For human beings the ability to live (living) and the exercise of that ability (living well) are distinct, though intimately interdependent. Each time, in the singular for every human being experience of such an exercise, more possibilities (or, as I shall call them, potentialities) are experienced than can be actualised. We need to, in a relative sense, choose one potentiality each time. Yet this entails risks, given that as a species we are aware that we can choose and could have chosen differently than what is or was actualised. We become aware of this risk in a myriad of ways, frivolous ones as well as more serious, prospectively as well as retrospectively, ranging from our theoretical contemplation as to “what could have been”, to permanent psychosomatic conditions and consequences. Human beings are, furthermore, both within the potentiality-actuality of living, in its relative sensible immediacy and complexity, and at the same time in a state of contemplative indeterminacy: our contemplation or intellect is not predetermined by the immediacy of being alive or living (at least not in an absolute or complete way; and certainly not in a fully expressible or sensed way). Otherwise we would be entirely (pre)determined by our “mere” living and we would have nothing to contemplate as well as nothing “to do”.
The power (in other words, the potency, ability) of the intellect needs to be first “used” by a human being, and thus be mediated (i.e. made one’s “own”); which means that our power of the intellect/contemplation (as far as it is expressed in linguistic being) is not only affected by our own living in its immediacy (non-linguistic being), but gives it a certain form (including the very sense or illusion of “choice” in itself). It is precisely because “our” living is not immediately our “own” from the start (i.e. it is subject to an appropriation), that living well remains a question for us (an objectively unanswerable question in any ultimate sense) to the point that “living well” can be defined as the general horizon of possibilities. Hence, human beings experience an inevitable scission between the so-called immediacy of the “real” and its contemplative appropriation/mediation in linguistic expression (the subject that says “I”). Contemplation is the name for the battleground of this scission and the place where it can be indicated as such. How this scission is to be thought is, then, the essential question of philosophy and ethics, and I would like to argue here that this is so for architecture also when it reflects on what “it can do” (its power to plan and order spatial configurations). Architectural theory is, thus, neither neutral and apolitical, nor a mere side-kick to architectural practice.
This scission, understood as a dual state of being, was observed early on by the Ancient Greeks and it had a number of significant consequences in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and ethics. Philosophically it marks (as it is marked by) the western understanding of power and being (and of human being understood as an existent being-in-power, a being that has a simultaneous existence as a power, i.e. as its other potentialities). An understanding that emerges most clearly, as we shall see below, through Aristotle’s attempt to decipher the science of natural and sensible being. There is, then, I propose a thin, almost invisible, critical line of distinction that has defined the western paradigm of what it means to be and, by extension, to act (which, interestingly, was originally signified for the Greeks by the verb to use–chrēsis, chrēsthai–a power), to create or transform (to become), based on an understanding of being as power (a potentiality and an actuality of being).
Aristotle’s philosophy established the distinction between being as potentiality (dynamis) and being as actualization (energheia, entelecheia) (Metaphysics 1009a32–36). This is based on the (ontological) observation that sensible beings are beings of both actuality and potentiality. It should be noted that Aristotle’s whole science (epistēmē) of physics depended on this and the key question was: how is one to explain the potentiality or capacity of something in its coming-to-be? And this was a key question since potentiality when not actualized was thought by some philosophers of his time in terms of actuality only. Potentiality or power was seen as exhausted in reality/realization, and was considered as a “weakness” that could never be shown in its existence as a potency. Realization/reality once “complete,” as the Ancients would have it, had no need to think about potentiality in itself, since it stabilised being in actuality.
This may have led also to the unintended consequence of the way in which reality became conceived in modernity as a modality of deterministic functionalism and efficiency, and ultimately as an identity or representation. In addition, it should be noted that already in Aristotle the understandable philosophical separation (for reasons of logical analysis) of the “having” of a power (i.e. the “mere possession” of a potency or power) and its actual exercise or enactment (actualisation), may be at the heart of the unintended (and ultimately misleading) separation in modernity between theory and praxis (or thought and reality, form and materiality) that to this day troubles the very sense of what contemplation or theory is in its practice (including that of architectural theory as an activity and discipline). Instead, thinking of action/creation as a conjunction between potentiality and actuality means that both potentiality and actuality are actual, existent and that between them is not a relation of withdrawal or weakness, but a constitutive passion of a reality/realization that is always risky, contingent and imperfect. To use an image: to the illusionary identity and solidity of the actual, the real (and the supposed normative disjunction of “really” acting, “purposefully” deciding, designing as “producing the true” etc.) potentiality is the air flow that runs through an actuality that is jagged with exits and entries, porous, incomplete, rendering all claims to mastery, totality, authority and so forth as only temporary figurations of authenticity. The potency of creativity, neither an excess, a weakness or lack in being, is rendered, in part, visible in and to our conscious and unconscious contemplation as the most elusive constitutive element of our being’s existence: the existence of potency, our existence in potency. Rendering the actuality of potency, masterless, useable and spatially compositional is, it seems to me, architecture’s contribution towards living-well.
My core aim in engaging with dynamis or power in the dual sense of (being in) potentiality and (being in) actuality, is to show that potential being participates in being (and does not lag behind reality or actuality as the negated other of the created). Which means that potential being, as one of the ways in which we and things exist, is paradoxically existent along and within the actualised. Which is another way of saying, more technically, that non-being participates in being, the unthought participates in thought, the undesigned participates in the designed. How to think of this dual sense of being remains a core task of theorising, of “contemplating contemplation” and potentiating it. Participation marks the very nature of contemplation as an experiential activity when understood against the conventional distinction between matter and form (as that of an outside and an inside).1 In addition, it marks the need of pedagogical contemplation to be made more widely available to architecture students and architects to engage with the lines of architectural potency affirmatively and not confine and stifle its practices to its discipline’s and the built environment’s current present as the only motor of reality.
It could be said that a disciplined architecture due to its own “functional differentiation” (Niklas Luhmann) in modernity enacts its “end” through its self-extraction from a wider existential potency—its general (by definition political) power of creativity—when it replaces this experience of loss by procuring an efficient, but much more limited in descriptive and normative scope, self-validation for itself as a techne, as an end in itself. This is, perhaps, even more depressing an experience today when architecture, for the most part, thinks of itself as near-exclusively serving and sustaining the axis of production (reactualisation) and commodification (depotentialization). What better starting point, then, in order to rethink this paradigm of power (of architectural thinking and practice), other than by re-examining its foundational formulation as dynamis and energheia in Aristotle (Metaphysics 1069b19–20). A paradoxical definition of potentiality (dynamis), given that a potentiality, by definition, is, to put it in a modern sense, a “possibility” that exists; though a potentiality is not to be confused with a mere possibility. Such a definition of power draws within it a line (and hence a relation) between what could be called an existent (and not merely possible or probable) being of potentialization. Historically, the power of existence itself (or the real) has been subject to an understandable line of scission between “what is actual” and “what is potential” given that logically what is potential is always thought in relation to an actuality. Yet, what may be a logical primacy of actuality became in long modernity an ontological motor of truth or reality production on the basis of the state of things, including of political, economic and architectural truth production (of the status quo and its preservation), which led to a misunderstanding of potentiality as something that once actualized belongs to a reproducible past, defutured.
