The language of potency and act provides metaphysical terminology to describe the relation between who we are as human beings and what well-designed furniture does to us. Human beings are in potency of being upright and at attention or slack and relaxed (both physically and morally). This is because rectitude and slackness are possibilities allowed for by our nature. If a person is actually upright, that potency is actualized (“in act”). We are indeed disciplined by the world around us, but this fact does not change our humanity. Rather, it makes us certain kinds of humans, by actualizing certain potencies in certain ways. Boot camp may lack soft chairs precisely because it aims to accentuate and develop a recruit’s potency for being at attention. A library has them because it wants to encourage the relaxation of the body that allows for intellectual focus.
The classical terminology of potency and act is relevant because Foucault is riding on its coattails with his language of “power.” He believed that the entire theory of the metaphysical structure of things—matter and form, potency and act, natures—is itself an artifact of cultural conditioning, given shape by power-relations in the Greco-Roman world and, later, in Christian societies. Foucault insists that there is nothing deeper than power. Nothing resides within us as an innate potency; there is only that which acts upon us from the outside, like the blacksmith’s hammer blows, which give form to the iron ingot. Thus, for Foucault, external power is the real and sole metaphysical structure, which replaces the potency of nature and its innate capacity to be actualized.
In a word, Foucault exchanges nature for artifice. The metaphysical interiority of the person is traded out for the actions of power in shaping the person. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a friend of Foucault, puts it this way: “The inside is an outside operation.”
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