Boyan Manchev

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Potentiality, Exploitation and Resistance of Bodies-Subjects. For a Persistent Transformation 1

(In Critique & Humanism, Vol. 40, Sofia, special issue 2012, ed. by Dimitar Vatsov).

Biopolitics and Production of Substance

I will take as a starting point one of the most remarkable definitions of the notion of biopolitics: that expounded by Paolo Virno (2004, pp.82-84) in A Grammar of the Multitude. Here are some of his clear and succinct formulations:

«Labor-power incarnates (literally) a fundamental category of philosophical thought: specifically, the potential, the dynamis [dunamis]. … “Life,” pure and simple bios, acquires a specific importance in as much as it is the tabernacle of dynamis [dunamis], of mere potential.

Capitalists are interested in the life of the worker, in the body of the worker, only for an indirect reason: this life, this body, are what contains the faculty, the potential, the dynamis [dunamis]. … Life lies at the center of politics when the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power. For this reason, and this reason alone, it is legitimate to talk about “bio-politics.” … [B]io-politics is merely an effect, a reverberation, or, in fact, one articulation of that primary fact – both historical and philosophical – which consists of the commerce of potential as potential.»

This thesis points us directly to the conceptual operation I will outline here: namely, the attempt to return, through and beyond Marx and Spinoza, to the ontological matrix of the biopolitical thesis – a thesis that has not been sufficiently clarified yet, but whose conceptual and political stakes are undoubtedly exceptional – that is, Aristotle’s thesis of potentiality and, in particular, the opposition between dunamis and energeia. (I hardly need to point out that the Aristotelian horizon is directly implied in Virno by the very use of the term dunamis.) Such a conceptual ‘return’ can open up a rare conceptual possibility before us: not the possibility to reveal a profound, hidden ‘conceptual truth’, but to mobilize the reduced, or even suppressed, potential of the very concept of potentiality. More specifically, the possibility to propose a possible and, if I may say so, affirmative transformative continuation of Virno’s thesis.

Thesis 1.

Capitalist production makes exploitation possible by producing, before any other product, (the fiction of) substance.

What is substance?

Substance is a modal operation of absorbing potentiality – ‘inferior substance’, according to Aristotle’s thesis – through the necessity of the act. The type of capitalist substance is nothing other than substance of the type: the equivalence and reversibility of a steady flow. In other words, here producing substance means reducing potentiality to equivalence, to exchangeability, that is to say, to a resource that can be manipulated, exploited and controlled. It follows, then, that what we have here is a quasi-substance, a ‘false’ substance par excellence, insofar as it is nurtured and produced by an activity that has no ‘substantial’ necessity other than the absorption of potentiality: the accumulation of potentiality, that is to say, the economy of potentiality. Substance is nothing other than the fiction of substance: substance is the appropriation of potentiality through the quasi-substantial necessity of accumulation and exchange.

Substance is nothing other than the fiction of substance as producibility, that is to say, as a condition of possibility of production. Producibility is not given: it is that which is the first subject of production. Exploitation is possible in the process of production precisely because producibility is producible.

Thesis 2.

Producibility is producible.

The capitalist mode of production produces labour-power while reducing potentiality to producibility, to ‘substance’. In fact, the word ‘substance’ 2 is to be found also in Marx (1865), although Marx uses it in the Hegelian sense:

«Capital … does not just produce capital, it produces a growing mass of workers, the material which alone enables it to function as additional capital. … Labour produces its conditions of production as capital, and capital produces labour as the means of its realisation as capital, as wage labour 3.

Consequently, the appropriation of potentiality (of life) is the first gesture of a totalizing reduction: including that of the production of substance. For in contrast to potentiality, substance alone can be possessed or dominated. Thus, the production of substance is the necessary condition for every exploitation; it is the only way for dominating potentiality, that is to say, the potentiality for transformation. In other words, potentiality has to be reduced to substance in the form of a total and homogeneous potentiality before it can be mastered. Substance-as-producibility is nothing other than the reduction of the singular, and hence irreducible, non-exchangeable, potentialities of bodies-subjects through the production of an abstract producibility that circumscribes them in an attempt to govern them.

Post-Fordist capitalism (for conceptual reasons which I cannot go into here, I prefer to call it perverse or performative capitalism) 4 radicalizes the basic operation of capitalism, the operation of producing substance – of producing producibility – in an attempt to capture and make potentiality itself producible: to produce not producibility, but potentiality itself as such, to put it in the vein of Virno. But we must first ask ourselves the following question: what does ‘pure potentiality’ or ‘mere potential’ mean in a situation of performative capitalism? Isn’t it rather a reduction of potentiality to a false performative potentiality: the fiction of the pure energeia of the total performance of Things?

