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From the Unpolitical to biopolitics.

The Unpolitical vs. Political Philosophy

From the Unpolitical to biopolitics, through the antinomic dialectic between community and immunity: these are the basic crossroads of a line of research which has been pursued for at least the last two decades and which, as my latest book on the notion of impersonal reveals, is far from being exhausted. (1) The fact that, as already happened for the Unpolitical, the category of impersonal also arises with a negative hallmark, gaining meaning, in fact, only from its opposite, shows that my analysis bears a close alliance with what, especially since Jacques Derrida, has taken the name of "deconstruction."

Yet in order to grasp the meaning I have assigned to the term Unpolitical, we also need to refer back to Heideggerian "destruction" (Destruktion). Contrary to a widespread attitude of contemporary political philosophy, interested in a normative approach especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, I have felt it necessary since the early Eighties to have the modern political lexicon undergo the same destruction-deconstruction Heidegger had reserved to the key concepts of philosophical tradition (Categorie and Nove pensieri). The implicit belief in this attitude is that political terminology has taken on, or has been from the start, an inevitable metaphysical inflection that blocks its power of signification. Already back in the Thirties, for that matter, Simone Weil had written, "We can take all the terms, all the political expressions and open them up. Inside we will find that they are hollow" (69).

Why have we experienced this sense of hollowness since Weil? Why is there a full-blown semantic drainage of our political words? Of course, to answer these questions, one might invoke the great historical transformations that shook the international landscape between the two World Wars with a force not inferior to that of these last twenty years. However, to avoid giving a partial answer, we need to refer back to a dynamics of longer run, which concerns the whole of the modern political lexicon and is inseparable from what Heidegger acknowledged to be at the foundation of the conceptual language of our philosophical tradition. Since we cannot discuss the matter in detail, let us just say that the metaphysical feature of modern political philosophy is revealed in its tendency to identify the meaning of the notable words of politics with their most immediately obvious meaning. Political philosophy seems to confine itself to a frontal, direct look at the categories of politics as if it were unable to query them crosswise, to catch them from behind, to go back to the source of their meaning, namely, to the space of their "unthought." Every political concept has a bright side, immediately visible, but also a dark area lit up by contrast with that light alone. We can say that modern political reflection, dazzled by this light, loses complete sight of the shade haloing, or cutting, political concepts in a manner not corresponding to their manifest meaning. While this meaning is always univocal, unilinear, and closed on itself, the horizon of meaning of such terms is instead much more extensive, complex, ambivalent, and capable of mutually contradictory elements. Come to think of it, all the most influential concepts in our political tradition--power, freedom, democracy--are, at their core, aporetic, antinomic, contradictory; they are exposed to a full-scale battle for the seizure and transformation of their meaning.

The Unpolitical turns its attention precisely to the contradictory element of these terms. But how and to what end? Since we cannot define it in the positive --to give a positive definition of the Unpolitical would turn it into its opposite, into a category of the political--we can state what it is not. The Unpolitical is not an ideology, for it takes apart all traditional oppositions of modern politics: right and left, conservatism and progress, reaction and revolution. The Unpolitical, however, is not a philosophy of politics either, for it does not establish, but actually criticizes, any functional, instrumental relation between philosophy and politics, a connection understood both as a conditioning of philosophy on the part of politics and as a prescribing of politics on the part of philosophy. The Unpolitical, finally, has no apolitical or antipolitical attitude, for it does not counter politics with any transcendental value higher than politics itself. It does not believe there is a sphere external to political conflict and to the forces bringing it about. But--and here is its hallmark--the Unpolitical refuses, at the same time, every form of ethical, or even theological, legitimization of these forces, every attempt to bestow value to the bare fact of politics, namely, to the contest for power. Wielding power--the basic and irremovable ground of the political--has no alternative in the human civitas. It can be regulated, restrained within rules so as to avoid its most destructive effects, but it cannot be removed as such. For sure, this does not mean it can be represented as a good, or as the Good. The Good as such is un-representable in the language of politics, for such language is always confrontational just like our own soul, divided by and racked with desires, instincts, and passions at times irreconcilable.