However, in the original formulation in Aristotle, read here in a wider sense than he intended, potentiality as a philosophical and ethical problem is precisely that of a potentiality which is co-existent with, relative to but not reducible or exhaustible in actuality—and this becomes the kernel of his Metaphysics. Aristotle, in other words, discovers that there is an internal consistency and continuity to the coming to be of a power despite its paradoxical nature, a power that is both passive and active, resistant and creative.
But how are we to think of such a paradoxical existence of non-being (or of the unthought), that has, through a politically conscious misunderstanding, crippled the public politics of creativity, including, that of architecture? A creativity that wills to produce a near permanently exploitative built environment, estranging buildings and their users from their potency. In contrast, a potency or power, that as we will see below with Aristotle, is as much a dynamis (potentiality) as an adynamia (impotentiality). Power conceived as dynamis/adynamia, in Aristotle is genuinely dynamic, in that one can always locate an available way to not act at all, or to act differently. And it seems that the obsession with solidified, reproducible action, the exhaustion of human as well as objective potency has estranged us first from this necessarily risky dynamism of potency. In this light, Giorgio Agamben distressingly asks: how are we to avoid being impoverished by our “estrangement from impotentiality”2? I would like to propose that we can attempt to do that, as a preliminary theoretical step, by exploring what Aristotle thought of potency/power, in order to understand the dynamic existence of/in creation.
Martin Heidegger in The Letter on Humanism writes: “We must free ourselves from the technical interpretation of thinking. The beginnings of that interpretation reach back to Plato and Aristotle. They take thinking itself to be a techne, a process of reflection in service to doing and making” (1977: p.194). This may be to an extent true and while it may have been much later utilized to condemn the technai as mere instrumentalizations, my interest lies in what may be one of the key elements to this “technical” or instrumentalized conception of (architectural) thinking. And I have in mind the predominance of an anxious ideology of mastery in action. That is, a propensity to define being in terms of doing/working in an illusionary over-determined actualization. To such an extent, even, that it forms a certain “activism” of a kind which separates, it is my contention, whether consciously or not, the present from the future (defuturing it). The paradigm of mastery-in-action in western thought, in claiming to enact the future, cancels, in the name of a delusional demiurgic mastery, the plurivocity of the very nature of the future.
It should be made clear from the start, with reference to Aristotle’s conception of potency (dynamis), that the expression “existent futures” does not project a nihilistic sense of unlimited futurity, or some naively open realm of infinite possibility. A necessity derives, naturally, from the matter or nature of an object “that can be produced” or a subject “that can be constructed”, with a given material conditionality which is never unlimited, or infinitely open to any forms and uses. But here I am thinking, to be more precise, of potentiality (power, dynamis) with particular regard not to the potency of things (or matter itself), but that of thought/theory (including architectural thought); a contemplative potency different in nature to that of an object or material. In other words, the phrase “existent futures” does not invite us to merely say “another world or building is/was possible” (leading us to a spectrum of retrospective or projective decisionism), but rather to locate in the “actual present”, the here and now, the other side of a dual motor of being that enables thinking and imagining another world or building in the potency of an act, with and despite of its current actualisation. It is to recondition the future as the enabling concept of the present (“what is potential can become actual”) and, at the same time, to sustain (by design to the extent possible) the continuous existence of the future in the actualization of a present (“what is present can become potentialized anew, challenged, critiqued, reimagined and so forth”).3
It is with this in mind that I turn attention to Aristotle’s attempt to, among else, think in a consistent manner the problem of power (dynamis, potency) in the sense of the way in which natural materials, as well as, more crucially for my purposes, sensible beings and thought itself (“reason”, “learned capacities”) can undergo change or transformation (or what in classical philosophy was called the relation between non-being and being). If Aristotle noticed, in some sense in contrast to his predecessors, that the use of, for example, a material can lead to a range of objects which are present (existent) in potentiality prior to their actualization (as well as paradoxically afterwards by the fact that potency is still related to its being “fulfilled”), his wider innovative contribution was as to how to think of such a transformation, and its formative potency, in ontological terms, or in the terms of the being of existent futures.
Lisa Landrum in her nicely conceived review outline of the ancient Greek references to architects and architecture in Plato and Aristotle, titled “Before Architecture: Archai, Architects and Architectonics in Plato and Aristotle”4, offers a reminder of two crucial points when contemplating, what I would call, architecture’s “tightrope line of thought” between the technical and the political, as this issue invites us to reflect upon. With reference to Aristotle’s Politics, Landrum aptly quotes Aristotle stating in book 7: “[the architects (tous architektonas), through their thinking (tais dianoiais), are] most truly said to act” (1325b20–24).5 Here I would like to add emphasis to the reference to architectural thinking as an act; and to underline the importance of this thinking, in Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, of action (as energheia/entelecheia and also in the sense of praxis in his Ethics and Politics). This is to remind, being a mere observer who happens to have taught in an architecture school, of the lines that quite literally draw and redraw, set and cancel potency and actualisation, between architecting as a public transformative social good, and architecting as a private capitalist development of, essentially, the marketization of actuality and its defuturing of the future. Especially at a time, and for a long time now, when the market and “the good” have merged and are almost indecipherable. Yet, I wish to argue, ultimately, that the power or potency inherent in thinking/theorising architecture is intimately associated with what in old-fashioned philosophical language was called virtue, in the sense that appreciating and nurturing the co-existence in action of sustainable and plurivocal futures is the sustenance of the good. I will return to this in the final section.
Landrum ends her piece with reference to Christopher Long, quoting him as follows: “The good is […] at once elusive and alluring. Its transformative political power comes not to those who pretend to possess it but rather only to those who recognize that the source of its power lies in the way it requires each new generation to take it up as a question and work it out in living dialogue together.”6 What I take from this, apart from a certain serendipity of thought, is the need to take up “power” as a question and think its sense for a coming generation, or more precisely to think of the nature and “source” of power (which I will explore below more precisely with reference to its Aristotelian names, energheia and dynamis) as generative and transformative. There lies I think a key, obvious as it may be, to the fact that architecture’s thought, its potency, is to remain open, metamorphic and questionable, rather than a quest for an absolute architectural end, essence or truth. Indeed, as Landrum notes, Plato and Aristotle, in their time, consistently present architects as “exemplary civic and intellectual leaders acting in awareness of their own (and others’) limits, with knowledge of the most appropriate archē, and with a view to the most comprehensive aims—the common good.” And Landrum concludes: “This discloses an alternative and more accurate etymology of architects: not as master-builders but as leaders and makers of beginnings (archai)”7.
What would it mean for architects and architectural thought and training to be concerned with archai? Reflecting on the good of architectural thought may be today nearly impossible as it would require too many parameters to be reconsidered and compromised, but in this theoretical attempt I would like to focus on only one. That is the presuppositional nature (or condition) of the “will to act”, which so characterises a certain dominant (whether progressive or conservative) attitude among architects (as sovereign masters) and architectural training itself. My aim, in fact, is more modest than it may seem: to offer a brief and speculative glimpse from the ancient past, that could in turn trigger a glimpse of a future, a genealogical segment, if you like, of the future present via a future past.