What Is Potentiality? A Return to Aristotle

Movement has been a stumbling-block for metaphysical thought since its birth, or at least since the time the Eleatics denied the reality of movement. One of the most original contemporary interpreters of Aristotle, Gilles Châtelet (2000), has even advanced the radical hypothesis that Aristotle invented metaphysics solely to compensate for the deficiencies in the thought of being that were created by the problem of movement. In fact, potentiality (capacity, dunamis) in Aristotle cannot be understood without the idea of movement: it appears as no more or less than a conceptual solution to this crucial problem. Let us recall the first definition of movement in Metaphysics: ‘We call a capacity (1) a source of movement or change, which is in another thing or in the same thing qua other’ (Aristotle, 1984a, Book V, 12, 1019a15). Let us also recall the famous definition of movement or motion in Physics: ‘the fulfilment of what is potentially, as such, is motion’ (Aristotle, 1984c, Book III, 1, 201a10-11; cf. ‘I call the actuality of the potential as such, movement’ [Aristotle, 1984a, Book XI, 9, 1065b16]). In On the Soul, Aristotle (1984b) goes as far as theoretically supposing the identity between, or rather the ‘coincidence’ of potentiality and act: ‘To begin with let us speak as if there were no difference between being moved or affected, and being active, for movement is a kind of activity – an imperfect kind, as has elsewhere been explained’ (Aristotle, 1984b, Book II, 5, 417a18). This definition ends with a thesis that brings it close to the best-known Aristotelian definition of movement, the one from Metaphysics, which also insists on the imperfection or incompletion of movement. But if potentiality is defined as ‘a capacity [to be] a source of movement or change’, then it would be only logical to represent movement – the act-in-potentiality – as an act that has the capacity to be a source of movement or change. Thus, the activity of movement would be nothing other than a capacity to be acted upon. But exposition to an alterity that sets in motion, to an other-that-shakes, sets in motion and changes something or someone, is already an act. Thus, from a logical point of view it seems that we are locked in a vicious circle of arguments and, moreover, without being able to return to the thesis of the Megarians who negated potentiality, and hence movement and becoming in general: movement appears as a result that includes its own subject. How are we to overcome this conceptual obstacle?

In ‘The Enchantment of the Virtual’, Châtelet (2000, p.19) comments as follows:

«Potential is what, in motion, allows the knotting together of an ‘already’ and a ‘not yet’; it gives some reserve to the act, it is what ensures that act does not exhaust motion … Potential – the particular patience attached to each moving body – is exactly the thing that evades the clutches of an abstraction that seized mobility from, or granted mobility to, beings. … The motor and the moved are not two inert beings opposite one another, transmitting a quality; the moved is not the only one to change: the motor possesses the form, but can only act in the presence of the moved. The moved is awakened to mobility[.]»

This interpretation has the merit of expanding Aristotle’s thesis through the idea of the two-way character of the process of actualization, which has crucial consequences for the conception of movement. Asserting a double dynamism means above all refusing to satisfy the expectations of the metaphysical concept of substance. Potentiality and actuality ought to be thought as tense moments, as intensities, not as substances or stable states that are linked only mechanically through the third, purely intermediary and therefore secondary, element of movement. On the contrary, movement is immanent in them. In other words, thinking of potentiality independently from the metaphysical concept of substance means placing ourselves at the very centre of the actualizing operation, of the transformation of the potentiality-of-becoming into potentiality-in-actu. Performing such an operation means no more or less than ‘radicalizing’ Aristotle through the Spinozan requirement of immanence.

What Is Resistance?

The crucial question in a situation of constitutive transformation such as ours – of absorption not only of the potentialities of life but also of the potentiality for resistance and transformation of political subjects, and hence exploitation of potentiality as such – is none other than the following: if potentiality is captured, is resistance always possible? Let us try to come close to a possible answer to this question while striving to avoid the purely self-interested and opportunistic usages, as well as the often hasty deconstructions, of the concept of resistance.

