Esposito’s Living Thought is an excellent book. My own experience of reading it was shaped by its themes of life, antagonism, and genealogy (of the origin). Esposito’s discussion of these themes also pushed me to think further along certain lines, which I try to set out below.
Absence of Origin
The predominant relation in what Esposito calls “Italian thought” is the one between history and origin. Even as history advances beyond an origin and bears a determinacy inconceivable from the point of the origin, this origin does not disappear into the past but instead becomes something inseparable from the “actuality” of history. Hence Esposito, when speaking of Vico, is able to speak of how “the origin is not dissolved in history, just as history is not reduced to time” (26). And such a logic has to do not just with Vico but also with “an element that runs through all Italian philosophy,” namely this: “At the bottom of history there lies an opaque, seminatural, historically intractable element that human beings must come to terms with the moment their gaze turns toward the future, imagining that they can liberate themselves, along with the entire past, even from the uncertain point of its provenance” (27). In other words, one of the essential skills of Italian philosophy, “distinguishing it from other traditions of thought” (27), is precisely this attentiveness to the entanglement of history and origin, doubling each other and thus undermining any pretension that would reduce one to the other.
At times, however, this relation between history and origin recedes in favor of another one, between history and life. This raises, for me, a question about the nature of the relation between these relations, or between the three terms at stake: history, origin, and life. The issue seems particularly pressing in one articulation of the second relation, where Esposito speaks of “the ontological difference between history and life” (170). How should we think of this difference? And what does it mean that this difference—however we think of it—is already cast in terms of being?
I am inclined to understand this difference as indicative of the origin. For even if Esposito will occasionally conflate life with the origin (meaning that we have to do with a relation between history and life/origin), he tends to decide in the end for a relation between history and life that treats the origin as a distinctive third term. This is the case, for instance, in the conclusion of the book, where he presents affirmative and negative biopolitics as corresponding to alternative ways of relating life to the origin (267). Here it is clear that life and origin are not the same thing. It is along these lines, then, that I am inclined to see “origin” as the difference indicated by “the ontological difference between history and life.”
History is never merely a matter of life and life is never merely a matter of history. Nor is it the case that history and life could come together by way of a third term, for history and life are constituted through their difference. All of this is true because of the origin, the relation to the origin, the relation of history and life by way of a differential origin.
But what is the character of this difference, this origin? Should it be seen from within or from without the relation between history and life? In other words, should it be seen as something that emerges within the interplay of history and life, or is it something that does not play between them, something that is so distinct from their economy that it is indifferent to their difference? And above all, since we are talking about ontological difference, does the origin exist?
What I am trying to get at here is the sort of impact that the origin’s intervention could have. This is a question about the nature of the origin. For if the origin intervenes, and if it carries the valences that Esposito gives to it, such as unknowability and unincorporability, then it would seem to have a character that is significantly distinct from what it intervenes in, namely life and history. To put it more abruptly: if life and history exist, and if the origin intervenes in, disrupts, and remains unincorporable by them, then it seems plausible that the origin does not exist. After all, if the origin existed along with life and history, then it would be difficult to sustain these strong claims about the origin’s capacity to intervene without incorporation.
The question of the origin’s existence and/or its nothingness is intensified by the fact that Esposito insists on the genealogical nature of our relation to it. When it comes to “the actuality of the originary,” he says, it “obviously has nothing to do with a mythology of the origin, by which I mean the identification of an originary moment that is identifiable as such, and from which history (or a certain kind of history) is supposed to have started and to which it could return. The genealogical attitude starts with the opposite assumption, that a founding moment of this sort is structurally absent” (23). Origin is absent. Should we also say: The origin is not? The insistence on this absence, and the insistence of this question, are due to the insistence of genealogy. In other words, the question of ontology—especially of the ontology of origin—takes on a genealogical character that makes it inseparable from epistemology. Or, more precisely, ontology becomes inseparable from an epistemological ethic introduced by genealogy, such that knowledge of the origin’s existence (or at least its presence) amounts to an epistemological failure, i.e. to an abandonment of the genealogical task.
I’m compelled to see this ethic of genealogy via an ethic of opposition to idolatry, such that the genealogical method means refusal of being-related-to-origin in favor of a knowledge that does not name the origin. The knowledge produced by genealogy thus concerns how kinship (being-related-to-origin) becomes the obstacle precluding knowledge. Genealogy’s ethic opposes it to kinship as one might oppose an idol; the way in which this sort of opposition is also an opposition to incarnation—to the existence of life, the existence of Person, the life energized by a Person from the origin—should become more evident in what follows.