Before I turn to this in the next section let me make some final preliminary clarifications. It should be noted at the outset that by concentrating today on the word power (in its Aristotelian senses of energheia and dynamis) I, by no means, suggest that we can ignore historical specificity (and thus vast historical distance), or the contemporary internal density and difference of the disciplines of philosophy and architecture. Rather, it is to offer a demonstration of a paradigmatic (in both senses of the word: a singular-exemplar key to a wider picture) line of thought, that is defined by the notion of action and a certain drive towards activity; and by extension a state of actuality/actualization (as the end/telos or fulfilment of a potency). A line of thought as its power that remains elusive, because it has been in one sense forgotten in the metamorphic density of the historical material that envelops it through many centuries and its many different, though related, metamorphoses: from Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics to its rediscovery in medieval times by theologians and canonist lawyers who use elements of it in order to define the power of the omnipotent God, the power of the Pope and the Sovereign King, to the sense in which Nation-States are defined as sovereign potencies (each time formalized between an absolute capacity and an ordinary action or actualization).8 I will not be able to delve into these transformations here in any detail, but they are really quite remarkable and they point to a consequence that is crucial: the line of thinking that defines power as between a potency and an actualisation has become an illusory epistemological register of the real, a formalizing filter for a static reality-production and of what it means to act as such. Instead, “power” is to be posed as a problem to the point that it undetermines not only what it means to act but what it means to transform.
A problem, to use Manfredo Tafuri’s (1987) terms in a different though perhaps related context, or, rather a project of domination, the domination of reality. This is because activity (and the interminable drive to activity), in general, and the architectural impetus towards action/transformation (of the same) are themselves now an institution; and there seems to be an almost mystical (or blind) belief in action, that intimately ties progressive and avant-garde “movements” to the most basic capitalist intensities of the neoliberal techniques of governance and commodification as generative of every action and actualization. To turn this nauseating tension into some better “productive mechanism” without challenging the very motorization of action (as the actualization of the power of the “real”) towards the production of a universal monocular reality, to follow once more Tafuri’s reflections on the “historical project”, would defeat the very purpose of indicating the intangible aspects of the problem in the conception of the power to act (i.e. that the western paradigm of power conceives of two modes of being: potentiality and not just activity; but a negative understanding of their dynamic relation has dominated their thinking). To reopen the question of the “source of power” in this model between potentiality and actuality means also to aid the multiplication of the rediscovery, a continuous rediscovery, in architectural training, reflection and practice of beginnings (archai), cuts and bruises, methods and accidents, consistency and complexity, towards the very potency of architectural goods as virtues. The point, however, is not to recover some long-lost potency or ever more subversive praxis of that potency; for that would repeat the very way in which potentiality is misconceived as a negative reservoir that remains to be realised and exhausted in the act.
Primarily my aim is to indicate a “problem” in the now institutionalised paradigm of action and actualisation with a primary economic function in productivity and work, and a secondary, technical function spanning across politics, architecture and language itself, in the name of the prioritization of action and the “actualization of” cognition through a stifling causality, a pseudo-finality and a turning of necessity into an inegalitarian, neo-imperial and self-defeating modality of reality domination, to justify the eclipse of the contingent futures that are the natural source of our being.9 This is based on the observation of current paradigms of architectural theory and practice that are predicated on the instrumentality of action, the assumptions and status of mastery, a self-satisfied reality and a linear, supposedly absolving, resolution of potential into act. To do this means inhabiting modernity’s ruins, where equally the anxiety of guilt (for things not actualised or over-actualised) and the innocence of origins or archetypes (that remain to be actualised or be eternally postponed) no longer resuscitate anything other than their nostalgic dream of a conservative or radical fullness. Power in its physical and metaphysical sense (the density of the coexistent potential in the reality of every act), is not the power with a capital “P” that one would use to describe its institutional or systemic incarnations, but rather the formulation (and in that sense the forming) manner or modality of the idea of a coming to be. Which implies two things. One fears, contra Tafuri at least in tonality, that a genealogy or a criticism (to use his term) that “constantly” puts “itself into crisis by putting into crisis the real”10 risks reinvigorating the primary motor of crisis-production, which is the paradigm of power as actualization or “enaction” (an exhaustion of reality itself through its revolutionary suspension); what I would call, with Tafuri this time, the inclination towards “a cure that exorcizes its own power as a sickness”.
The other implication is the common and rightly criticized in the modern history of philosophy (and not only) western binarism that dualizes what is called reality between a representation and a self-identity; only in order to serve the identity’s imposition as a discursive formation that forms discourse, and as the norm of verification of itself and any other possible discourse. This is perhaps the paradigmatic western line between polar opposites, a line that wishes to render itself “always-already” invisible when it determines what can be visible. Yet, the “line” or “relation” between potentiality and actuality (dynamis and entelecheia), that defines the ontology of power in Aristotle is not so much a binarism. It becomes such later and most emphatically so in its metamorphosis by Christian theologians and medieval jurists, all the way to, as Agamben has shown, becoming the paradigm of sovereign law in the nation-state (and by definition the kernel of the state of exception as the permanent source of power and the rule of normalcy/actuality, even after the nation-state’s power dissipated).
The incentive to return to Aristotle is, therefore, that when potentiality and actuality (or power) are thought as a binarism and their relation is depicted in the image of a tensional in-between space of experimentation and reconstitutions (of the same), futurity is replaced by fantasy. Power (dynamis-energheia), in Aristotle, is inherently incomplete, without a predetermined totality. Aristotle, in his own way, conceived the “reality” of sensible beings and things as continuous intensive contact between powers rather than determined by a binary process between origin and end). We are used to thinking what is potential in the past tense, once its actualisation gives it form. We conventionally think of something being in the state of becoming or potentiality until it “comes and completes” itself, forming an identity with itself, self-justifying and securing its all-present power. Much of this is owed to a reading of Aristotle, but it is a one-sided reading. The other side to this is that when nothing is left incomplete, what Aristotle locates in the presencing of the actual is an irreducible dimension of potentiality that is also existent. In my wider reading, which I cannot develop here in any detail, such an irreducible immersion of the actual or “the here and now” in potentiality or futurity is Aristotle’s paradoxically empiricist answer to Plato’s chōra as the imaginary “receptacle mother of the universe”.
The inventiveness of architectural thinking and design appears to be often exhausted not only by the necessary limitations of a professional marketized context and the primarily profit-driven attainability of whatever may be potential, but also by the ontological model of the understanding of action or actualisation as a process that leads a potential project to its actualization. Perhaps the most prized aim of good architecture is duration, but not just in the sense of longevity of use and enjoyment (as well as efficiency and sustainability). What of the design of an inherent futurity, a potency that is not exhausted in a fully predetermined organization of a spatial figuration, but one that is enabling and configured by its uses in its present-futures? While lines are drawn and cut across the present and the future past of the potency of whatever is actualised and designed, such a line—with this reading of Aristotle—remains dynamic, akin to what Jacques Derrida once called “spacing temporization”.11 This is what Aristotle helps us observe as the paradoxical existence of potentiality and I would add, with architecture in mind, the existence of spatial potentiality, the use and inhabitancy (oikeiōsis) of existent-futures as architecture’s key virtue.