Thus, Aristotle tried to conceive of the possibility that possibility, dunamis, may be manifested as counter-potentiality (here I follow the definition and analysis of Gicheva-Gocheva [1998, pp.74-77], who speaks of ‘counter-possibility’). In other words, Aristotle was the first to introduce the notion of counter-potentiality, which we may presume anticipates that which we identify by the name ‘resistance’. In Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguishes four meanings of the category ‘potentiality’ or ‘capacity’ (dunamis) 5, where the fourth one is of particular importance to us. It concerns the most underestimated moment in Aristotle’s definition of potentiality – namely, its functioning as counter-potentiality, as an intrinsic resistance that prevents things from developing in an undesirable direction, from decline and degeneration, and guarantees their movement towards the better (Aristotle, 1984a, 1019a; 1046a). This term does not have a specific translation in Latin, unlike the other three aspects, translated respectively as potentia, possibilitas, and potestas.

This is a capital point in Aristotle’s thought which seems to have remained underestimated or even obscure, especially as regards its explosive potential for radical political thought. Aristotle postulates resistance – resistance against actualization, resistibility – as an intrinsic quality of potentiality. It is a ‘demoniac’ force, insofar as it is opposed to the prime motor, ‘God’ (or the sovereign subject), this pure actuality, actus purus, without a residue of potentiality. Thus, it seems absolutely necessary for Aristotle: without resistance there can be no potentiality; without potentiality there can be no actualization. The ontology of potentiality, then, is impossible without thinking of resistance; thinking of resistance is impossible without thinking of the event-metamorphosis. Thus, a return to Aristotle can undoubtedly point us towards a possible approximation to the stakes of the ontologies of potentiality and those of resistance while ensuring ontological space for Gilles Deleuze’s paradoxical and long-discussed proposition: ‘Resistance is primary’ (‘La résistance est première’).

Thus, resistance is affirmed as a dynamic category, that is to say, as a category defining an active potentiality, or even: potentiality in action. But then not only resistance is an act that does not exhaust potentiality; it is an act-potentiality: it is the act of potentiality itself. Resistance is the energeia of dunamis, but without ergon, that is to say, organum. Resistance is, then, dis-organization.

Resistance Against Performative Capitalism

In this way, through a transformative rereading of dunamis, the notion that determines the conceptual matrix of the notion of biopolitics, we may find a real possibility to continue and mobilize, in a transformative way, the debate around the notion of biopolitics, a debate that is undoubtedly crucial for our (philosophical) present day.

It is clear: the theoretical questions raised here are formulated according to the critical and urgent requirement of the present. The present is witnessing a radical transformation of the modes of production, exchange and power, which is also bringing about a transformation of the modes of subjectification: the commodification of labour-power itself, that is to say, the absorption of the potentiality of life, the basic operation of biopolitics. As Maurizio Lazzarato (2004, p.114) says in Les révolutions du capitalisme, money has become ‘the possible as such’.

From now on the potentiality of life will appear in a quasi-substantial, inorganic form. What is the fate of bodies in this transformed situation: of bodies as a dynamic immanent in subjects, as a site of the potentiality of life? Is biopolitics being transformed into trans-biopolitics, considering that bios itself seems to have been exceeded in this transformation?

In fact, performative capitalism is a brand new form of production of producibility. From this point of view, it transforms, in its own way, one of the main traits of modern body politics, namely, the politics of the potentiality or power of the body, whose formulation would be the one ascribed to Maine de Biran: bodies can do everything (le corps peut tout). Body politics as an unlimited positive potentiality. The possibilities for technical experimentation with the potentiality of the body, which radicalizes the biopolitical intuitions of modernity through new media technologies and hyper-technologies, seem infinite: let us think, beyond the now banal heroism of the working body standardized in industrial production, about the financial, creative and ‘immaterial’ performances of the new agents of capital, about the media spectacles of transhuman bodies, about the cyborg-bodies whose slogan may well be, ‘there are no limits to the performance of the body’. Thus, the politics of perverse plasticity ‘liberates’ the potentiality of the body by seemingly offering it (unlimited) potentiality for modification. But it treats bodies as subjects (in the passive sense of the word) of multiple typified and codified transformations – the body is modifiable and therefore free for the sole purpose of reproducing a matric form. Performative capitalism de-substantializes this matric form by representing it as the empty site of an ‘unspoken form’ that feeds the perverse cycle of the market. The perverse politics of plasticity moulds the vectorial techniques of the becoming of the body understood as an available and malleable plastic substance of the forms of life.

Thus, it seems that the liberating ex-corporation of the body, its resistant disorganization, is itself absorbed in the quasi-opening up of the inorganic world, in the so-called Open of a radical modifiability, of a prostheticization that affects the very conditions of the living (I am thinking about biotechnologies, about the interventions in the genome, and so on – one of the symptomatic practices of the new biocapitalism). How can we resist or, more precisely, persist in this totalizing flow, in this biopolitical and techno-aesthetic fluidity; how can we resist the absorption of the transformability of life without eliminating the possibility for the emergence of the event (of the) subject? How could subjects resist the appropriation of their original transformability?

