The Struggle for Incapacity…


Published in Framework: The Finnish Art Review (Issue 11)

When Aristotle introduced aether as a fifth element to Empedocles’ four Classical elements of fire, air, earth, and water, he set forth a trajectory of thought that broke away from mere ‘earthly’ concerns of matter, into the unknown world of the surrounding space. As the quintessential element that fills the once vacant space of the entire universe, the declaration of aether, set forth not only the emergent study of physics, but a philosophical and aesthetical drive to come to grips with that invisible, insensible ‘stuff’ that engulfs us – both celestially and corporeally. As an inter-disciplinary notion, Aristotle’s aether is the naming and calling out of an ‘active’ context from which matter, or celestial bodies emerge, highlighting the background condition from which material states may arise. Millennia later, Aristotle’s maxim that nature abhors a vacuum indeed rings true; in the quantum world of the infinitesimally small where in a vacuum state ‘zero point energy’ or ‘vacuum energy’ is always present in any system – even a non-material one. A field of energy is perpetually there, no matter how weak, but energy that nonetheless carries with it an inherent potential for material emergence (1). It is not my intention to delve into a historiographical narrative of the scientific evolution of the ‘void’ via a physical account from Aristotle to Casimir, but rather to examine the character of the void, as the conceptual existence of potential unto itself. Aristotle would have been the first to acknowledge a gap between the ‘knowledge’ world of scientific fact and our sensible experience of said world, and it is within this sensible terrain that this text shall plot its course.

Desertification and Singularity

Since we most certainly can never attain an actual experience of a vacuum, by any sort of scientific measure – just what is it we imagine when we sense a conceptual void, and why do we often possess intense drives to fill it up? Like the pilot who loses her horizon line, the experience of the conceptual vacuum is without coordinates of orientation; without the longitudes and latitudes of structure, which proffer the certainty, calculability and rationale of position. Creatively speaking, writers and artists know this feeling of disorientation all to well, confronted daily with the angst of the blank page or the proverbial virgin canvas. Where does one start, with which gesture, or image-thought fragment shall the emptiness be shattered and a structure of sorts sketched out? But, like vacuum-energy, the writer’s illusory blank page is never a tabula rasa and the painters canvas, never virgin, as Gilles Deleuze writes: “...the page or the canvas are already covered over with pre-existing, pre-established clichés”, which must be scraped away to find a singular space of possibility. (2)” We may perceive a space without an architecture within which to re-act, yet there is an imaginary scaffolding of historical presuppositions that pre-exist any gesture of ‘filling-up’. Such presuppositions, as Deleuze states, must be scraped away or negotiated, in order for a novel sensibility to be articulated, what he has referred to as a desert state – both a precarious and uninhibited landscape. The process of ‘desertification’ is thus, the first uncertain gesture by way of which an unconstrained space of possibility unfolds itself. The ‘singularity‘ of such a ‘possible‘ space, in Deleuze’s world, is still, however, not fully empty, but rather represents a point, or state of minimal energy (3). Blank-ness, as such, can never be fully achieved, but rather, must first exist as momentum from which a creative act manifests itself as an impulse towards a mirage of emptiness.

The existence of presuppositions, and the impossibility of absolute ‘blank-ness’ intrinsic to the field of the empty, repositions the horror of the vacui towards a horror of the virtual – insofar as there is no actual vacui to speak of. The horror of virtuality, is rather related to the palpability of the immaterial assumptions, concepts and clichés as real forces that are not actualized into a material form – the horror of potentiality. The angst of potentiality is more in accordance with the psychological condition that qualifies the ‘horror’ of the ‘vacui’, which is a two-fold one. Cenophobia refers both to a pathological fear of void or open spaces and also as a fear of new things and ideas. Embodied within the phobia itself, is a conceptual coupling between that which is open and that which is new – a bridge between emptiness and novelty, a space where things can happen.

Incapable Faculties

The verb can (potere) is crucial to the understanding of the experience of potentiality, as was so poignantly written in Giorgio Agamben’s essay On Potentiality. Agamben describes the verb ‘can’, not as referring to a directed course of action but as a verb which marks out something vastly more arduous: “For everyone a moment comes in which she or he must utter this ‘I can,’ which does not refer to any certainty or specific capacity but is nevertheless, absolutely demanding. 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. (4)” Agamben proceeds to qualify the originary problem of potentiality in Western thought, as pertaining to that of the question faculty. What does it mean to have the faculty of speech, of vision – which only implies that something “is or is not “in one’s power” (5), thereby locating it within the “domain of potentiality”. This ‘is or is not’ essence of potentiality points to the complex nature of its existence, namely that it is “…not simply non-Being, simple privation, but rather the existence of non-Being, the presence of an absence; and this is what we call a faculty or power. (6)” Potentiality, or what Agamben calls the existence of potentiality (the present non-Being), becomes just as much about the potential to act (to pass into actuality) as about the potential not to act (not to pass into actuality). It is in the relation of potential to impotential where the existence of potentiality is constituted, where one is capable of one’s own incapacity.