Aristotle has been thought as the inventor of the logic of identity and self-containment, but what is self-contained is a self or a spatial reality without a static actuality, or at least with another equally existent modality of being to that of actuality. Potentiality is, in this sense, not a question of degree of actualization that is differentiated and exhausted; and which could be later perhaps improved but ever emanating from the identity of the original same. Rather, potentiality is the abstraction to the second degree of the real as the being of the future in the very moment of presence or actuality (after all, action or actuality in Aristotle’s invented term entelecheia means “being within its telos”, being within, becoming towards an end-line or limit). Potentiality exists in the duration of a limit that continuously contracts (sometimes it dreams, sometimes it stutters, to remember Deleuze). Our imagination is accustomed to prefer to think of the future on the basis of the presented-past, when in fact the future contracts within the very expression or coming-to-be of the actual. Potentiality is the name given to the immanent existence of the future in the present. It is a form of paraconsistency in being.
The domination of actuality, each time a version of reality, and of actualization as a type of process that exhausts or crushes the potential into the real, is not only a discursive strategy that dominates as a norm of verification (a motor of reality production), it is also a figure of epistemologization that determines what a science or discipline is as a whole. Both a figuration, a sketch, that captures the imagination (and gives it an archē-tectural model) and a disfiguration of what is potential (which includes but is not identical to the possible). In other words, there is attractiveness in the prevalent model of actualization (it breeds action-seeking, present-suffused, producers of finality) but also an internal negativity (the future gets cancelled in the name of a present intelligibility), one that renders the particular here and now as a universal neutralization (a safer investment) of the good to come. Such anaesthetics breed a particular aesthetics, the necessity of a disinterested aesthetic judgement on the present-future, such as the one, for instance, that necessitates the search of the good to become an interminable “managerial efficiency or resilience”. This kind of imposed conformity and trained complacency has its root in the epistemologization of a paradigm of thinking, where acting and designing feels confident enough to conceive and delimit itself as phallocratic “present”, at the cost of only perceiving the future through a process between means and ends.
Such a process acquires the nature of a common-sensical necessity, a “there is no alternative” type of disfiguration of reality, that never feels confident enough to have its intelligibility exposed (or what philosophically is called singularity, the peculiar modality of the existence of potentiality-in-actuality, that is neither universal, nor simply particular). Yet this is how an episteme and an experience of knowledge can actually become possible. The historicity of an episteme, including the knowledge that architecture procures, is neither diachrony (some origin that authorises what is good architecture in the present), nor in, one sense, synchrony (a present that is in constant conflict with another present, as with the conflict of the merely possibles—a nihilist, at its core, experience of a civil war of ideas, markets and bodies). Rather, the experience of an episteme lies in between diachrony and synchrony, in a inline crossing of the two, rendering inoperative (to use Agamben’s term) the dichotomy between the past-present and the present-futures. The ontological character of the present, its modality, makes no good sense otherwise, since the so-called present is neither just a material figuration of whatever is produced or actualised each time, nor a merely cognitive (abstract) relation of a cause to an effect, a means to an end, that meets in the present its “end” (in both senses of the word). The present, the here and now, has always been, a synchronic elsewhere.
III. A Para-Ontology of Action
Aristotle’s ontology of power is complex and multi-faceted and my purpose is not to summarize or explain it in any adequate detail. I am going to briefly focus on just one key aspect of it as expounded in Metaphysics, book Theta.12 In book Theta, 3 Aristotle argues against a group of philosophers known as the Megarians (who hold that power exists only in doing or in being done, i.e. in its exercise and actualization) by developing a theory that shows power or potentiality (dynamis-energheia) as existing independently from its exercise or actualization. Potentiality (power) is one way, among others, in which being is (1017a8–1017b7). Power (dynamis-energheia) draws Aristotle’s attention because it is paradoxical: in one sense it has the ontological status of being (in its actualisation) and, at the very same time in one sense, of not-being (in its potency). This potential being is however within being, by the fact that it exists as a power (potentiality). The distinction between potentiality and actuality (the two forms of being of a power) lies within being, not as a mere matter of theoretical contemplation, but as in the very nature (physis) of a (sensible) being. This may seem like a mere logical schematization, but I would like to suggest that drawing on a reading of Aristotle’s innovative formulation we can appreciate something further than that.
To enlarge this sense, and to speak of contemplation, or the being of contemplation, as an existent form of being, we can say similarly that the power of (architectural) thinking exists both in a state of potentiality and in a state of actuality, in a particular experience of contemplation that equates the being of an active and a potential thought while it also renders them distinct. An active thought in its linguistic being and the cut that the statement “I, think …” performs, co-exists with the potency of thinking in its continual coming to be within an (also) non-linguistic body. To appreciate the act of contemplation as experientially existent in a state of continuous potentiality leads perhaps to an appreciation of its own dual status and of its existential knot given its actual yet undetermined ethos (way of being). The co-existence of potency and actuality has the effect of a radical equalization, a certain egalitarianism of existence’s present futures, and this becomes most visible in the open plateau that is thinking as an ethos, the contemplative way of being.
But there is more that we can draw from Aristotle’s theory of power/potentiality. A potential thought is still powerful when its thinking is actually expressed, and what I would define as good thought does nothing else than struggle to “save” that potentiality in its actualised expression. This may also explain how cumbersome the experience of expression and thought is between potency and actuality. This however does not mean that one should existentially privilege one state over the other. Aristotle adds one more layer to this, since in book Theta, 8 he aims to show that potentiality’s existence is never independent of actuality. In fact, potentiality, Aristotle will say, is ontologically dependant on its correlative actuality; which is to say that without actuality, potentiality cannot be. Yet, Aristotle speaks of the primacy of actuality, here, in a particular sense: actuality is primary because it is more proximate to the telos (the actualized state) of a being or thing, than potentiality is; and so it is primary in that sense of proximity to an end, and only.
Focusing or grounding our contemplation on just one side of being (what is potential or what is actual) would miss the point. These two layers comprise on the one hand a “spatial” equality of existence between potentiality and actuality, and on the other a “temporal” primacy of actuality (with regard to the present state of a being or thing). We perceive what is potential from either side, while the line of potency will inevitably experience also the cut of expression or present being. Which is to say that at the state of an actualized thought, being or thing, its potency is not fulfilled in the sense of a dissipation or expenditure, but “saved” in a spectrum of power. Which is another way of saying that our being of contemplation is a second nature within another, and in this sense our second chance at a good life. How are we to think of such a potency that survives action or actualization and why would it matter for architectural thought and theory?
Before we go into some of the detail of this formulation of our being in the dual existence of power as potency and actuality or action, it is worth noting some of the philosophical context to Aristotle’s metaphysical treatment of power by reminding that the volumes titled (posthumously) as Metaphysics literally follow his books called Physics. In Physics, Aristotle seeks to discover the grounding or foundation of reality (that is reality understood as the total body of matter and form). The kernel of his reflection at this point is led to a core characteristic or principle (archē, in the sense of a beginning) of power: what he calls metabolē, kinēsis or change/movement, taking place in differentiated ways in terms of ousia (substance), quality, quantity and place (III.1,200b33–201a16). Reality, for Aristotle, is a totality comprising powers that contact each other and such contact is continuous. Movement (kinēsis) or change/transformation (metabolē) is continuous for beings and generation (genesis, coming-to-be) does not derive at any point from nothing (absolute non-being) or from a deterministic original cause (absolute being). Each metabolē or movement (and hence each contact between dynameis or powers) takes place between dynamis and entelekheia (a potentiality or capacity and an actualisation or fulfilment); or to put it in a more contemporary sense between a future and a present, a potency and an act. While such metabolē is continuous, it is not unlimited, in other words it is never merely indeterminate. To venture a dizzying transhistorical sketch, movement or being, in Aristotle, approximates what will be understood much later by medieval philosophers and theologians as a synchronic contingent being: i.e. being is neither merely potential, nor merely actual but the totality of its potency and its actualised present power.