I dare to claim that the first possible resistance consists in the suspension of this ‘opening up’. The resistance against the perverse techniques of appropriating transformability would consist in the ‘revelation’ of transformation as an insurmountable and irrevocable condition. And then the first phase of resistance would be a movement which demonstrates that transformability is anything but the fluidity and ‘permeability’, the unlimited speed of the commodified forms of life; nor is it the infinite reversibility of substance which performative capitalism endlessly extols. On the contrary, the potentiality for transformation implies an intrinsic resistance of the bodies-subjects (let us say, resistibility) that was known already to Aristotle and that is inseparable from the definition of dunamis. And whereas the inorganic is appropriated by perverse capitalism, the subject-body resists by disorganizing the latter. It follows, then, that disorganization is resistance.

Disorganization of Life or Tekhno-Aisthetics 6

If it is possible to speak of the place of bodies-subjects of political resistance, then it would not be from the perspective of bodies inscribed within the regime of political representation and economic performance but, conversely, from the perspective of a conception of the political as a movement that ‘ex-scribes’ the body, as an immanent resistance against every appropriation, against every inscription: the most precise word for this ex-scription, this ex-sistence, this ex-corporation of the body is disorganization. The disorganization of life is life exposed qua resistance.

It follows, then, that the dis-organizing resistance is the force of metamorphosis: the dynamic com-position of the singularity-events. The metamorphosis or freedom of the body, the dis-enclosure of potentiality is, prima facie paradoxically, a resistance against the performative fluidity and effacement of form, against the double movement of revulsion-fascination of formless matter: on the one hand, of the libidinal energy captured by the cycle of synthetic production, and on the other, of primitive substance (that of ‘traditional values’ and identity obsessions), of the (pseudo-)ontological resource. Thus, ultimately the crucial question that arises is not the question about the other forms of life and their control, production and government, it is the question about the force or, more precisely, about the potentiality for transformation that traverses those forms. Which is the force that compels bodies-subjects and the networks in which they operate to transform?

Maybe the other, more adequate, name of this force of metamorphosis is precisely resistance. As an immanent moment of potentiality, resistance is definitely primary. It is primary as an operation of singularization, that is to say, as invention-production of singularity or of singular forms of life. The resistance of bodies-subjects operates with the tekhnai of singularization in the void of the common as with ‘pure’ forces. The body appears in this void not as a conglomeration of signs or as a substantial organic potentiality, an organic or machinic homogeneous unity; on the contrary, it is always caught up in the movement of dis-organization. From this point of view, we may understand dis-organization as an immanent movement of the body that exceeds the opposition between organic and inorganic.

Disorganization is in fact the other name of what I call tekhno-aisthetics. The tekhnai (I freely translate the Greek word tekhné as ‘know-how’, even as ‘mode of action’) are modes of subjectification: the channels of subjective becomings. Let us take the example of clothes, this ‘proto-prosthesis’. Clothes have always been a constitutive mode of becoming a subject: in fact, the piece of cloth is transformed into an article of clothing only qua a subjective prosthesis. Every prosthesis corresponds both to concrete tekhnai, that is to say, particular cultural practices that develop historically, and to singular, often unnameable, tekhnai. These tekhnai, in turn, are always engaged in material processes and sensory intensities; they participate as an immanent force in the becoming-sensory of the sensory. We ought to speak, then, both of aisthetic tekhnai and of tekhno-aisthetic processes as immanent in the potentiality of the subject. The subject-body becomes a subject through the complex operation of (dis-)organizing these tekhnai, that is to say, through the singularization-operation through which the space of the common is re-composed. Thus, the tense core of the construction of the potentiality of the common is immanent in the movement of the subject-body as a becoming-multiplicity of singularities, as their com-position.

We may conclude that it is impossible to study biocapitalist transformation without taking into account the transformation of the modes of subjectification, which are always material, that is to say, tekhno-aisthetic (and not just ‘cognitive’, ‘linguistic’ or ‘semiotic’). Biopolitics means above all a process of production (and, respectively, of absorption) of the modes and tekhnai of subjectification. Today the crucial question of the political subject is the tekhno-aisthetic question.

