Roberto Esposito – “The Philosophy of Bios” from Bios (2004, trans. 2008)

The final chapter of Esposito’s book articulates a positive biopolitics that does not immediately become the Thanatopolitics which found its most extremem manifestation in Nazism’s reduction of life to death. He does this with the concept of the “immunitary.” He claims that all societies seek to completely immunize themselves from all foreign bodies, rendering themselves completely pure; he tries to build an ethics of contamination, i.e. a Nietzschean concept of living by preserving what is foreign rather than obliterating it. The biopolitical is the tendency to flatten the political and purely biological (146), and while Nazism may have “died,” its biopolitical modalities still persevere in things like preventative war: auto-immunitary process by which an outbreak is constructed and deployed in order to prevent an outbreak ad infinitum. Starting with Arendt, and moving through Foucault, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Simondon, Spinoza and Deleuze, Esposito attempts to take the three dispositifs of Nazi biopolitics–the double enclosure of the body, the preemptive suppression of birth, and the normativization of  life–and deconstruct them so that they signify in an opposite, positive direction. How?

Arendt does not think the concept of life thoroughly enough, and therefore does not understands its political valence. Instead, she rigorously distinguishes the zone of bios (life)  from the zone of the polis (world): that which exceeds life is the political. Esposito sees an unlikely and partial “corrective” in her teacher Heidegger, who similarly draws a distinction between mere life and “Da-sein.” Life itself withdraws from the political and the philosophical realms of thought: the facticity of life is precisely that which has immanent to its self its own self-reflective form of thought. But Heid can do this by keeping “factical life” separate from biological life. Thus while Nazi biopolitics denigrates “existence without life,” Heidegger will denigrate “life without existence.” In other words, “[life] can only be deduced negatively from Dasein as that which isn’t it” (154). This comes down to the radically opposed stances towards death: while for Nazis death representes a life “emptied of biological potentiality,” for Heidegger death is the authentic mode of being that grants existence possibilities that exceed the category of bare life. Thus Heid rigorously distinguishes between humans that “create a world,” animals that are “the poor of the world,” and stones which are “without a world.” Nevertheless, Adorno’s criticisms in Jargon of Authenticity lurking in the background, Esposito sees Heid’s withdrawing of life from the category of thought as problematic: it is precisely because he politicized life too little–not too much–that Heid opened himself up to appropriation by Nazi philosophy .

THE BODY: Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh rewrites Heid’s ontology of the human by assuming “the poor of the world” as part of human experience itself. He thus inscribes the threshold between man and animal as the form of phenomenological experience. We can see here, as fi in a mobius strip, the mirror image of Nazism’s reduction of the human to the animal. It is for this reason, that Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Nancy are all uncomfortable with the concept of the flesh: in short, they that it cancels the concreteness of the body by placing it under a transcendental signifier fraught with the symbolism of Christianity. Esposito admits that for M-P the flesh is a-political, an excess; for this reason, its politicization opens up possibilities: “a being that is both singular and commun al, generic and specific, and undifferentiated and different, not only devoid of spirit, but a flesh that doesn’t even have a body” (167). Such is “incarnation”: not a modality that incorporates, but one that multiplies and “self-divides.” Esposito sees this “journey to the end of the body” in Francis Bacon’s portraits, which portray the flight of flesh from the body. There is an indeterminate relation between man and animal (all “one flesh”).

BIRTH: The idea of the nation is biological and political (natio). One could say that the biological was once preeminent, but the modern state prioritizes the political, even as it uses the biological to support the boundaries of the political. Birth holds the dual possibility: birthing into a political body, yes, but also introducing the unassimilable fact of existence into a body that can’t contain in it (176). In Moses and Monotheism,  Freud deconstructs the Nazi logic of origins by showing how the originary father/son is always doubled as the foreign body that the nascent nation will need expropriate. Likewise, Arendt will use “birth” to confront the bad “seriality” that marks out mere life from the political. Simondon goes further, however, by integrating birth into the process of life: “life is to perpetuate a birth that is permanent and relative” (qtd. 181). [The connection with Hegel, Darwin, and also with Agamben, should not be missed.] Life is the zone not between birth and death but between the “pre-individual” and the post- or trans-individual. Thus life could be seen as the perpetuation of preservation of impotentiality. [Return to animal, human divide and Levinas on ecstatic ontology]

LIFE: Nazism created a norm of life, not in that it adapted its policies to the demands of life, but that enclosed life within the borders of norm birthed in the state of exception/nature: a norm imposed on nature, nature imposed on a norm. Esposito wants to vitalize that norm (184). Using Spinoza, Esposito proposes to substitute for a logic of presupposition one of reciprocal immanence, where the power of “aliveness” and “action” is that from which rights are derived: “the process of normativization is the never-defined result of the comparison and conflict between individual norms that are measured according to the different power that keeps them alive, without ever losing the measure of their reciprocal relation” (187).To think life philosophically, we need, as Canguilhem argued, to open the “norm of life” to the infinite unpredictability of life. Thus “normal man” equals “normative man” to the degree that individual “mutations” are “self-legislated” [the brush with Kant should not be missed]. He turns to Deleuze’s late work and discusses the move form “the life” to “a life” in terms of Riderhood’s near-death experience in Our Mutual Friend. This depersonalization of life comes so close to that the impersonality that opened up the floodgates of Nazi violence; but here life is not submitted to a norm, but norm and life are seen in one another. The potentiality of life is given to the norm. He ends by echoing Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents:

Whether its [biopolitics’] meaning will again be disowned in a politics of death or affirmed in a politics of life will depend on the mode in which contemporary thought will follow its traces. (194)


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