Pt. 5

Rachel Whiteread, “Ghost,” 1990, National Gallery of Art.
Rachel Whiteread, “Ghost,” 1990, plaster on steel frame, 105 7/8 x 139 15/16 x 125" (269 x 355.5 x 317.5 cm), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A system is defined by its operational closure. A structure is defined by its functional parameters. A process is in touch with a great outside. It is defined by its openness to that great outside: by how it dips into and captures the tendential potentials stirring there.  
— Brian Massumi, The Principle of Unrest: Activist Philosophy in the Expanded Field[1]

A sure way to effectively limit the productive dynamism of potential is to cordon energy off into supposedly discrete, closed systems. Unfortunately, most readers (and some writers) view the poem as such a system. The reification of product ropes up and quantifies potential in the money shot of presence, ultimately limiting the surplus energy on tap: in other words, what you see is what there is. This is true of all finite, discontinuous objectivities, including the anthropomorphic-machine and its production of both pleasures and shame, including the production of ossified subject configurations of all types, the nature of which can only truly be defined after the subject has concretized into its own marketable ingress (that is, once the subject is stilled as superject).

One way to think about the conservation of potential energy is to use Giorgio Agamben’s model in which genuine human potential is ultimately defined as the potential not to. For Agamben, after Aristotle in Book Theta of the Metaphysics, “to be potential means: to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity. Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential. They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being.”[2] Ultimately, Agamben’s interpretation of Aristotle leads to a singularly Bartelbian philosophy of the “I would prefer not to” variety, which, when coupled with Agamben’s reading of Paul in The Time that Remains, culminates in the radically passive concept of the hōs mē, or the “as not”: as Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans, “but this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be as not having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up.” According to Agamben, “The Pauline hōs mē seems to be a special type of tensor, for it does not push a concept’s semantic field toward that of another concept. Instead, it sets it against itself in the form of the as not.”[3] While the poem is certainly in very real proximity to its own nonbeing (in more ways than one), this perspective on radical passivity calls for a saving up of potential by withholding its force, steering clear of any and all actualization, which means ultimately turning one’s back on the open. The idea is that, because the poem avoids entelechy completely, there is always surplus meaning in the wings. The poem ultimately has no telos — it never completely gives itself — even once it appears in its “published” form. After it’s been read, masticated, digested — after the critics have spilt ink or ignored the poem completely — even after the poem ultimately takes the form of refuse in the trash bin of history — its meaning is never truly exhausted, especially when reconstellated in new and heterogenous milleus. 

Thomas Carl Wall calls Agamben’s form of passivity, “passivity in the radical sense, before it is simply opposed to activity.” It opts out of binary configurations because it “is passive with regard to itself, and thus it submits to itself as though it were an exterior power. Hence, radical passivity conceals, or harbors in itself, or communicates with, a potentia; it is always outside itself and is its own other.”[4] While the poem harbors potential by remaining in contact with its own store of surplus meaning — in other words, its “immanent outside”— this view of passive potential is dangerous, as it can lead to the kind of nihilistic “accelerationist” philosophy that denudes active participation in world making (and, subsequently, world breaking). The idea is to let the markets swallow themselves by pushing their logic to the brink, which implies that praxis is a waste of both time and energy, ultimately suggesting that we ought to simply avoid engagement in the first place: in other words, to conserve one’s energy means to allow systems of power to exhaust and ultimately destroy themselves regardless of what we make or do. Brian Massumi comes to a similar conclusion in a recent interview:

An attitude that sometimes comes with perspectives related to accelerationism is that since capitalism is all about mobilization, any move we make is just feeding its logic. A related position sometimes arises from a reading of Giorgio Agamben’s thesis that the greatest power is the power not-to, since to-do is to collapse the wave packet of potential into a limited expression of it. This can lead to the conclusion that the most powerful action is non-action. This has led in some quarters to a critique of activism that dovetails with certain attitudes that could be reinforced by accelerationism.[5]

My goal here is not to suggest that poem is capable of destroying the market single-handedly (though part of me still holds out hope), nor do I suggest that this is necessarily the poem’s work (or, at least, every poem’s work). That said, the poem is not the passive vehicle readers have mocked for overly-sentimental pathos sans praxis. The poem is a tool to help us disengage from toxic market logic — to cut ties with the corpse bride — and it can do so by adopting a posture of inoperativity, disengaging from the logic of capital altogether by refusing to adopt operational or systemic closure in order to attain a level of legibility or digestibility. By disrupting fungibility, the poem can become a commons for readers, a usufruct in-common to be used and reused without exhausting its essential, if ultimately invisible, force.