The impossibility to represent the Good, justice, the ultimate value, is rigorously guarded by the Unpolitical as something insurmontable: hence its opposition to all forms of political theology, be it the Catholic, which in fact suggests, or at least admits, an overlap between power and good, or be it the modern one, deriving from Hobbes, which on the contrary produces a progressive neutralizing depoliticization. The specific place of the Unpolitical--a negative place, as we said, untranslatable in positive terms--stands at the same critical distance between modern depoliticization and political theology. The Unpolitical rejects the Hobbesian logic of conflict neutralization (it actually stands at its opposite), but also refutes the old theological-political representation, that is, the representation of the political in terms of value, and the transcendental as foundation for the political. The Unpolitical rules out the existence of any reality outside the one borne of the relation between strength and power. According to the Unpolitical, the extention of power coincides with that of reality.

This prevents us from construing the Unpolitical in a dualistic form, i.e., as something positive juxtaposed from the outside with the language of power. From this perspective, the viewpoint of the Unpolitical can be identified with the viewpoint of the great political realism of Machiavelli or, even earlier, of Thucydides, but seen from its reverse: from that silent limit whence every political term originates, from that invisible border that surrounds every political action as its unbreakable boundary. The Unpolitical is the non-being of the political: what it cannot be, or become, without losing its constitutively polemic character.

It is for this reason, as we have already stated, that the Unpolitical is impervious to all forms of political philosophy, to its necessarily representative mode. Political philosophy, whatever its inspiration may be, can comprehend the conflictual core of the political only by channeling it into a unitary whole, by presupposing a reconciliation, and thus by removing conflict as such. It is forced to heal it symbolically and can acknowledge it solely in light of a future potential order. That is why unlike the Unpolitical, political philosophy ends up negating the facticity of the political. And that is why the Unpolitical, in turn, negates political philosophy. The one can only grow on the premise that the other has come to an end. Only the Unpolitical allows us to think politics. Or better, thinking politics in its capacity of being something that cannot be reduced to political philosophy is precisely the task of the Unpolitical--a task that can be undertaken by political philosophy only as long as political philosophy problematizes itself as such. It deconstructs itself as political philosophy, becoming philosophy of the Unpolitical and undergoing, therefore, a definition of its terms beyond which there is nothing: the silence of power or its unthought. This silence--the un-thought of power--needed to be the focus of my inquiry, at least in that stage of my investigation.

Community and Immunity

My study on the category of community, begun in the late Eighties, is both a development and an adaptation of my work on the Unpolitical (Communitas). It is a development, for it sees in community one of the concepts most laden with metaphysical implications, hence, in need of deconstruction. And it is an adaptation, for it shifts the deconstructive commitment from the level of an analytics of finitude to the level of an ontology of alterity. Let us begin with the first point. If the backbone of modern metaphysics is subjectivism, no other category is more steadily connoted by it than the category of community. This primacy of the subject as accomplished presence in itself, and actually as full possession of its substance, is precisely what binds all twentieth-century community philosophies into one single ontotheological framework. Apart from some self-evident differences, what joins together the German organicism of Gemeinschaft, American neo-communitariansm, and Jurgen Habermas's and Karl-Otto Apel's communication ethics--but in a way also the communist tradition--is in fact a concept of community closely indebted to that of subject. In all these communitarian, communal, and communicative philosophies, community appears as a quality, or as an attribute, which, added to one or more subjects, turns them into something more than mere subjects, for the subjects, in this way, become rooted in, or productive of, their common essence. The subjects become subjects of something larger or better than plain individual subjectivity, but in the final analysis this something is derived from individual subjectivity and corresponds to it in the form of its quantitative extension.

All the identitarian semantics as well as all the rhetoric of old and new communitarisms moves in this hyper-subjectivist direction: community is meant as that which makes the subject identifiable to itself through its enhancement in a wider orbit that reproduces and heightens the particularistic features of the subject. And yet the result is a tracing back of community to the proprium figure: whether communicating what is common or communicating what is one's own, community remains defined by the same territorial, ethnic, or linguistic property ownership of its members. They have in common their own, they own their common.

