Slavoj Zizek: The Question of Potentiality and Virtuality


Throughout the corpus of his writings Zizek will return to one central or core theme: the Hegelian notion of “Substance as Subject”. I decided to gather a few entries as a way of getting a handle upon this thematic. Yet, this notion seems to be bound up with the difference between potentiality and virtuality, along with his concept of retroactive causation.

from Less Than Nothing

For we Hegelians, the crucial question here is this: where does Hegel stand with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? On a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? Is not the dialectical process the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? This mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates, however, the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.1

Here he begins with this question of the distinction between potentiality and virtuality. Before I take up the notion of “substance as subject” I think we should gain an better understanding of these two concepts or notions and how Zizek deploys them within his form of dialectical materialism. First, we take up Zizek’s distinction between idealism and materialism:

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. (Zizek, KL 5309)

These two perspectives upon Being as such brings us to the difference between potentiality and virtuality. Zizek himself will bring to the fore Quentin Meillasoux’s explication in After Finitude which states:

Meillassoux proposes a precise distinction between contingency and chance, linking it to the distinction between virtuality and potentiality: Potentialities are the non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law (whether aleatory or not). Chance is every actualization of a potentiality for which there is no univocal instance of determination on the basis of the initial given conditions. Therefore I will call contingency the property of an indexed set of cases (not of a case belonging to an indexed set) of not itself being a case of sets of cases; and virtuality the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles. (Zizek, KL 5337)

The difference between the two is that of the possible: potentialities are possible because they pre-exist the set of possible manifestations (i.e., think of the throw of dice: the determination of the outcome arises because there is delimited set of probable states –  a one in six chance of number six turning up, so when number six does actually turns up, a pre-existing possible is realized). While virtuality is defined retroactively as that which allows something new to emerge; a case is realized for which there was no place in the pre-existing set of possibles. The point of this distinction between potentiality and virtuality is made by Meillassoux himself:

The notion of virtuality permits us … to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent.2

What he is referring to is the Platonic world of Ideas as that order of potentials, and against this notion of a separate world of Ideas or potentials pre-existing their emergence in the temporal nexus of our world there is novelty instead. This novelty comes ex nihilo; the emergence is not of some potential that pre-exists time but rather emerges virtually in the moment of its advent as appearance. But if a virtuality does not pre-exist its advent how does it actually exist? Something more needs to be explained. Its as if a virtuality is a black hole, an impossible possible.

Zizek himself will revert to Deleuze telling us that the solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat. (Zizek, KL 8041) Is it? Is this what Deleuze is saying? To clarify this we need to understand how Zizek uses the symbolic. The starting place with Zizek is always Lacan. So when Zizek tells us that for Lacan the imaginary relates to the seen, while the symbolic as it were redoubles the image, shifting the focus onto what cannot be seen, onto what the image that we see obfuscates or blinds us to. Lacan spells out very precisely the implications of this redoubling: it is not only that, with the symbolic, the imaginary turns into the appearance concealing a hidden reality— the appearance the symbolic generates is that of appearance itself, namely the appearance that there is a hidden reality beneath the visible appearance. The precise name for this appearance of something that has no existence in itself, that exists only in its effects and thus only appears to appear, is virtuality— the virtual is the invisible X, the void whose contours can only be reconstructed from its effects, like a magnetic pole which only exists inasmuch as it attracts the small metal pieces that gather around it. (Zizek, KL 15529)

This sounds very familiar. One might think of the notion of an attractor in dynamical systems theory. This notion of an attractor was first developed as a way of explaining a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system (see wiki). For Zizek we never have direct access to this virtual attractor, but know it indirectly by its effects (i.e., retroactive causation). As Zizek will explicate a purely spatial definition which immobilizes its object produces a non-actual abstraction, not a full reality; the unfinished (ontologically incomplete) character of reality which compels us to include the virtuality of teleiosis (from Greek: the event which verifies the promise)  in the definition of an object is thus not its limitation, but a positive condition of its actual existence.(Zizek, KL 20402) So that in this sense the virtual is what actuality tends toward rather than being what it actualizes; rather than the pre-existing potential that is fulfilled, the virtual is the attractor toward which actuality moves. Virtuality is the condition for Being as such.

This leads us to negation …

more later…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5392-5402). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality,” Collapse: Philosophic Research and Development 2 (2007), pp. 71– 2.