On Potentiality and the Future of Performance

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Bojana Kunst

First published in: Ungerufen. Tanz und Performance der Zukunft / Uncalled. Dance and Performance of the Future; Sigrid Gareis & Krassimira Kruschkova (hg.,ed.) ; unter der mitarbeit von, with the collaboration of Martina Ruhsam (2009).
Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1iVyi-1Q

The future is not related to the past as an actualisation of its becoming, but finds itself in a rupture between something which has not happened and something which has yet to happen. This is a temporal rupture which is intrinsic to the mode of potentiality, to the revealing of the ways that life comes into being. When reflecting upon potentiality we have to be aware of the paradox that for Giorgio Agamben is an inevitable consequence of this peculiar philosophical concept. One can become aware of his or her potential to exist, create and spring forth from oneself only when this potential is not realised. Potentiality is then a temporal constellation, which is divided from the action itself, it is not translated into the action at all. Potentiality can come to light only when not being actualised: when the potential of a thing or a person is not realised. A certain failure, an impossibility of actualisation, is then an intrinsic part of potentiality. At the same time, only when the potential is not being actualised, one is opened to one’s being in time, to one’s eventness. In this openness one experiences the plurality of ways that life comes into being and is exposed to the plurality of possible actions.i

To clarify this paradox inherent to that temporal concept, I will help myself with three different examples.


The first example comes from my private recollection of a short discussion, which I coincidentally heard some years ago. It happened in a Manhattan subway, at rush hour, when I was squeezed among many ‘business professionals’ going home from work. Listening to people talking and chatting, I overheard the following discussion between two young employees. It sounded as if they were talking about an unsuccessful candidature for a new job, and the one who applied for the position said in one moment to the other: “It seems that they just didn’t realise my potential.” His colleague answered him: “Don’t be sad, you just have to show it more, one day for sure they will.” If the young businessman were to use the word ‘potential’ in Agamben’s sense of potentiality, the employers would never realise it. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean that the guy would stay forever undiscovered and would not get the job, either. What they were talking about was not potentiality, but possibility, something which is offered for exchange, a process of transaction. The potential cannot be disclosed in the process of transaction, it is not the goal to be discovered, shown, recognised and actualised. Otherwise our existence would be only understood as a permanent and ruthless actualisation of our present, where the form, temporality itself (the way that the human becomes a human) would be totally conditioned by its finalisation.


I would like to present now a second example, which can help us to understand potentiality as a concept which is deeply related to the human dimension of temporality – how the human comes into being. The second example comes from an old book, written by Al-Jahiz, an Arabian scholar from the 8th century. In the tradition of great Arabian philosophers, he wrote a monumental tome in which he wanted to explain the essence of all living beings called Book of Living Things. Besides being a philosopher, Al-Jahiz was a great admirer of animals and he dedicated many chapters of his book to the comparison between animals and humans. Animals are glorified as beings of perfection, with perfect physical capabilities. In relation to other animals, human animals can become highly educated, they can train, they can discipline themselves, they can achieve many skills, but irrespective of their discipline and despite all the education – for Al-Jahiz – humans are still unable to accomplish spontaneously what other animals achieve naturally. For Al-Jahiz and for his interpreter, philosopher Daniel Heller-Roazen, in whose text I found the reference of this old treatise, humans therefore remain the lesser animal among living beings. In his treatise, doing less is brought into the discussion with the intention that it would trigger us to think about it, so that doing less would mean a distinctive capability of a human, the essence of a human being in the relation to the animal. Or as Al-Jahiz said, “man is made in such a way that when he accomplishes an act that is difficult to carry out, he has the ability to do one that is less difficult.”ii

Heller Roazen explains that the capability to do less as the description of the essence of a human being lies in this possibility of reduction. However small or great, the human being owes its consistency to its capacity to be less then itself. “To grasp a human action as such, one must look to the shadows of the more minor acts it inevitably projects around it: to those unaccomplished acts that are less than it and that could always have been performed in its stead, or, alternately, to those unaccomplished acts with respect to which it itself is less than it could have been.”iii That not only means that every actualisation of the human being is always in relation to other unaccomplished acts, or that every actualisation of the human being is related to the potentiality of unaccomplished acts. It also means that actualisation of a human being is always less than it could have been. There is always a kind of rupture in the ways that the human being becomes oneself. Actuality namely always surpasses itself; there are always some moves left that weren’t realised. The conclusion, then, could be that, wherever we have actuality, we also find potentiality. The example of Al-Jahiz should not be read as a celebration of human failure or an affirmation of one’s freedom of doing less; at the same time this is also not a confirmation of one’s idleness. If this were so, then human failure would be actualised as a perfect act for itself and the relation between humans and animals would be reduced to a simple difference between the perfection of nature and human freedom to fail. The consequence of Al-Jahiz’s definition of the human being is more profound. Since there is no human act that is not at the same time less than it could be, we cannot understand any work of man on its own, but every work of man can be followed in relation to the other unaccomplished acts. The consequence that comes out of being a lesser animal is connected to the temporal dimension of a human being, where human acts are always intertwined with other human acts, operating in the mode of what has not happened yet. Doing less opens the human being to one’s historical being, to the time itself, where actuality is always surpassed, never fulfilled. However the time of the human being is the time of ruins and fragments, something that has not yet been accomplished. The essence of the human act is deeply entangled with something that has not happened, has not been accomplished and completed, something that has not been fully actualised. In this sense, “doing less” is another description of the paradox of potentiality, which can come to light only when potential has not been realised, when man is understood as a lesser animal. The acts of man reveal the temporal dimension of the human being, the historical constellation of the human being. The human being is opened to the continuity of acts, made from the remains of that which has not yet been accomplished.