Absence of Another Option
What is life? A matter of the origin, yes—but insofar as the origin remains (by way of genealogy) structurally absent, this makes the nature of life a matter of unknowability. And so we might as well ask the question of life that we asked of the origin—does it exist? Or, does life have specificity, such that we could distinguish it as something existing?
Consider Esposito’s discussion of “immunitary logic” as it is found in “the paradigm of the subject” (258). Citing as examples Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, he describes it as “a logical mode of preventive protection against the self-dissolutive risk of ‘being in common’” (258). One can say, in this case, that being in common is a matter of the origin, and thus that the origin is what is also being immunized against in order to defend the subject, here understood as life. Life becomes a matter of immunity against the supposedly threatening possibility of being in common, and this possibility (prior to being supposed as a threat) is there because of the origin. The effect of Esposito’s approach is thus to describe this paradigm of the subject in terms of negative biopolitics while holding open the possibility of affirmative biopolitics, where holding open this possibility means holding open the very being in common that the subject immunizes against, and where holding open this being in common (beyond immunity) means holding open the relation to the origin. In short, the openness of being in common is the openness of history and life, of history and life in their noncoinciding difference, in their origin—only by affirming these relational openings do we open onto an affirmative possibility of life.
The possibilities of life, of being in common apart from the vicious circularity of immunity, are held in the origin, or in a certain relation to the origin. This is also to say that the question of whether the origin exists is inseparable from the question of whether life exists, or of whether life has specificity. And we do presume that life has specificity, for it is this very specificity that Esposito opposes—namely the specificity that enables life to divide itself from its threats and thereby to immunize itself against those threats.
The question, though, is whether opposition—or “antagonism” (24)—toward immunization can be provided by holding on to the term life. Isn’t life, after all, always specific? Or isn’t life specific when it functions as a meaningful term, since in doing so it must be distinguished from what does not live? Esposito’s strategy, it seems, is to broaden life, to commonize it, such that immunity would be undermined. But is the point of antagonism located between life-as-immunized and life-as-common, or it is located between life and what is not? Here we see the importance of the origin—if life needs to be energized by the origin, and if the origin exists, then life will always be energized by existence and will always pose this existential energetics as liberation from immunization. There is, however, a deeper antagonism, having to do not with the energy of life’s existence but instead with the abandonment of such existence.
This deeper antagonism is indicated in Esposito’s discussion of Pasolini, who “grasps with a lucidity that is rarely to be found elsewhere … the strategic change of neocapitalistic power, which has passed from the logic of exclusion to that of inclusion—or, more precisely, to their perfect superimposition in a dispositif of exclusionary inclusion.” No doubt. And Esposito goes on to note, “This is what Pasolini calls ‘hell,’ which doesn’t mean just a place of suffering, but even worse, the absence of any other option” (211). This deeper antagonism is also indicated in his discussion of Tronti’s problematic of the working class’s being against capital while being inside of capital. Antagonism toward capital is necessary, yet the very existence of the antagonist is (at least on Esposito’s reading) inseparable from capital, such that to become antagonistic toward capital is to become antagonistic toward one’s own existence: “How can the working class eradicate what keeps it alive without also causing its own death? How can its antagonism be unleashed to its full extent without snapping the cord that binds it to the inexorable fate of its opponent?” (221)
The difficulties that Esposito gets at in these remarks are absolutely on point. They are the obstacles intrinsic to our existence. The resulting demand is thus to imagine what sort of antagonism is necessary. What would it mean, for instance, to become antagonistic toward a capitalism outside of which there is nothing, or to become antagonistic toward hell? I do not think it is sufficient to observe, as Esposito does with regard to Pasolini, that this is “the consequence of breaking with the origin” (211). More precisely, it is a matter of how we conceive the origin, or of how we conceive the origin’s relation to the necessity of a break with the present order of things. Simply put, if the present order of things exists, if history and life exist, and especially if they exist in their difference, in their “exclusionary inclusion,” then a break will emerge only by way of what does not. And we should make clear: such a break, of an origin not incorporable by the order of the present, is not transcendent but instead immanent. It too is present. It is just that its immanence is a present that does not need to incarnate the origin in the present. It is all the more present—and all the more antagonistic—because it needs neither the super-presence of the transcendent nor the presence recognized by the present order.