Living Thought Book Event: Esposito, Vico, and the Question of the Origin

This is a guest post by Kirill Chepurin, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. – APS

The way I see it, at the heart of Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is the principle of a creative polarity, at once diachronic and synchronic. While there are many examples of such a polarity to be found in Esposito’s erudite readings of individual Italian philosophers, it manifests itself most fundamentally as the polarity of origin and actuality, the two key terms used in the book’s subtitle to broadly define the “Italian” problematic as advocated by Esposito. The same polarity also applies to the book’s premise itself: the “Italian difference” exists as a difference precisely within its marked tension with what Esposito takes to be the “normative” tradition of European philosophy. As such, Living Thought isn’t content with merely offering a history of Italian thought; this isn’t just a book of and about history, but also (as others have already pointed out in their contributions to this book event) an “actual”, living philosophical project seeking to construct “Italian thought” itself, so that the origin of this tradition is informed for Esposito by its contemporary relevance, and vice versa. In line with that, “Italian thought” originates not so much with any particular thinker or set of ideas, or the historical triad of Vico-Bruno-Machiavelli as such, but rather with the very constitutive gap between the two traditions, which includes non-philosophers as well as philosophers and acts as a safeguard against these traditions fully coinciding. The origin lies in the polarity itself, and indeed, some of the most fruitful potentialities arise when the two traditions intersect while preserving the difference, as in the case of Spinoza, that “most Italian of modern philosophers” (30). The kind of interplay between origin, history, and actuality that Esposito puts forward – in which attualità reveals itself as the living power of the origin that accompanies and renews, but also disrupts history – seems to me to be highly Vichean in nature; for that reason, I will take Vico as the point of reference for this blog post. What follows is a very brief attempt to engage, via Vico and Esposito, some of the issues I’m currently working on in German Idealism.

The origin is for Esposito an intensity which is anterior to history and at the same time the original living source of creative energy that constantly renews history. History strives to immanentize the origin, but to bring this immanentization to conclusion would mean to identify history and origin and thereby erase their difference, which would leave history lifeless and unproductive. As Esposito puts it in the case of Machiavelli – but this also applies to Vico – “the only way [for history] to save itself is by going back to the origin where its regenerative capacity is still preserved intact by life” (50). That is why, we may say, origin must always be excessive over history and yet virtually present within it – its actualization being, according to Esposito’s reading of Vico, the “return” of the origin that manifests itself in a disruption of history and a return to the originary animal life which used to and continues to shape its beginning, this time as a new beginning. The figure of the disruptive return of the origin implies that, the more we wish to substitute something else for the original life, the closer we are to failure. This excess of life and this virtuality define the origin not so much as strictly transcendent to history (the origin does, after all, immanently determine the beginning of history and remains a virtuality within it) but rather, I would say, as ecstatic to history and never fully coinciding with it. A full immanentization seems to be regarded by Esposito as a “conservative attitude” (23) that views history as reducible to its origin and therefore attempts to “go back” to the origin as a repetition of the old and not a source of the new. Put crudely, the distinction here is one between a return to and a return of the origin.

Before elaborating further on that distinction, however, I would like to take issue with Esposito’s characterization of the Vichean origin as purely animal, and of its return as purely violent and disruptive. Just as the origin of “Italian” thought itself, the Vichean origin is a polarity and a potentiality rather than the non-historical, the gigantic, or the animal as such. At the beginning of the New Science, Vico takes it upon himself to prove that human nature is inherently social so that, paradoxically, it is their “fallen” origin that leads human beings – by way of “providence” – to reason and society:

“[Human] nature has this principal property: that of being social. In providing for this property God has so ordained and disposed human affairs that men, having fallen from complete justice by original sin, and while intending almost always to do something quite different and often quite the contrary so that for private utility they would live alone like wild beasts have been led by this same utility and along the aforesaid different and contrary paths to live like men in justice and to keep themselves in society and thus to observe their social nature.” (Explanation of the Picture, paragraph 2)

In other words, social nature was given to them as a potentiality, or virtuality. I would suggest that it is this polarity, or potentiality, that Vico here calls “providence” – the concept that Esposito only mentions in passing, thereby, it seems to me, simplifying Vichean the relationship between origin, history, and actuality. In Vico, providence is, in other words, not a transcendent über- or pre-historical concept, but the very polarity between the fallenness and wildness, on the one hand, and the virtuality of a logos and the possibility of reason, justice, and society, on the other. The origin is the providence, and vice versa. The origin is in Vico no less a virtuality of reason than a “wild” animal origin. Furthermore, the origin is also sacred; it proceeds from within sacred history: it is “the universal flood” which is for Vico the event of human-becoming-animal and the beginning of secular history. The origin is a point of indifference where becoming human and becoming animal coincide.