The Al-Jahiz example, especially the intrinsic relation of unaccomplished acts and potentiality, which reveal the human being as a historical one (a being in time), brings us close to the philosopher Walter Benjamin. His reflection on history, as can be read in his fragments On the Concept of History, written in 1940, is of great importance to understanding the concept of potentiality. He wrote these fragments when he was already experiencing and anticipating the horrible events of the Second World War. Written shortly after his release from an internment camp and before his tragic attempt to flee Europe, Benjamin wrote about the revolutionary experience of time and history. In his reflections he introduces a messianic approach, where historical materialism works hand in hand with theology, as presented in his famous example of a chess player machine. Benjamin argues that traditional historians wish to relive an era, aspire to “blot out everything they know about the later course of history” and they want to empathetically re-experience the past as it unfolded. Benjamin rejects this hermeneutical desire to bracket off the present, regarding it as the “heaviness of heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical image which so fleetingly flashes by.”iv Instead of that clinging approach, Benjamin proposes a materialistic historical approach to the past, which is described in the well known fourth fragment:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.v

This part is related to what Slavoj Zizek describes as one of the key theoretical insights of Benjamin. With Benjamin’s proposition of historical materialism, the present, not the past, is relativised and remains open for future rewriting. As Zizek argues:

What the proper historical stance (as opposed to historicism) relativises is not the past (always distorted by our present point of view) but, paradoxically, the present itself – our present can be conceived only as the outcome (not of what actually happened in the past, but also) of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past.vi

To take control of the memory, which flashes in the moment of danger, can disclose for us those crushed potentials for the future from the past. Benjamin writes that the present explodes the continuum of history, and maybe this explosion of continuity is related to the fragments of those lesser and unaccomplished acts, about which Al-Jahiz is meditating in his old treatise. In the moment of danger, the remains of what has not yet happened are disclosed with all their potentiality. The potential is then relativising our present exactly because it was not actualised and always stayed as an act that was less than itself. Russian philosopher Artiom Magun also describes potential as something that happened in the past. Benjamin’s demand that we have to look back in order to see the future is related to that which hasn’t happened yet. Magun writes that his understanding of potentiality is different from Alain Badiou’s approach from the past, where the event of the past is a positive event. Badiou’s proposal is that we find something important in the past and move on from there. For Benjamin, the event of the past is the event of the now.vii The event or rather the eventness of the human being is namely happening right now and it is only reawakened as something that has not happened yet, it is a present reawakened as a remain of time: “The true picture of the past whizzes by”.viii


The paradox of potentiality springs from the intriguing relation between refusal and urgency of actualisation, which are both part of the temporal dimension of the human being. Even if the potentiality can only come to light when not being actualised, the non-fulfilled attempt to act is continuously opening human being to time and history. The disclosure of potentiality is somehow enabled with the urgency of our present time, or as Benjamin would say, with the moment of danger in which we can take control of our memory. How can we then relate this demand for actualisation with the fragile disclosure of ‘what it could become’? The disclosure of the potentiality is always enabled with the urgency of our present time, which can be personal, collective, communal, etc. The time of the present comes still (stillstellen) to reveal the past, or as Benjamin wrote: “in every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it”.ix So the disclosure of potentiality is tightly linked to the moment of present stillness, to a certain urgency conditioned by danger. What is that moment of danger today in which the past only whizzes by, but nevertheless can hit the present as an explosion? It is clear that for Benjamin this was the outbreak of the Second World War and the horrifying blindness of the Left, which didn’t realise what had already arrived. The urgency of the present moment is then tightly related to the present moment of co-existence, cohabitation and collaborative modes of human action, to the cohabitative moment of contemporaneity. The moment of danger reveals itself for Benjamin when the dominant modes of actualisation are closing down human potentiality to the totalitarian exclusion of all other modes of human becoming.


