. Metaphysics. 2015. 1046a. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ hopper/.
  5. Sanín-Restrepo, 2016 Ibid. p.89
  6. Agamben´s model is Melville´s Bartleby ‘as he is able but does not want’. (Agamben, Giorgio. 2015. A Potência do pensamento (ensaios e conferencias). Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora.)
  7. Sanín-Restrepo 2016, Ibid. p. 96
  8. Ibid. p. 98.
  9. Ibid. p. 98
  10. Sachs, Joe. 2005. ‘Aristotle: Motion and Its Place in Nature’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-mot/#H2.
  11. Sanín-Restrepo, Ibid. p.99
  12. Ibid. p. 99
  13. Aristotle, Ibid. 1049a
  14. Sanín-Restrepo, 2016, Ibid. 100
  15. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2015. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus. tufts.edu/hopper/.
  16. Ibid. p. 103
  17.   Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  18. Sanín-Restrepo, Ricardo (Ed). 2018. Decrypting Power. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, p. 18.
  19. Sanín-Restrepo, 2016, p. 108.

Ricardo Sanín Restrepo

Ricardo Sanín is a pro­fessor of legal and polit­ical theory and teaches in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions across Latin America. Visiting profesor at Universidad Central de Quito, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad de Mexico (UACM), Universidad San Luis de Potosí (Mexico) PUC Rio de Janeiro, Universidade Federal de Ceará-Brasil. Guest Lecturer at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), University of California in Berkeley, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad de Valencia-Spain, Universidade Federal de Goias-Brasil. 

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