(As readers of Vico know, human becoming animal at the beginning of history is also Jew becoming Gentile. In a way, there is here a double movement of becoming, or transformation, – first as the Fall and then as providence in the sense sketched out above. Vico himself does not, as far as I know, draw any further consequences from that, but later we see this line of thought turn up, perhaps unexpectedly, in Fichte’s exotic variety of German Idealism. In Lecture IX of The Characteristics of the Present Age, Fichte speaks of a “normal people” at the origin of history, contrasting it with “historical” peoples, so that the beginning of history proper consists in a diasporic dispersal of the “normal people” and its mélange with the “barbarians” that surround it – a mélange which gives birth to history: “The Normal People must therefore, by some occurrence or other, have been driven away from their habitations … and must have been dispersed over the seats of Barbarism. Now for the first time could the process of the free development of the Human Race begin; and with it, History, the record of the Unexpected and the New, which accompanies such a process. …now, for the first time, could History, properly so called, have a beginning”. This kind of diasporic mélange may also, I believe, be a productive way of engaging with the polarity between origin and history that Esposito’s book deals with.)

To push the question of the Vichean origin further, the return of the origin is therefore not just a total breakdown of order and a return of the animal, but also the return of the possibility of a new logos. In that case, this kind of ontology of origin would turn into a peculiar sort of an ontology of revolution. The origin may turn out to be, literally, a nothing – the blank slate of not having a history and starting ex nihilo; I have in mind here, for example, the 19th century Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev’s assessment that Russian history was first created by Peter the Great precisely from a blank slate. If the origin is the blank slate, then every “return of the origin” is a revolution, and vice versa, every revolution is a reactulization of the originary living virtuality, or nothingness. (Could that also be what Esposito means, inter alia, when he speaks of “an empty spot” (74) on which the Vichean genealogy is based?) The originary nothingness, as Chaadayev puts it in his Apology of a Madman, is “a purely material fact”, and in order to be able to draw on the productive power of this original facticity, on the polarity between history and the (empty) origin, “we must get used to having to do without history.” In the event of the revolution, there appears a logos where previously there was none; hence it would seem that the revolution is transcendent. However, it is precisely the originary productive absence of logos that allows a completely new logos – newness itself – to appear. In this way, revolution seems to become immanent to the origin and does not produce transcendence. Further, Chaadayev’s claim that, if things are that way, “there is no inviolable necessity” – every return to the blank slate is, necessarily, a violence against necessity – would, if we were to follow it, align that kind of ontology with Meillassoux’s ontology of origin-as-contingency, where contingency is the possibility of the new. If the absolute (as the absolute origin) is contingency, then the “arrival of God” is an event which is at once transcendent (to the status quo) and immanent (to the absolute and to the world, since the absolute is that which grounds the world). Here too, as in Vico, the original non-place only becomes actual and fully immanent as the moment of its “return”.

In light of all that, it seems to me that, for Esposito, the fallacy of the purely “conservative” position is that we cannot go back to the origin because there is nothing to return to – however, according to the figure of a return of the origin, nothingness itself can return. The first reason why we cannot just go back is that the origin is nomadic; it never just stays there at the beginning – it is always on the move alongside history, as if watching it. Hence the possibility and the threat of its “return” which we cannot run away from; and when we finally meet it face to face, it’s always already too late to “save” history. Second, the origin is never fully impenetrable to us; it is, we may say, utopic. The origin creates a non-place, an unreachable non-historical utopia of the origin; hence the failure of all “conservative” attempts to straightforwardly return to it. History cannot go backwards to the origin, and so it is propelled forward towards the catastrophe of the “return”, building its second-order utopia in an attempt to retroactively catch up and immanentize the first-order (affirmative, thetic) utopia of the origin. However, the excessive and ecstatic character of the origin guarantees that there always remains a gap that history cannot close, which also serves to explain why the concept of the origin is needed at all: so that there always remains a polarity, a tension, and a struggle. The only proper return to and of the origin implies a renewal of history, however disruptive – or hospitable – it may be.

