Notes on “Questions of Power” (4), the Investigator.

Brandon Avery Joyce
14 min readAug 11, 2023

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A WINTER’ S TALE:

Somewhere in the long shadow of Chicago, a housefire blazed in the cruel winter’s night. The home was one-storey, with faded-yellow sides, an attic master bedroom, a large porch, and a grassless yard enclosed by a chainlink fence. Flames visibly licked at its wide front window and smoke billowed out of its ears. Firefighters arrived in droves and battled like the Greeks until the flames were subdued. As the sun rose, however, it became clear that the house was uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Its family now had no place to go. The Investigator, a barrel of a man with bad personal habits and an old brown suit, arrived just after dawn to determine the cause of the fire. The first thing he discovered inside was a kerosene heater, turned on its side on the living room carpet. He wriggled his nose — “yep, this must be the culprit” — and in his trusty notebook scribbled “carpet, kerosene.” This still didn’t reveal much. Kerosene and carpet are flammable, but not without a flame.

From the last departing fireman he learned that a young boy of seven, now brought to safety, had been playing with matches. “Matches?” — the trope petite-madeleined a memory of a poster in his Ohio elementary school, many eons ago, with a blue cartoon squirrel in a tree warning students about the dangers of matches. From a chemist’s perspective, the matches, carpet, and kerosene certainly explained the fire. But our Investigator, though he considered himself a man of science, was largely there in a legal capacity, and to pose different questions: who was responsible for the fire? Where were the parents — or anyone who could have prevented the fire? Why was that boy alone at night playing with matches?

He put in some phone calls and further details emerged. Both parents were working the night in question, and as we all know, times have been hard on working people. In the last ten years alone, rent and expenses have doubled in this forsaken township. Barely able to afford groceries, much less childcare, the parents usually staggered their schedules so that one of them would always be home with their son. This month, there’d been a mean cold snap. It was all over the news. Too many coworkers had called in sick, leaving the parents no choice. Heating bills had soared and promises of assistance from the city had all been empty. The family resorted to a kerosene heater to cut costs, which by now, was a familiar story to the Investigator. Housefires had doubled over the cold snap, and thanks to his earlier lean years in Ohio, he wasn’t blind to the cruel dilemmas of economic desperation. Over the phone, the father’s voice cracked with resentment as he heaped blame upon officials, institutions, and life in America for giving his family no other out. “What else could I do, man?”

The Investigator made his way back to his towncar and — warming himself on cigarettes and a thick plastic thermal mug of coffee he’d refilled for a dollar at the gas station — he took a moment to reflect. He’d seen too much of this kind of tragedy lately. Something was starting to twist up inside of him. He tried something. He wrote down every possible cause his mind could squeeze out: kerosene, carpet, matches, heater, child, mother, father, sick coworkers, relentless bosses, the cold snap, the rent increases, the heating bill, the cost of childcare, the empty promises, the failures of officers and institutions… The Investigator coughed, took a sip, then continued on… the viruses that caused the sicknesses, the flashpoint of the kerosene, the extended family that was nowhere to be found, the thoughts that may have distracted the young boy, the angles and measurements of all the objects in the living room, the family events earlier that day, the callousness of American society… He reviewed his list. These were all real causes. If not sine qua non, each was at least an important ingredient. But he couldn’t help notice how they popped or receded in importance depending on the kinds of questions you asked, whether it was a matter of law, justice, physics, metaphysics, sociology, friendship, family — or just as a bystander watching the house go up in flames on a cold Midwestern night. Every agenda produced a different account, and not one of those accounts was any less true from the standpoint of what was or what wasn’t.

