The Pluripotency of Uselessness

A Pluripotent Stem Cell: Courtesy of Kalmar et al., PLoS Biology 2009, via a CC Attribution 2.5 generic license

Hello All,

I have recently been thinking a lot about a word I love: pluripotency. Usually used to refer to cells that are undifferentiated, the word sparks off my imagination with Latin-etymology-mania-derived thoughts of the many powers of a thing un-manifested, of having a great many (plurimus) powers (n. potentia). The medical definition of the word pluripotent includes a quality that appeals to me, the state of being “not fixed as to potential development”.

This word, to my mind, epitomises the quality, the powers, the potentia, of a Liberal Arts scholar. A recent article by Nigel Tubbs in the Times Higher Ed, entitled ‘The importance of being useless,” argued that the recent growth of the Liberal Arts degree in the UK (a recent development vis a vis the US), can help recuperate education as the “practice of freedom,” as Paulo Freire called it:

If [students] are going to have to go into debt for their degree, then they are determined to spend the money on something they are really going to enjoy and that does not necessarily mean a degree directly linked to a career.

The transformational quality of the liberal arts to create free (liber) citizens in an increasingly instrumentalist world is, to my mind, an essential point to consider.

As a scholar profoundly interested in the ecomimetic and biomimetic qualities of thought, I feel that our old friend pluripotency should enter the fray in this debate. If we follow the Classical Adage of Publilius Syrus that “debt is the slavery of the free,” then following the litterae humaniores is something of a Faustian pact: gain intellectual freedom, lose fiscal freedom. And yet, despite the ‘encumberance’ of our so-called ‘uselessness’, we are powerful, we are powerful in diverse ways, we are pluripotent. Despite the potential shackles of following a path lacking in fiscal utility, we are free to be anything, many things, all things. More crucially, we can imagine the path to our being.

I leave you with this exhortation: you are not useless, you are formless. You are not a tool to be used for a single use, you are a swiss army knife. You are not one thing, but always-already potentially anything or anyone. You can be complex, multifaceted and resplendent. Some of your potentia may gain you an income, others may be a pursuit of pure joy. We live in a world of increasingly diversifying and fluid roles and competencies. Go with that flow, express your potential by building your freedom, practise your manifold virtue. As Bruce Lee tells us, empty your mind and be formless. Adopt the form of the octopus or its more militant formal cousin, the hydra. If one of your heads is severed, strike with a new one. If a tentacle fails to apprehend a goal, deploy another. You are not fixed as to your potential development.

After all, potens (power) is derived from potis (capability)…

Worst case scenario, you can be the plot of a romantic comedy.


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