Potentiality and possibility refer to the way affective phenomena combine social, psychological, and biological elements that resist linguistic categorization. When we align affective experiences with particular emotions, we move from a bodily sphere of vast potential to a more circumscribed range of well-known expressions for that emotion.
The linguistic concept of différance provide a useful analogy for understanding potentiality and its relationship to categories of emotion. Any identification of meaning depends on repressing the infinite potentiality of meaning. This stabilization of meaning requires distinguishing between what is meant and what is not meant. The concept of anger, for example, is meaningful insofar as we believe that the emotion has a fixed taxonomy of qualities distinct from other emotions, which would be corrupted by including those excluded characteristics. Thus, an affective experience that is labeled or understood as a particular emotion relies on a strict distinction between what is felt and not felt.
For example, sadness may cause a person to frown, to secrete tears, and to feel heavy and tired. The sad person does not feel light and energetic, as happy people do. But even when an affective experience conforms closely to the signs that indicate the emotion, there is always a remainder in the experience that is excluded when it is named. Consider Brian Massumi’s description of a study that showed the mixed reactions of children to a video of a man saving a snowman. When researchers asked children to rate the scenes in the film on a “happy-sad” scale and a “pleasant-unpleasant scale,” “the sad scenes were rated the most pleasant, the sadder the better” (“Autonomy” 83-84). While sad scenes provoking sadness seems uncontroversial, the data also show that watching such moments trigger physiological responses associated with pleasure. Massumi’s example reveals that although happiness and sadness are usually thought to be mutually exclusive, actual felt experience tends to resist tried-and-true formulas for categorizing emotion.
Still, if felt experience cannot be fully understood, that does not mean emotional labels are useless. After all, when we tell someone, “I am angry,” or, “I am sad,” others generally understand what we feel. “Possibility” denotes the acceptable range of deviation from a pattern of felt experience up to which it can still be properly categorized as a particular emotion. Massumi calls possibility “a restricted range of potential,” or “what the thing can become without ceasing to be itself” (Guide 38). This allowable variation enables us to meaningfully communicate while also leaving room for innovation and new patterns of feeling. Affective experiences can be named after the fact (you can feel something and say, “I am happy”) while the experience itself, previous to its articulation, will be unique.
Potentiality names affective phenomena before they are qualified or incorporated into a regular cognitive content. This is the realm where, according to Massumi, “sadness is happy[, and]….what are normally opposites coexist, coalesce, and connect” (“Autonomy” 91). In this interstitial space, the body can feel before the mind organizes experience. One is able to feel something akin to happiness alongside something like sadness without elements of one being repressed through the privileging of the other. This “moment before” a person understands the feeling is not, however, an experience of pure affect. Hence, Massumi argues that the “virtual” — the realm of potentiality — exists above time and in a space where the future and the past meet but are not assimilated into the present. By this, Massumi means that affective phenomena introduce new combinations of elements (the future) into preformed patterns of expression (the past) but without translating this experience in narrative time (the present) with a fixed meaning. In other words, when, for instance, a movie triggers a new mix of feelings, this affect impressed on old faculties of reception does not take definite form until understood in the present, until reified into settled meaning. Prior to this, experiences are not limited by understanding locked into time; they are only incipiencies, tendencies, or potentialities.
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31.2 (1995): 83-109.
—. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.