The task before us today is, as always, disorganized experimentation with the potentiality of the body, the potentiality that does not come from a particular function or an exchangeable commodity: a transformative counter-operation of the standardized modes of production of subjectivity, that is to say, of codification and ‘commodification’ of the body, of perception, of reflection and of emotion in the politico-economic circuit of global perverse capitalism which tries to reduce the horizon of life to the overexploited space of the globe. Resistance of the subject means inventing manifest and singular forms of life which do away with the typified – commodified, performed, perverted – forms of life; the manifestation of the forms of life qua potentiality is the manifestation of transformability. If we paraphrase the famous last sentence of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin (1968, p.242), 7 now it is no longer a matter of bio-aestheticizing politics, but of (re-)politicizing (bio-)aisthetics or, rather, following its immanent political rhythm. An aisthetic battle in defence of the unimaginable subjects so as to outline a possible future.

Persistence: Resisting in Metamorphosis

Let us conclude: to the extent that the potentiality of the subject is a potentiality of the multiple modes of becoming which are always tekhno-aisthetic, there is never a ‘pure potentiality’ or ‘mere potential’ of a ‘pure and simple bios’, as Virno puts it, of the life of the subject.

Thesis 3.

The potentiality of life a potentiality of the subject-body is always a plastic potentiality. This is the double bind of potentiality. It is this plasticity, this modifiability that makes producibility possible. It, alone, enables production, and hence exploitation, as Virno points out. But it also makes resistance possible. To the extent that potentiality always contains an immanent moment of resistance, the subject-body can never be completely dominated. It exceeds every totality: this is the immanent excess of life, the excess of finitude. The biopolitical hold on bodies-subjects can never be total, it is merely a totalizing process engaged in a battle for the appropriation of the biopolitical and tekhno-aisthetic fields, for the fields where the modes of subjectification emerge.

Thesis 4.

Potentiality is always modal. The struggle for potentiality is a struggle that is already immanent and therefore irreducible. That is exactly why the potentiality of the struggle and of freedom are irreducible.

Thesis 5.

Freedom means the possibility both to change and to persist.

Thesis 6.

The subject-body is the agent of the resistance that is immanent in potentiality: of evental-metamorphic persistence. The subject is the agent of resistance. The subject is a mode – the subject is of the order of the modal.

But the transformation through which the political subject-body becomes a subject must be a transversal transformation. The transversality of this transformation indicates clearly that it exceeds both vertical pre-determination (that is to say, the messianic risk, the risk of a ‘negative revolution’, to use Artemy Magun’s term [2009], that is pre-determined by the onto-theological structure of traditional sovereignty) and horizontal pre-determination (that is to say, the risk of an opportunistic plasticity of the subject in the era of governance). From this point of view, the Guattarian concept of transversality comes close to the concepts of persistence and of transformation of the transformation that guide my conceptual proposal. Similarly to them, the notion of transversality meets the requirement for a disruptive transformation of the performative transformation, a transformation that terminates the possibility of reducing potentialities to the horizontal flow of (reversible) exchanges and to the vertical systems of equivalences.

Thus, the subject is the name of the moment of passage – the moment of resistance, and hence the moment of persistence: the co-incidence of the event and change. That is also the reason why the political subject, the event-metamorphosis of bodies-subjects may also be called multitude. The Spinozan definition of multitude as a plurality that persists as such would also be the exemplary definition of subject. I will add: a plurality that persists in metamorphosis qua metamorphosis. In this sense, the subject is the duration of the event or the agent of metamorphosis: on the one hand, it is a metamorphic continuum, permanent becoming; on the other, it is a disruptive force – an event (of justice: insurrection).

Every singular affirmation is a just act; every justice is disruptive. In this way, the conception of persistence – and of the subject as a persistent event – allows the political aporia of the subject, the aporia of resistance and of its affirmative action. The conception of persistence aporetically posits (com-poses) the disruptive force of the justice-event – this disruptive universality and persistence-continuity of the struggle.

So, let us persist. Let us affirm the persistence of the forms of life through transformation, let us affirm the metamorphosis of political subjects against the quasi-substantial fluidity of the new totalizing powers, let us reopen and re-mobilize the transformative potentiality of political praxis, our purpose being not to re-posit the requirement to transform the world but to transform its transformation. We cannot persist in the event of the body-subject unless we confront it at the height of its own requirement: the requirement of a permanent revolution of metamorphosis which is not a quasi-messianic interruption but an anarchic immanence – a transformative immanence that persists, making (its) way ever farther into the void of the krisis, of the unimaginable of a justice without a common measure, or in a word, of freedom.

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