Let’s take a few steps back and revisit Aristotelian power. Before Aristotle, philosophical reference to dynamis can be, for instance, located in the definition of being (on) by Plato, in the expression: “ouk allo plēn dynamis” (“nothing else but dynamis”; Sophist 247e). In Aristotle, however, we find an innovative theorization of being/power, and the first treatment of the concept is met in Topica D 4.124a31–34 and 5.126a30–b6. Though there are many meanings of dynamis, Aristotle thinks there are ways in which they relate to one another, and this was probably the initial seed for his investigation in Physics. At the heart of this intuition is the fact that there is a meaning of dynamis quite close to the much earlier Homeric use of the term: it is dynamis as an “active power”. For dynamis used in this way, Aristotle gives eventually in his Metaphysics the following definition: “Dynamis means a source (archē) of movement (kinēsis) or change (metabolē), which is in something else or in itself as something else.” (Metaphysics, 5.12). The definition, grounded as it is in the experience of being, leads him to the relation between potency (dynamis) and act (energheia), first, in terms of what distinguishes them. The problem being that a potentiality is a possibility (or a future) that exists. However, unlike mere possibilities which can be considered from a purely formal standpoint as equal among themselves, potentialities present themselves above all as things that exist singularly, but that at the same time, do not exist in the same way in which actual things exist (i.e. potentialities that have been actualized). They are present, yet they do not appear in the form or mode of present things. In what way do potentialities appear or are existent?
What is at stake for Aristotle is the mode of existence of potentiality as not reducible to actuality. This is no minor problem, or discovery, for Aristotle, since this is a core element of his Metaphysics without which he would not be able to encounter a key way in which the experience of being is to be understood. Without an understanding of power/potentiality a core form of reality would go amiss. This becomes even more acute when one considers that being for Aristotle is at stake in every sense of the term “dynasthai” (to be able). If what is actualized appears in our experience as “more real” than what remains potential, this is already an indication of the problem in contemplating the experience of being. When Aristotle notes actuality as prior (or primary) in being to potentiality, he means that actuality is independently of the potentiality as a different mode of being, that is, as intimately connected to a being’s mode of being (as its telos or end). This is why Aristotle says that active power is the core concept of dynamis, its kyrios horos (Metaphysics 5.12, 1020a4). As we said already, this can be easily misunderstood as a privileging of activity or actualized potentials. There are, though, two modes of being and they are both relative because, as it was noted, Aristotle conceives of his ontology as an ontology of powers that are in continuous contact, they come to be in acting, rather than in a linear production line.
In Aristotle, then, the primacy of actuality is a logical strategy, not a normative one. This becomes more evident when he moves by analogy to other types of dynameis (ones that are not dispositions of change, but dispositions for being something). And it is with those particular dynameis that I am concerned here in order to think of the potency of architectural thought. Aristotle writes: “our meaning […] is as that which is building is to that which is capable of building, and the waking to the sleeping, and that which is seeing to that which has its eyes shut but has sight, and that which has been shaped out of the matter to the matter, and that which has been wrought up to the un-wrought. […] some [of these] are as movement to dynamis, and the others as substance to some sort of matter.” (Metaphysics 11.6,1048a35–b9; Ross, 1936). Aristotle’s claim is that, in a way, a substance (a disposition for being something) relates to its matter like a change relates to the respective dynamis. Here, we sense that Aristotle’s theory of dynameis becomes relevant to the very heart of his ontology of being, the hylomorphic composition of substances.
Further to this, Aristotle distinguishes between two types of potentiality: a generic potentiality (e.g. the potentiality of a child to become a painter) which does not interest him specifically, and a particular, existing, potentiality (e.g. the architect who has the potential to design, think and build) which differs from the former type in the obvious sense that the architect does not need to suffer an alteration, but “has” (thanks to a hexis, a “having”) a potentiality to, for instance, build (as well as not built—mē energhein). It is this peculiar having (echein) of a potential dynamis that is enigmatic, as Agamben notes, for the Aristotelian formulation of power/potentiality. Sensible beings are characterized by a dual mode of being in terms of their power of being (potency and act) and their potency’s being is that of an equally existent power to do or to not do something (i.e. it is subject to contemplation).
Agamben has lucidly observed, as we will see in the next section, that it is the nature of the existence of potentiality that forms the “secret kernel” of Aristotle’s (meta)physics of real (existent) being. In the particular discussion in De Anima, which Agamben refers to in order to indicate this, dealing with why there is no sensation of the senses themselves, Aristotle proposes that potentiality is (also) the undergoing of a sterēsis, not in the sense of “a simple privation (i.e. non-Being) but rather as indicating the existence of non-Being, the presence of an absence”.13 To “have a power” means “to have a privation”, not as a mere logical hypostasis of power but as “the mode of existence of this privation.”14 Privation (sterēsis) in Metaphysics book Theta has, in fact, two meanings: a) the “missing” or “failing” of something positive (i.e., the Form, eidos); b) the “substrate” from which the positive something is missing. In fact, this understanding of a steretic experience, a suffering or passion, is central to Aristotle’s understanding of hulē (matter). And matter, in the sense that most concerns us, is hulē noētē (intellectual matter or dynamis) defined as pure dynamis. In Physics (193b19–20), Agamben notes, “privation is like a face, a form (eidos), so that when Aristotle undertakes to conceive of the mode of existence of dynamis in Metaphysics book Theta, he does so precisely in order to “assure the consistency of this ‘form’ or ‘face’”.15 This serves to explain why Aristotle in Metaphysics Theta has to counterpose, in part, his theory of dynameis against an alternative position put forward by a group of philosophers called Megarians.
Aristotle describes their position as follows: “There are some who say, as the Megarians do, that a thing can act only when it is acting, and when it is not acting it cannot act, e.g. that he who is not building cannot build, but only he who is building, when he is building […].” (Metaphysics 11.3,1046a29–32). The Megarians regard the realization of something as both necessary and sufficient for having the power to do this/that. Such an emphasis, however, on the sufficiency of the actualization of something leads, Aristotle argues, to some peculiar conclusions. For example, an architect would not have any designing potential when not designing; and there would be no difference between a non-designing architect and someone who is not an architect at all. In addition, and more crucially, if only what is actualized is perceivable and, thus, exists, then something would only be perceivable when encountered as a matter of fact. Finally, no principle (archē) of change or metabolē could be conceived if all that is encountered is actions and their actualisations.