As we know, one first powerful deconstruction of this metaphysical construct came from Jean-Luc Nancy. In his essay on the "inoperative community" (communaute desoeuvree), and in all the following ones where he took up the topic again, Nancy does not understand community as the relation among some particular subjects, or still less, as a wider subject, but rather as the very being of the relation. Saying, as Nancy indeed does, that community is not a being common, but the way of being in common by an existence devoid of essence or coinciding with its essence, really means to be done with an organicistic and particularistic tradition that seems to regrow constantly from its ashes.

The new avenue of research that I have opened in this ongoing workshop consists in taking a genealogical step back into the etymology of the Latin word. While it is a fact that, as Derrida points out, no matter how unspeakable, unavowable, and idle it is, community fails to get rid altogether of its modern meaning involving the proprium, the same is not true of the original notion of communitas, which occupies from the start a different semantic level than its modern reconversion (Politics of Friendship). The word munus, from which communitas is derived, in its dual meaning of law and gift--of law of the gift --severs the knot whereby all contemporary communitarianism has bound community to proprium, connecting it instead to what is other. If we keep to its original meaning, community is not what protects the subject by enclosing it within the boundaries of a collective belonging, but rather what projects it outside itself in a manner that exposes it to contact with, as well as to contamination from, the other. In this last passage, the shift of perspective and its impact on the perspective of the Unpolitical is evident. The hollow in this case, or the "outside," is not located at the external boundaries of the political and is not merely a negative of a positive, but is community's very being exposed to its alterity. Yet this moving from a philosophy of assumption, such as that of the Unpolitical, to a philosophy of exposure allows for the opening of a further research axis centered on the category of immunity or immunization.

Here, too, etymology helps us understand its meaning: if communitas is what binds its members in a gift-giving commitment toward the other, immunitas is, instead, what disencumbers them from this encumbrance or unburdens them of this burden (see my Immunitas). Just as communitas refers to something general and open, so immunitas harkens back to the peculiarity of a situation defined exactly by its release from a common condition. This is evident in the juridical language, whereby the person endowed with immunity--parliamentary or diplomatic--is not subject to a jurisdiction affecting every other common citizen. But it is similarly recognizable in its biomedical meaning whereby natural or induced immunization implies the organism's capability to resist, by means of its antibodies, the infection of an outside virus. If we overlap the two semantics--the juridical and the medical--we may as well conclude that if communitas brings about a breach of the protective barriers of individual identity, immunitas attempts to rebuild them defensively and offensively against any outside element threatening it: hence, the necessity and risk contemporaneously present in the immunization dynamics increasingly widespread in all fields of contemporary experience. Immunity, while necessary to protect our life, ends up negating it when taken beyond a certain threshold. Our life is eventually forced into a sort of cage where not only do we lose our freedom, but also the very sense of our individual and collective existence, namely the social circulation, the appearing-outside-itself by existence, which I named communitas.

Here lies the contradiction I have tried to highlight. What protects the body --be it the individual, the social, or the political body--is at the same time also what hampers its development, and better still what, beyond a certain point, risks destroying it. But we need to point out that such a contradiction, manifest in the connection between preservation and destruction of life is implicit in the very procedure of medical immunization: when we vaccinate a patient against a disease, what we do is introduce a controlled and bearable amount of that disease into the organism. Hence, in this instance, medicine is the very poison from which medicine ought to protect us. It is almost as if, in order to keep someone alive, it were necessary to make them taste death, injecting them with the very illness from which we want to protect them. In Walter Benjamin's language, we could say that high-dose immunization is the sacrifice of the living, that is, of all qualified life forms, for the sake of mere survival: the reduction of life to its bare biological stratum.