Agamben grounds his intricate description of the existence of potentiality in far less abstract terms calling on the example of boredom as the horribly mundane experience of the “potentiality not-to-act” (7). As a terrifyingly paralyzing state, boredom is the encounter and dwelling within ‘impotent’ time. Boredom makes apparent a sensation of time which should or could be filled with purposeful meaning, yet which painstakingly passes as a vacuous blip in the fullness of our ‘capable’ lives. It is the sensation par excellence of unactualized time, a veritable “want without a desire” (8), an idle impetus towards something that remains an obscurity. As Karl Rosenkranz described: “… if the emptiness of a view becomes so great that we begin to pay attention to time as time, we notice the lack of content of pure time – and this feeling is boredom. (9)” Seeing as substantial empty space has largely been conquered; filled up with architecture, artefacts and competing ideological structures, the contemporary condition is charged with an inverse plight: no longer an imaginary vacuum space to fear, but rather a coping with an over-fullness of space. The saturation of structures and abundance of objects, redirects the horror of a spatial vacuum, to that of the temporal vacuum, where cenophobic tendencies are aimed at the filling-up of temporality itself.

The Hospitality of Lack

But thought, in its essence, is pure potentiality; in other words, it is also the potentiality not to think, and, as such, as possible or material intellect, Aristotle compares it to a writing tablet on which nothing is written. (10) ”

The horror of the virtual, or potentiality is thus, the ongoing encounter with ones own lack, one’s privation of faculty, in the face of a temporal expanse. It is that uncanny, impotential twin, the foreign and ostensibly imaginary figure that is often neglected in favour of an unceasing capacity to-act, endless actualization, endless production. How are we to engage in meaningful dialogue with our intrinsic foreign double? How can we engage the existence of potentiality in it’s Janus faced embodiment, the double faced Roman deity of both beginnings and endings? A mode of being “two-in-one” is the state described by Hannah Arendt when offering a reflection on solitude. Solitude, for Arendt, is not the condition of loneliness, isolation or boredom often associated with the term, but rather a being together with oneself, a silent “dialogue of myself with myself” (11). Thinking is the corresponding activity of this dialogic-solitude, which Aristotle even went so far as to declare it as proof of a specifically human quality (12). The non-thinking being is painted as not human (what the ancient Greeks called barbarian), it cannot relate outside itself, for thinking always involves a displacement of one’s own position, a division of the self. A thinking subject, a human subject, a subject that can negotiate its powerful incapacity, who can, in the words of Bartleby the Scrivener, “prefer not to“, exist in potentiality, for they actively contemplate the relation between their capacity to-act and their incapacity not-to-act. By engaging the capacity of incapacity in dialogic-thought, potentiality is not something that ‘grinds-to-a-halt’ when actualized (as in the case with a generic understanding of potentiality, when we say that a “child has the potential to know (13)” or grow tall, for once the child is tall, there is no more potentiality for growth), it is a form of potentiality that ‘gives itself to itself‘, that ‘preserves itself (14)’ in actuality and perpetuates its very existence.

The hospitality with which one must welcome one’s incapacity is, above all, an interruption of the capable self. The foreign self, the impotential self, operates as an involuntary guest who takes up permanent residence, and to whom an open door must be extended for potentiality to exist. In unconditional hospitality, that is a hospitality with no invitation, with no condition to adapt to the rules of the host, the guest/host dynamic finds itself in an inverse power arrangement than that found in conditional hospitality, where the host dictates order and holds court. Through this hierarchical inversion, where the guest becomes a host and a host becomes a guest, a type of conceptual violence emerges, in that we only come to enter our own selves from outside: “… the master of the house is at home, but nonetheless he comes to enter his home through the guest-who comes from outside. The master thus enters from the inside as if he came from the outside. He enters his home thanks to the visitor, by the grace of the visitor (15)”. With the unconditional hosting of our incapacity, which interrupts our capacity to-act, we arrive at the existence of potentiality, a frightening relation wherein the capable ‘host-self’ generously abnegates authority to the incapable ‘guest-self’. In the wilful renouncing of authority on the part of the ‘host-self’, the possibility looms, of course, in foregoing its singular autonomy. What opens up, however, with the unconditional hosting of our impotential guest, is a forging of a co-autonomous potentiality, a dialogic autonomy, a veritable ‘selves’-rule principle.