In other words, power cannot and should not be thought only from the vantage point of actuality (or materiality in the sense of “presence”) as this misses a fundamental way in which being is. Powers exist whether they are realized or not. This duality of being renders architectural thought and design not just a technical matter that is to be acted/executed irrespective of its contemplative potency, but a matter (also) of ethics (i.e. as to whether it should be acted or executed at all or in another way). Unrealized, though existent, dynameis show that action or realization can no longer be regarded as being the necessary or sufficient condition for “having”, or better, being a power. One does not, in other words, think well (architecture) if exclusively from the vantage point of current actualities or actualizations (and their supposed necessary conditions). If that were so, then architects would merely have to do their “duty” according to the dictates of what has been already actualized in the built environment, or whatever the “market forces” demand. The untying of the ideological knot of power as action (ignoring its, to put it in another way, passions), is not to give way instead to a license towards “anything goes” (or equally “nothing goes”), as if one could contain all potentialities in a single perfect actuality or in a state of pure potentiality; nor is it a license to “manage” potentiality in the name of the present state of things and only, i.e. to depoliticize potentialities and actualize only those that are sufficient or necessary to the sustainability of the present.
Let’s outline then some further elements to the theory of power that has quite literally captured the western imagination, before we can respond more adequately to this knot. Aristotle summarizes some key characteristics to power in the sense that concerns us: (a) every power is at the same time the power for the opposite (power is two-sided in its very existence); (b) everything that is capable of being is not necessarily actual; © the condition of actuality is not the action but its power; (d) coming-to-being (genesis) is always out of a relative non-being (potentiality) that is a form of being. This latter point is crucial and this is how Aristotle describes it in another work: “Now for things which are of a nature to come-to-be, the material cause constitutes “the possibility of being and not-being”” (De generatione 2.9, 335a32–33.) Architectural thought is an act that, in this sense, has to be contemplated as constituted in the simultaneous “possibility of being and not-being”. What would that mean for its practice? I will return to this more directly below, but for now let me pose it enigmatically: what if what architecture mainly does is actively thinking and expressing its potency? What if architecture is too often overtaken by the speed and tension of creativity as actualization, that it misses the other equal side of its creative power, the saving of its potency, including a higher form of cessation or rest, a passion or suffering (an impotentiality) in the Aristotelian sense. The actualization of a potency is, in this sense, the relatively more proximate potency in the midst of potentialities which exist (also) as a privation which can be filled, a desire which can be satiated (mē on, not-being) or not.
“Active thinking” may, thus, mean that architectural contemplation is never an exercise in “mere” theory or abstraction understood as the means towards the satisfaction or fulfilment of an actualisation, but is intimately and continuously tied to both conditions necessary to the experience and being of the good. That power in Aristotle is not understood as the experience of a self-identity, or as something that can ever be fully achieved, means that an act of architecture is never complete on its own. A thing may never be what it is not (i.e. a contradiction), yet the observation that a thing can become what it is not (i.e. a contrariety) leads Aristotle to redefine the very nature of what it means to “have” a power as a matter of being and exercise it; placing, hence, human action in the openness of ethical contemplation (not a linearity of living, but the contingent plurivocity of living well). The role of theory, including architectural theory, is in this way also affected. Philosophy (or theory) itself, for Aristotle, concerns this very understanding, that is, philosophy arises out of the desire all human beings have for insight (eidenai), for contemplation, or better perhaps for encountering their potential. Appearances are, characteristically, at stake for human beings in a particular manner. Wonder (which generates as well as errs, planē) does not cease, because it is not a possession to be “had” once and for all, but a nature (physis) to be continuously encountered as it saves its open existence in a potential duration. In other words, when in Metaphysics 11.3 Aristotle formulates actuality he says that “actuality is malista—above all else—movement” (1047a32; Ross 1936), this is to be seen as closely linked to the understanding of energheia (actuality) as a finite or incomplete motion. Energheia can be understood as what Aristotle called “that perfect motion” (not an exhaustion upon its realization, as the Megarians proposed, but as the synchronic contingency of potentiality/dynamis and impotentiality/adynamia).16
Incidentally, for this reason theoretical reflection is not, as some would still have it opposing (neo-)idealisms to (neo-)materialisms and back again, detached from experience or praxis, but its highest expression. A power’s potentiality (which is always an impotentiality also) is immanent in, while distinct from, its action or actualization. Immanence, in this sense, points to a different mode of contemplation. What something is, expressed by questions of “to ti on” are transformed in Aristotle to “dia ti” questions. As Agamben writes: “what is clearly at work here is the exemplary principle of Aristotle’s thought, the principle of archē. This principle consists in reformulating all questions that have the form of “what is it?” as questions that have the form of “through what thing (dia ti) does something belong to something else?”17
On the one hand, the life of contemplation is bound to its present-future. On the other hand, it constantly remains with the source of “movement” that it itself is. It is at this point that one could note the ancient Greek middle voice, which as a verb form denotes a transitive situation, a “going through” or passion, conceptualized as a single entity acting on itself (both active and passive in a sense). Or, to put it in another way, where the transitive and intransitive can no longer be distinguished. In the middle (voice), the architectural capacity to contemplation, in its ever-potential existence in the actual, shows itself in its coming-to-be-realised as the ethical experience of project and design. Architectural thinking cannot be enclosed in the actualised present, since its present is also a state of potency which cannot be predetermined or overdetermined. This places architecture within an inherent challenge but it can also be a blessing in that this does not render contemplation as an all-powerful “presence”, but as exposed to the disclosure of a privation or sterēsis, the passion of what is other than itself in itself, each time, and where a coming architecture encounters its virtual ethos.
IV. Agamben’s Critique of Master-Power
It is with this in mind that Agamben turns to reread Aristotle’s analysis in book Theta of Metaphysics in order to understand the eidos (face) of this privation which at the same time is also the potentiality for presencing, actualising. It is necessary to engage with Agamben’s reading as it is the most inciteful and influential reading of our time, significantly exposing the layers that tie this metaphysics of power to its political and juridical manifestations. Agamben centres his rereading on two key related propositions of Aristotle’s, which we have met this far only by implication. Briefly:
- The privation other to potentiality is impotentiality (adynamia): “All potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same [tou autou kai kata to auto pasa dynamis adynamia]” (1046e25–32).18 This proposition means that in its originary structure potentiality maintains itself in relation to its own privation—and this is the ground of an ethical disposition. To put it more simply, in architectural contemplative activity, as well as in the act of designing, the power to think or design something is always also a power to not do so. This can be thought not only in the sense of reactively deciding to not design or not think in a particular way, but also in the ethical dimension of an act acting by, paradoxically, being able to not do something, taking us away from the phallocratic, among else, obsession with mastery in action.19
- Intimately related to the first, the second proposition states: “What is potential is capable [endechetai] of not being in actuality” (1050b10). This proposition means that the figure of potentiality (power) is not directly indicated in activity and enactment, but in its being (also) the potential to not be (impotentiality); characterized by a fundamental ontological passivity as Agamben puts it: in the sense that potentiality undergoes, “suffers” its own non-being.20 If Aristotle was struck by the observation that potentiality is a different way in which a being exists, from these two propositions taken together Agamben is struck by the question of how, if all potentiality (dynamis) is always-already impotentiality (adynamia), can there be potentiality? What in other words is the actuality of impotentiality (the power to not do)? Is it nihilistic inaction, militant withdrawal, solipsism and self-centred complacency? This is answered by Aristotle, in Agamben’s reading, by a third key proposition:
- “A thing is said to be potential if, when the act of which it is said to be potential is realized, there will be nothing impotential [esti de dynaton touto, hoi ean hyparxei hē energeia ou legetai ekhein tēn dynamēn, ouden estai adynaton]” (Metaphysics 1047a24–26). For Agamben, contrary to the conventional interpretation of this perplexing proposition in the manner of “if there is no impossibility, then there is possibility”,21 the question should be understood as: “what is the potentiality of which, in the moment of actuality, there will be nothing impotential?” The answer is: the potentiality to not-be (adynamia). Or, in a fuller expression: “if a potentiality to not-be originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such. This does not mean that it disappears in actuality; on the contrary it preserves itself as such in actuality.” Agamben adds the consequent formula: “what is truly potential is thus what has exhausted all its impotentiality in bringing it wholly into the act as such.”22 But what does it mean to bring impotentiality wholly into the act as such? Herein lies an ethics and a politics of contemplation in not conceiving of power or potentiality as a reservoir to which one taps when necessary in order to preserve the mastery of one’s authority, act, idea and so forth, but rather as something that is on an equal par with its impotentiality, its inaction, which, radically, means that no power can claim sovereignty or domination over itself or over anything else, but must first be constructed, exposed in its contemplation not as force, but as passion.
