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In a World of Potency

February 28, 2017

Meaning is the unspoken essence of human existence. It is a reflection of the capacity of a dramatically genius animal to turn its desolated being in the world, into one that is filled with the company of purpose. Put simply, the meaning of something is that to which that something is pointing. So, for example, the meaning of ‘bed’, is that four legged object that sits in the middle of my room. Now, there are meanings that are simply instrumental, and others that, by contrast, are existential. The meaning of ‘tiger’ must have been instrumental at some point in history to organize people so that they would know that when someone said that word, they meant there was a rapacious predator from which one should run. Existential meaning is different, as it attempts to answer the question of, where are our lives pointing to? Are they pointing to the possibility of an eternal life? Are they pointing to the opportunity to please a Creator? Are they pointing simply to the hedonistic dream? Meaning governs our lives from the moment we are born. But, the difference between us nowadays, and early humans thinking for the first time about their existence, is that, one might conjecture, we do not have to think that hard to make our lives meaningful. Our current societies naturally impose on us meaning galore. So that the infant knows that at a certain point in his life, his life is pointing to going to school. Then, it might point to getting in love, fulfill her parents’ expectations, get a place in the football team, be popular in school, or any other of the gazillion possibilities that exist. Eventually, meaning evolves further within ourselves, and we point our lives towards even more allegedly transcendental aims: to form a family, to create a legacy, to change the world. And, thus, the power of meaning becomes revealed, as it allows us to have place in the world. So that unlike a lost cub, we do not wander aimlessly, but always have, by contrast, place and direction in our lives.

             However, meaning could quickly encounter its archenemy: potency. If, like science claims, we live in an accidental universe that has no masterplan or intention, then, things do not possess an absolute meaning, but could mean potentially anything that an interpreter is ingenious enough to make them mean. In other words, entities around us have, what I call, potency: the potential to be interpreted in endless ways depending on the interpreter. Potency is not an inherent quality of anything, but an emergent one. It is a phenomenon that only looms in the interaction between human beings hunger for meaning, and meaningless entities that could collapse a variety of possible meanings depending on the interpreter. When Jaco Van Dormael created his masterpiece film Mr. Nobody, knowingly or unknowingly he composed basically a rhapsody of potency. In the movie we meet Nemo, a young boy who faces a difficult decision: whether to go with mom or dad, as they are splitting. The boy, in all its genius, imagines every possible consequence that such a decision could have in his life. He dreams of the different Muses he could meet depending on his decision, the love that could come or go, the opportunities that might be opened or closed for the rest of his life, all of it contingent on one simple decision, mom, or dad. Which path could be more meaningful? That is the latent question that permeates the movie, and the one that commands Nemo in his indecision. Which path could be more meaningful? A question that all of us have asked ourselves at some point in our lives. Yet, the geniality of the movie, is that eventually it answers the question when a hypothetical 118-year-old Nemo states: “Each of these lives is the right one! Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning”. It is the tragedy of potency poetically expressed, that if absolute meanings are to elude us, then any meaning is the right meaning, any answer is the right answer. Yet, what could we do to make our answers feel as the only ones, as the right ones?

             There is no absolute answer to the latter question, and its analysis will have to wait for another contribution. At the moment we should settle with knowing that potency entails a tragedy, but also an opportunity for people. It is the tragedy of not knowing which of endless possible meanings should we buy into. Yet, it is an opportunity as well: the opportunity to know that any meaning is equally meaningful and that any path is the right path. Like this the true purpose of potency in human existence is revealed: to amuse us, to sedate us. Because in the epic journey of finding the meaning I should follow, as I encounter potency, it makes me drift and struggle. It makes me doubt what I really want, what I really need, and hence, I become sedated against the initial traumatic realization of the absurdity of being. Like this, we delve into the perdition of meaning, something which, for reasons yet to be discovered, the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show is able to discern in its ending. In this classic tribute to horror B movies, a couple enters into the dark and mischievous world of Frank, a mad transvestite scientist, who turns out to be an alien. As the couple gets to know Frank’s world, they encounter how Frank has become obsessed with hedonistic rituals that somehow have turned the meaning-shielded alien into a deranged man aiming for meaning through sexual exploration and exploitation. Eventually, his servant Riff Raff realizes that Frank’s perdition is probably never to end, and decides instead to end Frank’s life, not without first enunciating the greatest commandment of potency, the one about its sedative power: “And crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race. Lost in time, and lost in space… and meaning”.

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