Freedom and Impotent Death

The terrifying picture of the existence of potentiality emerges when illustrated through the notion of unconditional hospitality, where one is always ‘at home’ with an uninvited guest, a guest who threatens our very modes of autonomous acting-out through it’s sheer presence as a non-actor. The host / guest relational struggle composes the very root (and arguable, angst) of freedom, where: “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, is to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation.(16)” If the faculty of death is the ultimate potentiality of humans, that is, the capacity to take one’s life in a suicidal act; a complicated picture of potentiality arises when we speak of suicide as an absolute freedom to decide upon existence itself. In his lectures on Hegel, Alexandre Kojève reflects on the faculty of death as but an ‘appearance of freedom‘ (17). In an ‘actualized’ suicide, potentiality absolutely disappears, since one is left without existence and thus no relationship to one’s incapacity towards suicidal actualization. Encountering the existence of potentiality, rather, necessitates an act of impotentiality, as can be read in the trilogy of ‘suicidal’ poems by Thomas Heise, wherein he writes and rewrites his own obituary:


As one in a series of three obituary poems, Heise actualizes his faculty of death through the potential of language located in poetry. The author and the subject of the text go by the same name, but are rendered as conjoined twins by the two-fold nature of potentiality – the author’s incapacity towards death and the subject’s actualized death. In the process of ‘poetic’ actualization uttered by Heise, the existence of potentiality survives the actualization process, it folds upon itself in a looping interplay between potential and impotential, marking out the suffering of the presence of non-Being. Absolute freedom, as such, is not the power to draw close to one’s biological existence, but rather to exist in potentiality – the risky and dangerous apprehension of non-Being in the unknowable squall of uncertainty’s breath.

Expressions like ‘absolute freedom’, often conjure up notions that are inherently ‘good’ – that point in the ‘right’ direction on a moral compass. When freedom is conceived through the scaffold of potentiality, however, morality is completely unbiased and undirected and has equally the capacity for good as for evil. The ethics of potentiality are only effective precisely because there is no clear-cut moral certainty, as Agamben points out, there are no mere tasks that must be fulfilled in the enactment of human existence (19). It is within this bifurcated capacity of moral ambiguity that an ethics of potentiality and thus, freedom for one’s own incapacity must be launched. The horror of the virtual – of potentiality, becomes entangled with the horror of freedom itself, where an ethical dance with one’s own incapable doppelganger can be played out; the choreography of which is uncertain, and the steps, to be provisionally improvised…*

*In a text devoted to a reflection on potentiality it seems only apt to end without the finitude and definitiveness of the period (.), but rather to use the grammatical device that epitomizes potentiality itself: the ellipsis (20). The device that both closes and leaves open, that suspends and upholds potentiality, whilst not fading away in its written actualization…


(1) Rafelski, Johann & Mueller, Berndt (1985) “The Structured Vacuum: Thinking About Nothing”. Verlag Harri Deutsch.
(2) Deleuze, Gilles qtd. In Rajchman, John (2000) The Deleuze Connections. MIT Press. (p. 126)
(3) DeLanda, Manuel (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Contiuum (p. 15-16)
(4) Agamben, Giorgio (1999). “On Potentiality” in Potentialities, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, Stanford University Press. P.177-184
(5) IBID
(6) IBID
(7) IBID
(8) Pessoa, Fernando qtd in Svendson, Lars (2005) A Philosophy of Boredom. Reaktion Books. (p.19)
(9) Rosenkranz, Karl qtd in Svendson, Lars (2005) A Philosophy of Boredom. Reaktion Books. (p.94)
(10) Agamben, Giorgio (trans. Hardt, Michael) (1993). The Coming Community. University of Minnesota Press. (p.36)
(11) Arendt, Hannah (2003). Responsibility and Judgement. Random House Press. (p. 98)
(12) IBID (p. 92)
(13) Agamben, Giorgio (1999). “On Potentiality” in Potentialities, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, Stanford University Press. P.177-184
(14) IBID
(15) Derrida, Jacques (2000). Of Hospitality. Stanford University Press. (125)
(16) Agamben, Giorgio (1999). “On Potentiality” in Potentialities, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, Stanford University Press. P.177-184
(17) Kojève, Alexandre (1980). Introduction To The Reading Of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. (Ed) Bloom, Allan; trans. Nichols, James H. Cornell University Press (p. 248)
(18) Heise, Thomas (2006) ‘Obituary [Translated]’ in Horror Vacui. Sarabande Books.
(19) Agamben, Giorgio (trans. Hardt, Michael) (1993). The Coming Community. University of Minnesota Press. p. 43
(20) Agamben, Giorgio (1999). “Absolute Immanence” in Potentialities, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, Stanford University Press. P.220-239.

Published in Framework: The Finnish Art Review (Issue 11)