Let’s take a step back. Three possible interpretations present themselves to Agamben as to the latter formula, but only one is pertinent. The first maintains for the exhaustion of impotentiality in actuality (and, in this sense, is akin to the Megarian position:hotan energe monon dynasthai—potentiality exists only in act; 1046b30). This is the interpretation that, in one respect at least, is dominant today and is held by those that consider reality as driven by activity (whether progressively or conservatively so); and where the motor of reality is action, an understanding of action which once established or actualized (and usually imposed by some or other form of violence) is self-sustainable (a master) not only as to itself but as to the domination of the longevity of its potency: i.e. it becomes the self-authorizing mastery principle of any further action.
Another possible, and related to the first, interpretation maintains for the exhaustion of impotentiality in actualisation, that does not however terminate potentiality as the Megarians have it, but maintains a two-way passage between actuality and potentiality (a potentiality thought as the effective mode or ground of actuality’s existence). This, for Agamben, bequeaths the West with three intimately related paradigms of power: (a) its paradigm of Sovereign Being in philosophy (that is a Being that founds itself sovereignly as a master, without anything preceding or pre-determining it—superiorem non recognoscens);23 (b) the medieval theological model of the omnipotence of God in monotheism (whose power is grounded in a closed dialectic of mastery between a potentia Dei absoluta, God’s absolute power—what he could do—and a potentia Dei ordinata God’s ordered power—what he does or has done;24 and © the juridico-political paradigm of sovereignty in its modern form as the decision (action) on/of a state of exception (as a reservoir of potentiality).25 Through a long history that cannot be summarized here and which spans from the 13th century to today, this formula of power/potentiality understands potentiality as able to maintain itself in relation to actuality in the form of its suspension, resembling the paradigm of sovereign exceptionality across the regions of theology, law, politics and philosophy.
As Agamben notes, in this manner through the ever-present through its suspension potentiality of a prolonged or permanent state of exception “sovereign power can also, as such, maintain itself indefinitely, without ever passing into actuality.”26 This reverses the supposed exhaustion of potentiality in actuality by enabling the exhaustion of actuality in a state of suspended inactivity in impunity, an activity that effects its pure or absolute potential by being in force without acting, without taking up its responsibility. This is the root of Agamben’s critique of the paradigm of western potentiality/power as one that grounds the absolute powerfulness of power (its potentiality) at the root of the paradigmatic understandings of God’s impotent (absolute) power in a line that connects the Pope’s power, the Emperor’s, the King’s power, and today the power of the free, liberal, sovereign subject who is to freely and continuously master its acts while in a state of absolute impotence (i.e. whereby acting means exclusively to produce, consume, exchange).
In contrast, a third interpretation maintains, in an unconventional rereading of Aristotle, for the “exhaustion” of potentiality in the sense of carrying itself in the act “as such”, so that each act remains not only accountable (and thus not sovereign or pseudo-exceptional, or ever claiming for a totality of its being, whereby its being can be considered “present”), but also saveable, through the preservation of its existent-otherwise potentiality in actuality. This, for Agamben, would not be presupposing a negative relation between potentiality and actuality as in the second interpretation. Instead it would sever such a relation by rendering its first principle as not the primacy of activity and action, but the primacy of contingency (the coherent coexistence of potentiality and actuality). The survival of potentiality does not save actuality’s relation to a potential reservoir of power (to which it can draw power to be “had”, or to which it can turn in order to save itself by suspending itself, as in a juridico-political state of exception), but “gives” potentiality to itself rendering both actuality and potentiality synchronically exposed, contingent and, hence, incapable of absolute mastery.
The genuine formula of potentiality—to pose the enigma anew with Agamben—is not that of the end-means relation between actualisation and potentialization, but that of the potentialization of potentiality as such: the exposition of a passion (pathos, suffering, sterēsis) of appearance (eidos, form), the “intimation of Being without predicate,” potentiality’s own ontology.27 But this is not an easy task at all (it may even be an impossibility, if thought only from the perspective of action/actualisation). Notably, Agamben stresses how before the abyss of the ontological existence of potentiality, the ethical (and juridico-political) traditions “have often sought to avoid the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity”.28 By rendering the “will to act” as the effective (operative) motor of reality production, masterful actualization aims to exhaust whatever other potentiality may be available each time by singling out what is willed as enacted; as well as ensure that what is actual is and must be exclusively necessary (since the will is, ideologically, imagined as “free” to necessitate its existence, its autonomy and self-mastery). Yet power/potentiality, for Agamben, is not will and impotentiality is not necessity: “To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage of actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality […] this is the perpetual illusion of morality.”29 And I would add that it is also the perpetual illusion of the architect as an actor, a master-creator of fundaments, who wills-to-will architectural decisions (literally pro-ductions: cuts of potentiality) in pursuit of the dream of an absolutely actual architecture that erases or limits any ambiguity and inherent “otherness” (on one of the most interesting recent discussions of the search for an absolving politics of architecture, see the positions of Aureli and Spencer).30
Agamben’s ontology of potentiality, much as it owes to Aristotle, goes further (in that it takes away the emphasis on action which comes natural to Aristotle’s time) and is ultimately conceived as an experiment (as denoted in the word “experience”), given that the radical contingency of potentiality/power means that actuality is each time concerned “not [with] the actual existence or inexistence of a thing, but exclusively its potentiality”.31 And in this sense, potentiality in its absolute sense (its reflection on its own potentiality) becomes the principle of an ethical contingency as a para-ontology of power. Ethically, what is necessary is not the occurrence or non-occurrence, the truth or untruth of a particular deed or event, but rather the contingentia absoluta of the no-more-than-not-true (or it will occur no-more-than-not) as a whole, calling into question the irrevocability of the past’s futures, or what Agamben calls past contingents.