The Ambivalence of Biopolitics

These expressions introduce us to the last leg of our journey, that is, to the category of biopolitics. My analysis of biopolitics shows a new semantic shift and, although still related with my previous research on the Unpolitical and communitas, it moves in a somewhat new direction. While my previous works, as I have already stated, can be inscribed within the framework of a deconstructive technique, the one on biopolitics, although still strongly critical in its overtone, has a more explicitly affirmative approach. I deliberately use Gilles Deleuze's language here, for I share with him the basic assumption that philosophy's main task is that of fashioning concepts that are adequate to the events involving and changing us. The other point of reference for the latest stage of my inquiry is the theoretical segment that links Nietzsche's genealogy to Foucault's ontology of actuality. We know that the notion of ontology, whatever its declension, can be traced back to Heidegger. And yet there is a basic difference--a difference which is at the core of my latest two books, Bios and Terza persona--when we get to the topic of biological life which was external, or at least liminal, in Heidegger's reflection. With reference to the topicalization of the Unpolitical as well as communitas, we can state that the "outside," which once was surrounding or cutting the space of the political, becomes now life proper in its specifically biological sense. While for the longest time (which mainly coincided with the age of classical politics) life was considered external, even alien to political action, such an exterior or "outside," beginning with the modern age, not only penetrates into the dynamics of power, but becomes its paramount object. This means--and here is the novelty--that the withdrawal or aphasia of political lexicon does not simply close the frame in Unpolitical terms, but opens another scene. We are shown a different logic, once hidden by the old categories, which is exactly that of biopolitics.

As we know, except for a few antecedents in the early twentieth-century, biopolitics is a notion put forth by Michel Foucault in the Seventies with extremely convincing arguments and results. With that said, not even Foucault's analysis is to be taken en bloc. I for one have tried to highlight its elements of incompleteness and its internal contradiction: for example, Foucault's continuous wavering between a positive productive reading and a negative tragic reading of the relation between politics and life. That such a hermeneutic alternative, present in his texts, has found today a radicalization in Antonio Negri's works on the one side, and Giorgio Agamben's on the other, confirms that such an antinomy was present all along in Foucault's elaboration of biopolitics. (2) It is as if, when first elaborated, biopolitics were made up by a semantic ambivalence that bisected it into two mutually non-compoundable halves, or compoundable only at the price of subduing one to the other's violent dominance. The ambivalence derives from the fact that Foucault thought of the two polarities of biopolitics--bios and politics--as originally separate and only afterwards reassembled them together in such a fashion that the one always attempts to subdue and absorb the other. This is why one cannot help but feel that Foucault's biopolitical texts present an internal rupture, or downright antinomy. By the way, such an irreconcilable antinomy may have been the reason why Foucault abandoned biopolitics and moved on to another topic in the late Seventies. What somehow brought his analysis to an impasse was the stark alternative between two co-present and contrasting interpretations of the notion that continued to characterize even the post-Focault debate: life either appears to be seized and trapped by a power destined to reduce it to a mere biological stratum, to "bare life," or politics appears to be subsumed and dissolved into the productive rhythm of a constantly expanding life. Between these two extreme interpretations, opposite and mirror-like, there seems to be no link, no analytical segment that could enable the discourse to flow in a more articulated and complex manner.

Personally, I have tried to find such a theoretical link in the immunization category I mentioned above, which is, in a way, the hinge, or, to use a different metaphor, the draining system of my whole investigation. Why this category? And how can this category fill the semantic void that Foucault left open between the two constitutive concepts of his notion of biopolitics?

For one thing, as I have already stated, the category of immunity inscribes itself exactly at the intersection, on the tangential line that connects the sphere of life with the sphere of common law. Moreover, the immunization paradigm enables us to take a step forward and bridge the gap between the two prevailing interpretations of biopolitics, i.e., the affirmative and productive, and the negative and destructive. We have already discussed how these two interpretations develop as antithetical alternatives with no points of contact: either power negates life or life neutralizes power. The advantage of the immune paradigm lies precisely in the fact that these two sense vectors--positive and negative, constructive and destructive--find at long last an internal connection, because immunization, in its capacity as negative protection, includes both of them and ties them up in one semantic block. From this perspective, it turns out that negation is not, after all, the violent subjection that power exerts on life from the outside, but the contradictory way with which life tries to put up a defense by closing itself to what surrounds it--to the other life. Hence, the type of dialectic, present within each community, that simultaneously preserves the community and blocks its development, saves the community but exposes it to the possibility of implosion. As Derrida argued in his latest works, immunization always runs the risk of turning into an autoimmune disease that attacks and aims at destroying that very body it set out to defend (Rogues).

