Roberto Esposito: from the impolitical to the impersonal

Il·lustració. Retrat de Roberto Esposito © Guillem Cifré

According to Esposito, the impolitical implies that there is no other reality than that of power, without this involving either a defence or a condemnation of power, so much as the acceptance of conflict as the only reality of politics. At the same time, it contrasts the impersonal and the living person as a possible way out for distinguishing between a valuable life and another less valuable one.

Roberto Esposito's intellectual career began at a very early age, with two books, one on the Italian neo-avant-garde and another on Vico and Rousseau, both published in 1976. By 1980 his work included references to Machiavelli, a key author for Esposito. The title of the magazine Il Centauro (1981-1986) in fact refers to a central figure in Florentine thought. In this magazine, which was to be of crucial importance in the Italian intellectual world, Esposito gradually elaborated the ideas and an itinerary which he later systematised in Categories of the Impolitical (orig. ed. 1988), a book that marks a turning point in his career.

The notion of the impolitical had been drawn up by Cacciari in an article in 1978 called Lo impolítico nietzscheano and came at a moment when the relationship between philosophy and politics, between intellectuals and political parties, was being redrawn. This process was especially noticeable in Italy, where intellectual activity had been rigidly subordinated to the Italian Communist Party (PCI) until the seventies, after which various different lines of thought began to emerge that broke with the PCI. Examples of these are the 'weak thought' of Vattimo, the 'negative thought' of Cacciari and the 'operaism' of Tronti and Negri. During that period the figure of the organic intellectual declined definitively and a process began of critical revision of the concepts and premises in political thinking until then.

In this scenario, the impolitical emerged as a realistic way of looking at the political from the fringes, based on the diagnosis that the political categories of modernity were exhausted and it was therefore necessary to deconstruct them, in the same way that Heidegger had done with metaphysics, to find an alternative language that could account for our present.

The impolitical therefore involves a strong criticism both of political philosophy and of philosophical politics and, more decisively, of all forms of political theology, be it a Christian form, which tries to link the political to an asset or value or extract good dialectically from evil, or a functional-modern one going from Hobbes to Schmitt's The Concept of the Political, which finds the distinctive criterion for the political in the distinction between friend and enemy. The latter ―along with the Cartesian subject― are Esposito's great negative idols. As regards the German philosopher, the impolitical fully assumes his diagnoses, but changes their sign. In relation to Hobbes, his sacrifice of the original community of the State of Nature in favour of the Sovereign Order was to be at the heart of all his later reflection, which hinged on the paradigm of immunisation. In Categories of the Impolitical, criticism of Hobbes ―and of modern political philosophy tout court― centres on his theory of representation, which for Esposito is always of Order, while politics, conflict and the plurality of existence ―like the impolitical itself― is what is unrepresentable. The whole of modern philosophy, from Hobbes to Hegel, moves in the direction in which 'fulfilment of subjectivity is possible only by sacrificing its natural immediacy' to alienation in favour of the state in which 'the right of individuals can be realised only in the form of an absolute power destined to dominate them' (Confines de lo político, p. 24-25).


Il·lustració. Retrat de Roberto Esposito © Guillem Cifré Roberto Esposito © Guillem Cifré

The impolitical accepts that the political can not constitute a value or have worth as such, as assumed by all political theologies. It sustains that there is no other reality than that of power, but this must not lead to either a defence or a condemnation of power, but to an acceptance of conflict as the only reality of politics. The impolitical does not defend either the law of power nor the power of the law. In this sense, the impolitical would comprise all the political grand realism from Paul and Augustine to Machiavelli, Canetti, Simone Weil, H. Broch, late Arendt, etc. With the help of these authors, whose approach shares the 'problematic and radical search for a "third way" that escapes the theologico-political repraesentatio without, however, giving in to modern de-politicisation' (Confines de lo político, p. 33), Esposito makes a deconstruction of modern political categories which political philosophy, the history of ideas and the Begriffsgeschichte had always attacked head-on. Esposito, on the other hand, tried to reveal little-known aspects of it starting from Weil, who denounced that if we open up modern political categories we shall find a vacuum at the centre (Weil, in Esposito, Oltre la politica, 1996).