Yet, contingentia absoluta, in this sense, concerns past contingents not in order to make the past once more necessary but, rather, “to return it to its potential not to be.”32 To render present futures, means to enable contemplation its power and ethical sense to reflect on its nature as a contingency rather than a mastery. A restitutio in integrum of potentiality33: a decreation (decreazione), as Agamben calls it34 echoing, perhaps, Aristotle’s term of an immobile flight as a dynamis akinisias, a certain de-action; or what Heidegger called “the quiet power of the possible” (die stille Kraft des Möglichen).35 “Decreation” (beautifully thought by Simone Weil from whom Agamben is inspired)36 renders inoperative, first of all, the paradigm of self-grounded, and self-justified sovereign action, and “activates” a potentia inordinata (nonordained power) that is essentially another name for the politics or ethics of inoperativity: rendering mastery inoperative.37
Meanwhile, Agamben’s reflection points, also, to the problem of this “restitution”. For him the problem remains that any restitution can be revisionary in search for its mastery, reactive, full of its own negativity and hardly anything affirmative, active but without much sense or a way of life.38 One must think the existence of potentiality without any relation “to Being in the form of actuality—not even in the extreme form of the potentiality not to be, and of actuality as the fulfilment and manifestation of potentiality—and think the existence of potentiality even without any relation to being in the form of letting potentiality be in the form of the irredeemable contingency of being.”39 For Agamben, one needs to resist deciding between potentiality and impotentiality,40 for that would still be a sovereign decision, a mastery willed into action; one must, instead, seek the manner in which contemplation and action and an experimental empiricism can no longer be distinguished (as he expands on this in The Use of Bodies).
V. The Virtuality of Virtue
That we need to veer away from the dominant paradigm of mastery (across the right and left of its spectrum) in activity (i.e. the activation of a reservoir of power that is to be exclusively “had” imposing the sustainability of the actualization of always-already exhausted potentialities) appears self-evident today in the catastrophic planetary situation in which we find ourselves. The dominant paradigm of action (centred on the mastery of the will) is grounded on nothing but the abstraction of willed-freedom in its full vacuity (whereby freedom is conceived as the power over potentiality, and as the power of the individualized will to act: to produce, to consume and exchange). Is it, then, an accident that hardly anyone—including architects—genuinely loves or desires what they seem to enact with such mastery? Each time, it seems, a mere metaphor of power is enacted though one in great demand (an investment towards a self and a mastered life that leaves no chance to living well for the vast majority of people). In this instance, metaphors, despite of what their name suggests, do not move us to “another better place”. They just postulate yet another place without a subject. Veering away from this paradigm of action (and the false expectations of mastery it relishes) will probably involve a reconceptualization of our social and political ecology of acting, requiring something as challenging as rendering inoperative the will to act out of/a mastery (where, by definition, every act is always an expropriation of another’s will to appropriate).
I would like to emphasize one side of this, the ethical side of such a para-ontology of potentiality where potentiality exists beside (para) actuality. The ethical focus does not derive from an attempt to reverse the ontological priority of actuality. It is understandable why potentiality cannot be thought as separate from actuality, or to put it more generally power cannot be thought outside of the reality it encounters (as its end/telos). Aristotle emphasizes actualized being or existence as the telos of potentiality, not in the sense of an exhaustion or finality, but in the sense of a fulfilment: “for the functioning (ergon) is the end (telos), and the actuality (energheia) the functioning (ergon); and that is why the name “actuality” (energheia) is employed with respect to the functioning (ergon) and points towards the fulfilment (entelechian)” (Metaphysics Theta, 1050a22–24; Makin, 2006). To render this in another manner: if the actuality of something is its end (in the sense of a telos rather than finality), the actuality of a potency is in the activity; and, in this way, the meaning of the very term “actuality” can only be derived from the joint “activity” of the coming-to-be of a potency in actuality, never arriving to the sense of a “complete or total reality”.
It ought to be remembered, however, that for the Greeks and Aristotle in particular, the telos or end is not the achievement of whatever end may be willed. For example, the particular potentiality of contemplating (of reasoning and theory), needs to find its way towards the virtuous telos of contemplating well. This may explain why contemplation as a way of life (ēthos) was revered by the Greeks. This means that contemplation to achieve its end, the contemplation of the good, needs to be fully in use (rather than remain an abstract potential, that is suspended or deformed in a melancholic compromise with an actualized state). This brings us back to our problem, as I hope I have indicated: the dominant paradigm of mastery in action as an appropriation, rather than a use, is not accidental in the western imaginary of power. To critique, however, the dominating paradigm of sovereign appropriative action is not to say that human beings are not the animals that are characterized by the need to act, in the sense of the exercise/use of their non-predetermined capacities or potentialities, or that they live anywhere but in the realm of possibility.
We are the species that when self-conscious and reflective realise that we do not have a destiny or predefined essence/end. The particular kind of “action” (contemplation or theory) that I am pointing to, however, as shown in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle’s, and which differentiates this animal from others, is not language or any other predetermined characteristic, but “reason” in the sense of non-pre-determined thinking or self-reflection: “Of that which has reason, (a) one part has reason in the sense that it may obey reason, (b) the other part has it in the sense that it possesses reason or in the sense that it is thinking” (1098a4–7; Apostle, 1980). While “natural powers”, like sensations, exist as potentialities and are then used or experienced, reason as a power or dynamis is first used (practiced) and potentialized in thinking. This differential line, which marks human beings as much as it is marked by human beings, could be thought as the threshold within which what we can call our ethical kernel of experience takes its very place as a threshold between actuality and potency (and it is this threshold that has been displaced by the dominant paradigm of the will to act in order to leave potency behind). Could it be that acting can be rethought along the lines of common use, rather than the willing of a masterful acting and having? And could it be that this practice of a certain potentiality (in use)41 is what architecture is called to nurture and “save” in the built environment?
In this sense, a “just” architecture, to borrow a familiar phrase in critical spatial studies, does not exist in any other manner than as the common practice of potentiality (it is not a destiny that can be infinitely postponed in the form of a mere hope, or an “outside” that cannot be experienced in the form of another utopia). Common use or practice of it is the only way to attain it. Not attaining it, not practicing it, is the primary goal of the dominant paradigm of action that displaces the act’s potency in the will, and makes of it an abstraction, an expectation that cannot meet its genuine fulfilment, cannot be lived but be displaced in postponement. The displacement of the act in the will of its master is also a displacement of contemplation, but contemplation cannot ultimately be fooled by the experience of the pseudo-sensorial device of the will. The age-old investment in willed or actualised action, in its setup opposition to its exposure in contemplation, does not ultimately work (and it should be noted that energheia has been also translated as work, ergon). It is to a spatial regeneration of the virtue of contemplation as the phenomenal co-existence of potentiality and actuality, that progressive socially-engaged architectural practice could turn anew.
It is now time to note, too, that Aristotle conceived of a power’s dual ontological status (as potential being and actual being; in Physics I) in order to resolve the very aporia of how to think of change or metabolē/transformation in and as being, which I hope now appears more fitting a reference to architectural theory as a spatial practice, than perhaps at the start. The primary consequence of this discovery of Aristotle’s is that it renders change (power/potency) itself a being (i.e. existent, a way of being and a life that can be attained, that is formed and continues to be forming through use, and not as a merely abstract possibility that could be predefined or reserved, fully repressed or partially erased). Architecture can then speak of its contemplation and creations in terms of two forms of equally existent being that are interdependent in the present (and, in this sense, thrown into interminable antagonism of sorts between potentiality and actuality).42 How to think this antagonism is not predetermined and that is the task, if that is the right word, of contemplation or theory in architecture.