Here was a real puzzle. How do we choose which to choose? Which causes do we blame or thank? The word Aristotle used for “cause,” aition, is connected to judicial language in ancient Greek, designating those who might be responsible for a crime or mishap. This was the job of our Investigator, after all, and he’d been doing it long enough to know how all the procedures, precedents, prejudices, all the subtle hints and social habits, the grand sum of laws and orders, conveniently limited the range of admissible causes. The courthouse had no time or taste for metaphysics — and needed to speedily justify an accusation. He recalled the piteous words of the father and felt uneasy about his role in it all. Just maybe, his reports would only be read by an insurance company; nevertheless, he felt he was being forced to condemn a man who was innocent on a higher order. He could fudge the reports — willfully overlook things, add some mitigating circumstances — but on that day, what he really wanted to report was that the city should find itself guilty in its own courts. That would be justice, which was exactly why it was taken off the table. He wasn’t totally unrealistic. He understood how some kind of guidelines would be needed, even in a just and ideal world, to whittle down the number of causes that were “infinite in this way.” Things needed to get done. Still, where did the guidelines come from? Of all the millions of possible stories we could tell, which one would end up on record?

He rotated the spill-proof top of his plastic mug and took a sip. Suddenly his vision was overwhelmed by a metaphysical image of every event — not just this fire — as a flashpoint of a thousand-thousand causes, a vortex of factors from every direction and on every scale. “Jesus,” he shuddered, “how do we ever make sense of all this shit?” He tried nonetheless. He rummaged around his tired brain for the right words, the right metaphors, and almost had it — but just then, his boss rang and interrupted the epiphany. “Yello,” he answered, while wrestling open a bag of Werther’s Originals. He told her the reports would be ready by the next afternoon…

I define power as the conjunction of causation and possibility. Given this definition, the longer philosophical evasion of power suddenly makes a lot more sense. Few concepts have given philosophy as much trouble as causation and possibility. You should see it. From the Islamic occasionalism of the Asharites and al-Ghazali to David Lewis’ defense of possible worlds, the literature is completely psychedelic. It’s been such a shitshow that most philosophers have either discounted them as illusory or tried to reduce them to entirely undynamic elements — usually while confessing that, no, we’d probably never be able to think or live without them as concepts. After his little bout of “philosophical melancholy,” his skeptical reflections on causation in particular, David Hume just needed to put the whole thing down for a while: “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

If causation and possibility, each by themselves, have stumped so many big names, you can understand how their combination might make us skittish. My hunch about this though is that causation and possibility (and by extension, power) are not inherently ungraspable. They’re just ungraspable within certain schemes, and part of the confusion comes from cramming them into a form of truth in which they never really belonged (such as a propositional form of truth). The intellectual historian Louis Menand, speaking of American pragmatism, once remarked that pragmatists “don’t believe there is a problem with the way people think. They believe there is a problem with the way people think they think.” Much of our undynamism likewise arises reflectively, in our explanations of the world and the inadequate schemes through which we conceptualize its powers, causes, and possibilities.

When it comes to the propositional form of truth, for instance, whatever led us to presume that questions like “is this possible?” or “is this a cause of that?” could ever be succinctly answered with true or false, a yes or a no, anywhere outside of rigorously predefined formalisms like chess, mathematics or programming languages? Where did this bizarre idea originate? One of the longest-running legacy conceptions of truth and falsity is as a reflection in the mind of being and non-being. The true is; the false is not. The dynamic, however, doesn’t fit into this ontological distinction of being and non-being. And as our Investigator agonized, just “being” a cause wouldn’t really explain anything anyway. If dynamism has anything like an ontology, it would be one first muddied by a notion of potentiality (in which potentialities hover somewhere between being and non-being, as in Aristotle), and even then, as an ontology rephrased into the longer, larger questions of how rather than whether things really are. But I don’t think it does have an ontology, or needs one. If a fire really burns, does it matter whether it really is?

Forget curt verdicts like yes or no, true or false. The answer to the question “is this possible?” is always: “it depends.” It depends on the full balance of contradictory determinants, which are often tiebroken by the lightest or least expected of factors. It depends on the relative magnitudes of affordances and resistances most of which are often inexpressible in positive, let alone metric terms. It depends on concrete, convincing stories about precisely who or what would possibilize, and who or what would impossibilize, something from being accomplished or produced, and — the cherry on top of any veritable power-account — how something might otherwise be produced or accomplished. Like for example, I don’t know, is it possible for the United States to guarantee universal healthcare for all its citizens? This is the eternal question, isn’t it? Instead of dignifying it with a “yes,” though, it’s better to launch straight into what specific factors — or malefactors — have produced this miracle wherein the richest country on Earth also seems to be one of the few nations incapable of medically protecting its own people. This doesn’t just mean a pro-con list of the countless enabling factors — its tremendous wealth, resources, technologies, systems, programs, and social need — against any countervailing factors — the exorbitant costs of pharmaceuticals, the guild-like behavior of the medical profession and medical school licensing, the tenacious self-preservation of health-insurance companies, the growing monopolization of hospital systems, the misinformation of the public, the venality of the American political class, and so on.

