Assemblage Theory object-oriented rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

potentiality and the fractal character of relation

Catching up on Levi's recent post on potentiality. It certainly fits in well with his discussion of this topic in the forthcoming Democracy of Objects, so it's a continuation of an ongoing investigation. I certainly connect this issue, as I think Levi does, back through DeLanda and Massumi toward Deleuze. Like Massumi, Levi distinguishes between potentiality and possibility. Indeed Massumi envisions a segment here with potentiality headed toward the virtual and a purely deterritorialized space and possibility headed in the direction of re/territorialization. Massumi's primary example (from Parables for the Virtual) is the Amazonian flower. The flower is actual but it's actuality is never exhausted in any relation. Each relation generates possibilities. The bee sees certain possibilities in the flower. Different people (someone native to the Amazon, a tourist, a drug researcher) would each see different possibilities. Those relations generate agency and thought. They lead to different futures for those in the relation. In each relation a new node on a network is established. In some cases, as with the discovery of a new medicinal, a whole new network might be built. The flower is reterritorialized into a new pharmaceutical system and maybe the flower creates a new cash cow drug for the company.

Potentiality is the opposite end of the spectrum. Here we are looking at quasi-causal multiplicities. These are mechanisms that generate intensive mutation but do not pass along determining characteristics. As such, they are not essences and thus potentiality cannot contain essential characteristics for an object. One OOO objection to virtuality is the notion of a pure realm of virtuality (a lava-lampy, gooey indeterminacy) beneath all objects. I'm not going to try to resolve the turtles all the way down question today. However I do think one can draw an equivalency between the withdrawn nature of Harman's objects and the plunging of objects down through potentiality into an absolute virtual state, which is how I see Levi operating.

The issue I'm interested in is actually on the other end of the spectrum, with the subject of genres and species. Levi takes up the example of the acorn and the oak tree. We know the acorn does something right? Because pine trees and elm trees don't grow from acorns. An acorn is a mechanism that participates in the growth of oak trees: a necessary but not sufficient element, along with fertile soil, water, sun, etc. We can certainly discern among different species of trees. They share certain common features, such as oak trees come from acorns. But does the species exist as a kind of collective object, except as a kind of conceptual unit among the humans that identify it? In what way would we be able to say that an acorn contains the potential to become part of this species if the species does not exist as such? This is where I think misunderstanding of potentiality arises. 

What we might be able to say is that one can trace backwards in time from the acorn to a single tree, just as we try to trace humans back to a mitochondrial Eve. And it may be the case that a particular disease or insect might affect all oak trees, so they could be connected in that way in the present through this historical commonality. But all of those links already exist in the acorn as actual, not potential. If they were only potential, then we'd have to say that a tree could grow from the acorn that wouldn't be linked in these ways… and that's not going to happen, right?

Genre works in a related way, as we can see in the work of Charles Bazerman, David Russell, and others. There is a network in place that generates texts in a particular genre. E.g., a goverment grant office would be part of a network that generates RFPs and grant proposals. A first-year composition classroom generates classroom genres. So even when we try to write other kinds of real-world genres (e.g. a newspaper editorial), we can't really do it as we lack the network the generates them. I don't say this as a way of arguing that we shouldn't assign non-essay genres. To the contrary, I think we should, but we need to recognize that when we do we are linking those genres into an existing classroom network. So in the case of texts in a common genre, there is a relationship that is maintained through an actor-network or assemblage. And this relation isn't only after the fact; it operates in composition as well. For instance, if I were to write an article for a journal in my field, say CCC, then I would enter into a set of network relations. Some of them are common to many of my writing practices, like using a laptop, a word processor, the internet, etc. Some of them are common to writing articles anywhere in my discipline: word length, citation practices, forms of evidence, methodologies, etc. Some would be specific to the journal: in-house style requirements, editorial review policies, lag time to publication, etc.

So I can sit down to write and I can imagine potential and possibility. And while I cannot fully imagine either the possiblities or the potential for the text, with possibilities I am working in the direction of territorialization. I am attaching my writing to an assemblage of genre, a scholarly article or a blog post but not both, and I engage in certain practices related to that assemblage. For example I am writing in my blogging application, not in my word processor right now. Potential, alternatively, opens up routes of deterritorialization, lines of flight. Some times these work within the space of a genre as when I discover my article isn't about what I thought it would be about… but I still end up writing an article. Other times I might discover new possibilities and switch genres altogether.

In either case one encounters what I have suggested in the title of this post is the fractal nature of relation. And by that I mean the simple observation that fractals exist between two dimensions, never quite establishing an area or a volume. This is the way with potential. Potential can never be fully realized. The actual and virtual can never be fully linked into a repetition of the same. Potential remains that withdrawn part of the object that cannot be named by possibilities. Possibility, on the other hand, is the force of territorialization that seeks to minimize potentiality in the effort to make every widget the same. In some sense, possibility is always about reducing possibility, right? If I write an article I want to increase the possibility that it gets published to as near to 100% as I can manage. 

So I guess what it comes down to is that, at least from a rhetorical perspective, maintaining the notions of potential and possiblity allows for an investigation of interrelated operations in compositional networks, examining both the social networked forces that have a territorializing, cybernetic function and the withdrawn, alien, affective forces of objects with which those networks relate.


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