Inoperativity can certainly be a useful way to think about poetry, value, and, crucially, the maintenance of both value and force, but I would like to think about the poem’s ability to maintain potential energy in a more actively pragmatic mode. One way to do this is to think about the poem and its potential in relation to the distinction Massumi draws between systems and processes:


Across their systemic difference [and here we should think about the systemic difference between readers, writers, poems and worlds], they are mutually included in the same, two-faced movement of becoming. The movement of double becoming is a processual coupling between two systems. The processual coupling belongs to neither system per se, but enters as formative force into the becoming of both. It constitutes their immanent outside. Process is the immanent outside of the in-between of systems. Since it is unbounded by any given system or set of systems, that immanent outside overspills systematicity as such. Considered in itself, this in-between is a wide-open. It is the expanded field of where systems’ becoming may go, beyond where and what they are now. It is the fielding of potential. Process is by nature in excess over system. […] The excess that must be reclaimed and revalued for the postcapitalist future must be recognized as processual.[6]

For our purposes, let’s elucidate the fielding of surplus potential in relation to our friend Lucky Pierre. The poem finds itself wedged between two complex operational systems: writer (who is always already the poem’s first reader) and reader (who co-composes the poem’s meaning as writer). The triad of writer-poem-reader is also bookended by world(s), brushing against the writer during composition and co-becoming with the audience while reading. While each discrete system in this process can be imagined as closed operational configurations (the writer as the subject of genius; the poem as a concretized, sculptural assemblage; the reader as passive receptacle for the poem and its “wisdom”; the world as a fixed, elemental backdrop on which the poem unfolds, etc.), none of this is really true. Not really really. These “systems” are actually open, complex processes both in and for themselves. As superject, the subject-configurations “writer” and “reader” could be understood as operational systems, sure, but on a micro-affective level, both configurations only concresce for others: they are always already in a process of transition, cobecoming with each other, poem and world. The poem’s potential is a product imbricating these processes to locate potential surplus energy between and within their folds, inspiring further, deeper transitions while avoiding reified concrescence, even for a moment. The poem’s fundamental task is to suss out surplus potential from other supposedly closed operational systems, to the point that even destroying world(s) (or else other necrotic subject-configurations) can only be understood from the perspective of fostering new movement and garnering new potential surplus energy. Contra Bataille, Massumi continues, “the question of excess is only secondarily that of ‘expenditure’ as connected to destruction. It more fundamentally pertains to potential, which concerns destruction only to the extent to which it positively fosters becoming.”[7]  

Oscillating resonance between systems is where true surplus potential lies in wait to “spring forth” (as Holderlin has it) before forms reify and stabilize enough to be drained of energy by capitalist vampirism (those using the world as using it up). It’s not that we can refuse stability, but that we need access to an immanent outside, which in the case of the poem includes writer/reader/world — intimate access to other stabilized “systems.” And that means controlling the intensity of our relations: having access to the field of potential constellated processually. This might be what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe refers to when he discusses poetry as a kind of crossing through danger. He writes, 

I propose to call what [the poem] translates “experience,” provided that we both understand the word in its strict sense — the Latin ex-periri, a crossing through danger — and especially that we avoid associating it with what is “lived,” the stuff of anecdotes. […] I say “experience” because what the poem “springs forth” from here — the memory of bedazzlement, which is also the pure dizziness of memory — is precisely that which did not take place, did not happen or occur during the singular event that the poem relates to without relating […] What the poem indicates and shows, what it moves toward, is its source. […] It says, then, or tries to say, the “springing forth” of the poem in its possibility, that is, in its “enigma.”[8

Lacoue-Labarthe calls this crossing through danger “in-occurrence,” which is “what wrenches the event from its singularity, so that at the height of singularity, singularity itself vanishes and saying suddenly appears — the poem is possible. Singbarer Rest: a singable remainder, as Celan says elsewhere”[9]. In order for a “singable remainder” to exist, writer and reader need to enter the poem “in-occurence,” tapping each other’s potential energy through the poem’s processual immanent outside.

1. Brian Massumi, The Principle of Unrest: Activist Philosophy in the Expanded Field (London, UK: Open Humanities Press, 2017), 28.

2. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 182.

3. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 24.

4. Thomas Carl Wall, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999), 1.

5. Massumi, Principle of Unrest, 21.

6. Brian Massumi, 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 10.

7. Massumi, 99 Theses, 11. 

8. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 18.

9. Lacoue-Labarthe, 21.