A dynamic “modality” — maybe “possibilistics” is a better word — entails an account of factors to be questioned and inventively elaborated, not a ledger of facts to be reckoned and readily accepted. Let’s think. What could we do to produce or strengthen any of those enabling factors? How were those pesky countervailing factors produced and then what could we do to remove or overcome them? And — considering the wide variety of functioning systems in place around the world — what are the myriad forms that universal healthcare could assume in the States? The truth of this possibility just doesn’t make any sense in terms of propositional forms or correspondence theories of truth. It can’t be answered definitively, abstractly, curtly — perhaps not even wholly in words — and if there’s anything it’s supposed to correspond to, we’re trying to figure that out at the same time. So we’re forced to turn to other forms or theories for dynamic truth, and luckily propositional forms and correspondence theories have plenty of common enemies. What would dynamic truth look like? Well, it would emerge only through ongoing justifications and interim satisfactions (like American pragmatism); it would mediate and emphatically assert, rather than solve or resolve, social and material contradiction (like Adorno’s “aesthetic truth”); it would be constituted through and as power (the interplays of causes or constraints and the “management of possibilities”) rather than through and as an attainment of neutrality (as for Foucault); and it would be historically produced and decidedly concrete rather than given or abstract (as for Henri Lefebvre). It would invent and elaborate, articulating powers, causes, and possibilities in a thickly narrative — and at times even entirely aesthetic — form. Only in such a form or theory would power, cause, and possibility really, and literally, be said to make sense.

Any earnest possibilistics should also remain as concrete as it can, not only because of the philosophical incoherence of “abstract possibility,” but also because of its ideological insidiousness in our representations of social power. As David Javerbaum once observed, “With God all things are possible but without money they’re highly unlikely.” Similarly, the American Dream promises an equal and universal possibility for all citizens, in abstracto, while simultaneously providing cover and justification for the countless, finer ways in which social possibility is rigged and frustrated, legally, economically, spatially, and sociologically; in the fine print — that is to say, in the concrete. The very notion, cherished among Kantians and Northern Virginian thinktanks alike, that anything could ever be abstractly possible or impossible, as with the “universal optimism” of the American Dream (or the entrepreneurial-speak or “ted-talk” describing the “potential” benefits of a new techno-wonder), does nothing but obscure the real possibilistics that dominant groups and individuals have mastered with equestrian skill and surety. Abstract possibility is ideologically represented and foisted upon the many, as concrete possibility is shrewdly instrumentalized by the few.

The Critique of Pure Reason parses “modality” into a three-fold analytic consisting of the “apodictic” (the necessarily or logically so), the “assertoric” (the actual, empirical, or extant), and finally what Kant would call the “problematic” (neither impossible a priori nor as-yet known or extant). Kant didn’t think of these modal categories as ontological and simply in the world, like many before him. They were categories relating the object and the faculties of the subject, and synthesized in judgment as “momenta of thought.” Even if this caveat actually makes any sense to you (and it’s not worth losing sleep over), at the end of the day, it doesn’t make much of a difference for dynamic possibility, which would lump everything together by asking the concrete question of “how possible is it?” or “what causes would enable or disable its actualization?” What possibilizes or impossibilizes? What aids or encourages, hinders or discourages? And in what ways would they do so? As Henri Lefebvre sets out in his own Critique, “We rule out the idea of absolute necessity along with the idea of absolute chance and the purely fortuitous. Absolute necessity, i.e., determinism, belongs to ideology, not to knowledge. It excludes dialectical movement, relative chance and relative necessity, the relatively predictable and relatively unpredictable.”