At this point, however, I part company with Derrida and find myself in closer agreement with other writers such as Donna Haraway and Peter Sloterdijk. The acknowledgement of an inseparable dialectic between community and immunity enables me, in fact, differently from Derrida, to outline the possibility for a potentially affirmative notion of biopolitics. By aiming at itself in the form of autoimmunity, the dynamic of immunization tends to contradict itself, opening up to a possible transformation. Just as happens in the biological processes of immune tolerance, which enable organ transplants from other bodies, or, even in pregnancy, which allows the female body to open up to the conception of another life, in similar fashion, the social body's immune systems can reach a turning point that enables it to rebuild the relationship with communitas and with the munus, which the social body carries within as its primal dimension. In this case biopolitics, which by now encompasses the totality of contemporary experience, could also undergo a change of form regarding that thanato-political dimension ("politics of death") taken up particularly in the first half of the last century, even though such dimension is still today anything but exhausted. However, for this change to take place, we need to overturn the widespread notion that human life as a whole can be saved by politics; rather, we need to rethink politics starting from the very phenomenon of life. And yet, for life to point to a new horizon of meaning to politics--to give politics a new life--it is necessary for life itself to be rethought in its entirety. Life must be delivered from the reduction to a bare biological essence, the tragically effective dream of Nazi biopolitics. When life is understood solely as the vertical thread that links birth to death in a development that is already preordained, it certainly cannot tell or give anything to politics, but it will necessarily surrender to a power which is similarly blind in its aims and destructive in its tools. But when life is understood in its irreducible complexity, as a multidimensional phenomenon which is, so to speak, always beyond itself; when it is considered in its depth, stratification, and discontinuity, in the richness of its phenomena, in the diversity of its manifestations, in the extremeness of its transformations, the scenario changes. At that point, the living will become not only a spring of inspiration for new questions to be posed in the political discourse, but also the pivot that can reverse completely the perspective of such a political discourse. How might we consider a politics that views life no longer as its object but rather as its subject? A politics, therefore, no longer on life, but of life? These are questions an individual cannot evidently answer, for such investigation requires a collective effort in which we are all invited to participate.

Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane, Firenze-Napoli

(Translated by Santo Pettinato

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita. Torino: Einaudi, 1995.

--. Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.

Bazzicalupo, Laura, ed. Impersonale. In dialogo con Roberto Esposito. Milano: Mimesis, 2008.

Campbell, Timothy,ed. Diacritics 36.2 (summer 2006). Bios, Immunity, Life: The Thought of Roberto Esposito.

Derrida, Jacques. Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London: Verso, 1997.

--. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.

Esposito, Roberto. Bios. Biopolitica e filosofia. Torino: Einaudi, 2004.

--. Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Trans. and introd. Timothy Campbell. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2008.

--. Categorie dell'impolitico. Bologna: il Mulino, 1988, 19992.

--. Communitas. Origine e destino della comunita. Torino: Einaudi, 1998.

--. Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. Trans. Timothy Campbell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

--. Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita. Torino: Einaudi, 2002.

--. Nove pensieri sulla politica. Bologna: il Mulino, 1993.

--. Terza persona. Politica della vita e filosofia dell'impersonale. Torino: Einaudi, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France. Ed. Michel Senellart. Trans. Graham Burchell. London: Palgrave, 2008.

Haraway, Donna. "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self in Immune System Discourse." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 1.1 (1989): 3-43.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.

--. Impero. Milano: Rizzoli, 2001.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1991.

--. La Communaute desoeuvree. Paris: Bourgois, 1986.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Spharen. Vol. III. Schaume. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.

Weil, Simone. "Reflections on War." Politics (March 1946): 69-73. ["Ne recommenjons pas la guerre de Troie." Nouveaux Cahiers 2-3 (April 1 and 15, 1937)].

(1) See Esposito, Terza persona. For a critical analysis of this journey, see now Campbell, and the miscellaneous volume edited by Bazzicalupo.

(2) See Hardt and Negri, and Agamben; also Esposito, Bios.
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Author:Esposito, Roberto
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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