How can we relate that moment of danger to our present time, in which we would like to formulate our thoughts about the future? I would describe this danger of today as a ruthless appropriation and exploitation of human potentiality. Our present time is experienced through the actualisation of all potentials, where human beings are continuously – as our two young professionals from the first example – displaying their potential. The actualisation of potential has become a primary force of value on the contemporary cultural, artistic and economic market. To put it differently: with the rise of immaterial work, human language, imagination and creativity have become primary capitalistic sources of value. That transition has happened in many different ways and it can be very clearly seen by example in the constant re-questioning of the conditions to produce which produce new conditions to produce. The present time of permanent actualisation is also deeply changing the ways that we perceive and experience time, where the present is perceived as the only (more and more contracted) time we have, the past is transferred into the nostalgia of remembering and the future deprived of its imaginative potentiality.

Performance itself has to refuse the contemporary processes of actualisation and not participate in the exploitation of the totality of experience. In that sense the performance in the future has to resist the actualisation of experience, the experience without remains, which was one of the key aesthetic and political notions of contemporary performance in the 20th century (resulting in more or less radical aesthetics). Even if performance is most of the time experienced as an event in present time, where the co-presence of dancers/actors/performers and the audience is of essential importance, that doesn’t mean that performance is fully about actualisation of the present moment. Performance practitioners know very well how strong the work on performance is related to the paradox of potentiality, how much it has to deal with actuality, which always surpasses itself and with anticipation of what has yet to come. The moment of our present danger reveals itself exactly through the violence of constant actualisation, where the process of actualisation is tightly related to the notion of contemporariness, of making the work in present time, a contemporary work. Therefore I imagine the performance as a field of potentiality, a certain rupture in time, and another time frame where there is no difference between the possible and the impossible event. To imagine something like that doesn’t mean that I suppose such a practice doesn’t exist already. However, I don’t want to actualise this practice, I don’t want to reveal it as the only finality of the present practice of performance, a so-called ‘contemporary practice’. Quite the opposite; to allow ourselves to imagine a potentiality of performance we have to first erase the notion of the contemporary. We should stand strongly against its affective and emotional implications which are also infiltrating our own collaborative practice. We have to invent and give a voice to our ongoing practice, which would not conform to the affirmative exclusivity of our own time in which we live and create. It is important to recognise and analyse the anxiety and crisis implied in the common notion of the contemporary. This notion implies the ruthless exploitation of the creative potentiality of our own present time, as it implies and appropriates the ways of becoming and working together. Instead of opening up the collaborative and creative processes as potentialities, our inventive collaborative forces have been constantly actualised and appropriated as economic and cultural processes of producing and adding value to the market.

In the core of a performance there is a resistance to actualisation, a kind of working together which resists the presupposed ‘now’ of performance. A performance is a result of a creative process that is interrelated around what it could be and tracing what has yet to come. A performance deals with the rupture between that which has yet to come and that which has not yet happened, a kind of exposure of time of another becoming. I imagine a performance then as a kind of experiential and inventive field of working together, which paradoxically can come to light with all its transformative power when it is not actualised. It is a continuation and disclosure of lesser acts, acts which don’t end in their own finalisation, a kind of active present that is intertwined with the unrealised thought of the real. I can then imagine a performance as a kind of a perceptive state, with no total experience and burning out. A performance that would enable a bodily state of intensities, but would also give us the licence to daydream. A performance which could be an experiential field of affective and perceptive modes of becoming. An event which would also allow itself not to happen, which would be always, interrupted in mid-sentence.



i Agamben, Giorgio: The Coming Community, Minnesota 1993.

ii Jahiz, Al: Book of Living Things, Paris, Sinbad 1988, quoted from: Heller-Roazen, Daniel: Echolalias. On the Forgetting of Language, New York 2005, p.131.

iii Heller-Roazen, Daniel: Echolalias. On the Forgetting of Language, p. 132.

iv Benjamin, Walter: On the Concept of History, Fragment VII, translated by Dennis Redmon, quoted from an English translation: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.

v Benjamin, Walter: On the Concept of History, Fragment VII.

vi Zizek, Slavoj: Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is The Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, London 2000, p.90. Relativity of the past could be also described as postmodernist multiplicity of views – a banal historical relativism, a refusal to make definitive value judgments about the past on the grounds that its truths are ultimately unknowable. Such a refusal amounts to a de facto acceptance of the dominant historical narrative, written from the perspective of the ruling class. Similarly, for Žižek, it produces a posthistorical impasse beneficial to the capitalist status quo: an “eternal present of multiple narrativizations” in which “total dynamism [and] frantic activity” coincide with a “deeper immobility”.

vii Magun, Artiom; Skidan, Alexander; Vilensky, Dmitry: “A conversation about possibilites, about power and powerlessnes”, in: Potentialities, Beyond Political Sadness, newspaper of the platform CHTO DELAT, 16th of march 2007.

viii Benjamin, Walter: On the Concept of History, Fragment V, translated by Dennis Redmon, quoted from an English translation: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.

ix Ibidem, Fragment IV.


Author: Bojana Kunst