Later on in the seminar, I’m going to dive into why absolute necessity and impossibility don’t even hold for metaphysical or naturalistic questions, but in the meantime, I’m still left to wonder what role they would even have in concrete, decisive, social questions of power? What good does it do, or meaning would it have, to struggle or dispute over the immutable or necessarily so? It seems to me that struggles and disputes are at bottom struggles and disputes over the directions of world-making, on the possible forms of an unevenly pliant sociality. If it’s already fated or eternal, unmoved by our pleas and unimpressed by our efforts, doesn’t it remain outside of the arena of human clamor and contest? Even where it appears fated, always count me on the side of the lost cause, whether it’s the last-stand battles of American tribes against the U.S. government or Gilgamesh’s protests against human mortality. I once saw a re-memed Reddit post which asked readers “is 7 divisible by 3?” to which someone sympathetically replied “No, I wish it were.” That’s the spirit, brave Redditor, refuse the inevitable…

At the risk of getting a little dry here, let me hammer in a few more points with regards to causation, about how it gets mangled or desiccated by the propositional form, especially in the more technically-minded Anglophone and analytic traditions. Causation and possibility (or “modality” more broadly) mutually inhere as categories. For me, their conjunction composes our understanding of power, and by way of that understanding, cause and possibility are forever understood in tandem, as two sides of the same coin. To “cause” is to possibilize — to make something more possible — and we gauge, wager, and comprehend the possibility of something through a power-account of its causes. For most schools, causation is still defined in terms of modality, only in ways I find dissatisfying or undynamic. The most pervasive (and for me, the most perplexing) view of causation among earlier moderns was as a species of necessity (Spinoza), as a “necessary connexion” (Hume) between things or events — a definition shared by exponents and detractors alike, and eventually elaborated into various nomological theories of causation (from nomos meaning “law”). Alternatives have since been offered by critics of necessitation, many of them within analytic philosophy, who likewise define causation through one modal concept or another, such as “probability” (a static-kinetic approximation of possibility) or some variety of non-actuality (such as “counterfactuality” with David Lewis or the more palatable theories of interventionists like Armstrong).

Some of these theories insist that causes are really real and in the world; others construe cause more conceptually, semantically, or as merely predictive. These schools agree on very little in their formulation of cause, and much of the literature consists of evermore baroque riddles, examples, and counterexamples used to buttress or impugn a given theory. One thing they do seem to generally agree on though is the ambition of coaxing causation into propositional forms amenable to truth values. This can mean the kind of proposition in which necessitation looks eerily similar to logical inference (in which the world implies itself into existence), or as a hypothesis to be tested — and verified or falsified — through empirical experimentation, but in either case, the propositional form is fashioned for use in the the mathematical and natural sciences. This form works well enough most of the time since most of the problem-solving in mathematics and the natural sciences are within a static-kinetic scheme. It fails at the dynamic edges though, in moments of “revolutionary” science, during mathematization or in the dreamwork of new scientific models.

It fails even faster when imported into social thought or the resolutely concrete world, as in the case of our Investigator, who disconcerted by his vision of a thousand-thousand causes, along every dimension, scale, and intensity (something which at least from the outset, appears something like the Buddhist notion of “dependent origination”), still struggled to decide what to put in his report. There too, the answer to the question of causes is always “it depends.” It depends on a countless number of collaborative causes and purportedly background conditions (which are really nothing other than other causes). What caused World War I? The answers range: the European reaction to the breakdown and disembedding of social relations in marketized society, the destablization of the conservative “balance of powers” struck at the Congress of Vienna, the aggravations of hysterical imperialism, militarism, and nationalism, Kaiser Wilhelm’s carte-blanche support of Austro-Hungary, the catalyzing assassination of a single archduke by a lone Bosnian Serb student (or the assassination by another nationalist of Jean Jaurès, who some believe could’ve persuaded the Continent out of its march toward suicide). Which of these are causes and which conditions, and what’s the difference between causes and conditions besides their salience or relevance, besides the pragmatic differences between starring and background roles in a causal tale or power-account?

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