In addition, whereas philosophy had tried to educate politics or realise itself politically, the impolitical broke the bond between the two terms and made room for thought. Although the philosopher no longer had to act as councillor to the prince or as a political engineer, the impolitical did not set out to offer political solutions, but to show precisely the aporia of political concepts. Nevertheless, taking an impolitical stance does not mean withdrawing to a space outside politics, as such a stance sustains the non-existence of such a space (Confines de lo político, p. 17). The impolitical, then, is neither apolitical nor anti-political, so much as a deconstructive way of looking at the political.

At the same time, in Categories of the Impolitical, Esposito outlines what will be his later deconstruction of the notion of community. The point of departure is Bataille's idea of the impossible and unrepresentable 'community of death', which took as its figure the Roman siege of Numantia, as told by Cervantes, which ends with the collective suicide of the Numantians.

Whereas here Esposito follows Nancy and Blanchot, in Communitas (Eng. ed. 2008) he was to elaborate a language of his own. This text marks a turning point in his work, from a purely deconstructive moment to an 'ontology of the present', in which he developed the notion of 'immunisation' as the key to interpreting modernity. This leads him to make a genealogy of biopolitics (2004) and of the notion of the person (2007). After Communitas, then, and especially in Immunitas and Bios, he went from a strict Heideggerian influence to a Foucaultian one, without abandoning an impolitical outlook.

If the idea of a 'community of death' involved sharing (partager) the unsharable, what can not be communal, in Communitas there is a lexical shift from a logic of presupposition to one of exposure, or 'from the level of analysis to that of ontology: the community is not something that relates what is, but being itself as a relationship'. Esposito sustains that whereas any politics of friendship (Derrida) ultimately refers to the subjects, communitas refers to the communal being as such, 'that is, to a shared existence that breaks and displaces the dimension of subjectivity … The relationship ... can only be thought of in the subjective "retreat" of its terms' (Categories of the Impolitical).

To Esposito, the thought of the community tries to deconstruct the dominant paradigms in political philosophy, like liberalism, communitarianism, Marxism and communications ethics, which apart from being based on an individualist ontology, always involve a dialectic relation between the subject and the community, built around the centrality of property: the community as the property of the subjects or as a larger entity formed by them hypostatically and to which they belong.

On the other hand, communitas, in its original etymological sense, refers to the idea of what is communal, not one's own property, of expropriation. It is made up of cum, that which binds, and munus, from which donum, officium and onus are derived. In this way Esposito is saying that munus is an obligatory gift. Communitas, then, is not something belonging to a subject or an entity formed by it, but an existential being exposed, dissolving and expropriating any pretence at identity. The community is based on a shared nothing, on the absence of all foundation. We exist in common before any figure trying to establish barriers and exclusions (whether of identity, language or other types). The community prevents subjects from being full subjects, which expropriates them and alters them, exposing them to the contagion of relation.

Inversely, an immune person is someone exempt from the burden of the munus, someone who avoids their duties but also the honours these involve. This is why the modern individualism on which our law and our politics are founded is seen as one of the paradigmatic modes of immunity, as the defence of ownership and private property, responding to the vacuum of the communal with an even greater vacuum.

Nevertheless, communitas and immunitas are not antagonistic terms, but two poles in a continuum, one positive and the other negative, as Esposito himself remarks in the book Immunitas. Esposito can not conceive of a community ―a donation, an exposure, an exchange― that does not call on some form of immunity to protect life, but this involves the risk of completely sacrificing life, the relation, and its conservation, which is what the immune paradigm, centred on the negative protection of life against whatever threatens it, tends to do. The immunity drift can always become a deadly way of resolving the conflict we are exposed to by our being-in-common.

In Immunitas, Esposito notes that the logic and language of immunity increasingly dominate the legal and biomedical vocabulary, but also anthropology and sociology. Immunisation involves protecting life by negative means, dialectically, giving it non-lethal doses of death to try, in order to avoid contagion, of which the principal agent and the object of many of our current fears takes the form of viruses: whether a computer virus, AIDS, biological weapons or immigration, we always try at all costs to stop it from spreading out of control. This contagion arises from contact between bodies, hence the centrality (both metaphoric and real) of the body in every sphere of our existence. Other than this, Esposito shows the polemological nature adopted by medical treatises in describing the workings of the immune system, when he says that 'the response to the increasingly widespread danger threatening the communal is the ever tighter defence of the immune' (Immunitas).

But if there is no outside to immunity, the communal can only be thought of in tension with it. Esposito therefore explores a common immunity based on the way in which the immunological conflict between the embryo and the ovule during pregnancy is the condition that makes life possible and in the possibility of an immunological self, in which identity is altered at the same time as it asserts itself, being what is most individual and most shared.

If the keys to an ontology of the present lie in the relationship between immunity and the body, between life and politics, it is not surprising that Esposito devotes one section of Immunitas and the whole of his best-known book (Bios, Eng. ed. 2008) to the question of biopolitics, where the tension between communitas and immunitas becomes a tension between politics about life, characteristic of the immune and autoimmune drift of modernity, and politics of life, which, having assumed the need for the immune paradigm and life as hub of all politics today, is the only alternative. Although some forms of immunity are necessary, the problem arises when immunisation, taken to a certain extreme, eventually annihilates the life it was intended to protect, which is what happens in the case of auto-immune diseases.

In Bios, Esposito makes a genealogy of the concept of biopolitics from the organismic theories of the early 20th century to Michel Foucault, and analyses the way in which Nazism, a power intended to protect life, ends up annihilating it and becoming thanato-politics. Like Agamben, Esposito distinguishes between qualified life (bíos) and a biological life (zoé) common to all living beings, and analyses the way in which immunisation today tends to reduce politics to a power applied over natural life. Nazism came to distinguish between a valuable life and one that was not worth living (lebensunwertes Leben), reducing human life to its animal level and introducing a series of gradations within it. The murder of Jews, Gypsies, handicapped people and undesirables was the consequence of the exacerbation of power over life which, to protect the healthy part of the political body, annihilated the parasites or viruses (ubiquitous metaphors under Nazism) that put it at risk. In Nazi biopolitics, 'we come up against the drive for mass-murder in the name of "more life"' (Lifton, 1986).

As I said above, Esposito accepts that politics today is reduced to the biological body and sustains that, along with the bíos and the zoé, there has always been the techné: there was no primeval body on which technology subsequently operated. The body is an open operative construct (Haraway). He agrees with Nancy that the technical-prosthetic supplement is original. Nevertheless, if the body is the space containing the devices of bio-power, it is necessary to think of a new figure for biopolitics that can reverse these devices. For that reason Esposito turns to the phenomenological notion of flesh as the wound in the body open to contagion from the other, the notion of Canguilhem's rule of life and the unrepresentable plurality of birth in Arendt (Bios).

To Arendt, one of the fundamental actions operated by totalitarianism in the destruction of man was the destruction of the legal and moral person in a context in which, when subjects lose the protection of the state, human rights prove useless. On the other hand, Esposito sustains the thesis that human rights do not work, not because of the absence of legal personality, but as a result of it. In Third Person (2007) he sustains that this separation between bíos and zoé comes about through the device of the person, which establishes differential thresholds within life. This is corroborated by liberal bioethics, which uses a gradation of the level of personality to be able to determine rights and obligations in each case, going from the non-person to the anti-person. What is always explicitly or implicitly at stake is the establishment of a distinction between a valuable life and one of less value.

Faced with this, the author, true to his impolitical procedure, counterposes the impersonal and the living person as a possible way out of this device. The thing is to think of an affirmative biopolitics, the possibility of an alteration that commonises us in a régime in which the separation between bíos and zoé no longer exists.

Other than that, this undertaking to think of the common and life on a level of immanence lies on a central line in Italian philosophy going from Dante and Bruno to our day, in which life is considered the object and subject of thought, in a relation with history and politics which is always tense (Pensiero vivente, 2010). Obviously, for Esposito, impersonal life must be thought of as what deconstructs the Cartesian notion of the subject as well as the liberal-immune notion of the individual owner, and the legal notion of the person. Rethinking life in its carnal dimension, open to the world, and thinking of technology in its original relationship with the body, are the first steps towards a politics of life that recognises the singular and plural nature of any subject. This therefore means recognising its global nature, because globalisation must not be just today's sorry reality, characterised by the low walls of identity and immunity, but above all the opportunity of unheard of communication, contact, contagion: of a politics of life where the common, shared, exposed munus is life itself.

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