I say “hospitable” because – to conclude this post – for Vico the very “wildness” of the origin is ambivalent, containing within itself a polarity, a tension between the wild and the rational. History itself is doubled twice in Vico; first, as Esposito points out, as sacred and secular history, and then as the tension between the possibility of a disruptive return of the origin and a kind of providentialism (which Esposito glosses over). The origin, as the polarity, gives rise to both the logos and that which disrupts the logos. There is at once a violence inherent in the return of the origin and, for Vico, a hospitality, the latter encompassed by his crucial concept of “shelter” or “asylum” (asilo), employed throughout the New Science to designate not the disruptive, but rather the “hospitable” or “providential” return of the same origin. There is hospitality within the origin itself due to its nature as a polarity, and that is why hospitality is also, contra Esposito, a “return” of the origin, and why it is for Vico intimately connected to violence (implied in the dualism of the strong and the weak, the victorious and the defeated, the city and the forest, etc.) – again, in a polar way. Every moment in history is haunted by the origin, existing as it is within the polarity between violence and hospitality. This double movement of violence and hospitality is, it would seem, the process of history for Vico, beginning with the originary polarity between origin and history. It may also be, I believe, the logos of the relationship between the “Italian” and the non-“Italian” as Living Thought construes them.

2 Responses to “Living Thought Book Event: Esposito, Vico, and the Question of the Origin”

  1. dubilet Says:

    Kirill – Thanks for a great post (and apologies it took me a couple of days to respond)- I think conceptually you have pointed to an absolutely central point – that the origin cannot be restricted to the animalistic incongruity with the process of history. Rather, the origin that persists within history while remaining discontinues with it, has also the kernel of Reason in it. (“The origin is in Vico no less a virtuality of reason than a “wild” animal origin.” as you write) Or rather, I wonder if one could say that the figure of the origin is at once sub- and supra- history – but never truly transcendent to it, as though what persists through history and the anthropological horizon is both animality and divinity. The two wouldn’t be moral categories or normative poles i.e. this is not at all to say that the human and history move from animal to divine in a providential manner, or that it history oscillates between animalistic barbarism and deified reason. Rather, it is to say that reason itself cannot easily be identified with history, but is, as animality, discontinuous with that history. And perhaps then we could say that collapsing history with the original living creative force (or rather pretending the origin is given and stable, itself all-too-continuous with history and graspable in a retroactive gesture) yields a conservative position, then collapsing history into the origin qua reason amounts to the bad version of Enlightenment.
    My question would be how exactly topography or theoretically to conceive this possible ambivalence of the origin – qua animal and qua reason?
    Are they two different conceptions? That doesn’t seem right. Are they two poles of the origins – and how do we think that the wild and the sacred correspond? What are the stakes in conceiving them differently?
    Clearly for someone like Bataille (but also nihilism and nihilistic materialism of many strains), the unhistorical is fundamentally unreasonable – for German Idealism its quite on the contrary, as you remind us. I am quite intrigued on insisting that the unhistorical is both sacred and animal – and that whatever providence is arises out of this tension and writes the lines of history.
    You suggest one possible answer when you write about the breakdown of history as the birth of a possibility of new logos: (“the return of the origin is therefore not just a total breakdown of order and a return of the animal, but also the return of the possibility of a new logos”). You don’t state this, but it makes think that precisely the animalistic is what can break down history and the the kernel of sacred logos would be the source of a new field of possibility. Which is to say something like for new possibility of logos ex nihilo to arise, one has to undergo a return of animalistic creative origins – a kind of double movement of collapse and absolute renewal. I am not sure – I have to think this through more. But I am curious how you would configure the relation between the two exactly i.e. What is the role of the ‘wild’ animal origin in this scheme for you and its relation to the sacred virtuality of reason?

  2. Kirill Says:

    Alex – thanks for your insightful comment and sorry about the late response; the past few weeks have been unusually crazy for me. I’ll need to ponder on these issues further, but I certainly agree that origin-as-animality and origin-as-rationality shouldn’t be conceived separately – it’s definitely in line with what I was trying to express in my post via Vico’s model of providence (as animality-qua-virtuality-of-reason) and Fichte’s model of a diasporic origin. Hence my intention to move beyond conceiving the “return” or “revolution” as mere animality (and beyond the conception of revolution-as-violence, which has been done to death) and my insistence, contra Esposito, on Vico’s conceptual pairing of hospitality/violence and animality/virtuality of reason within his concept of providence. I don’t think it’s just (a return of) animality that can break down history – roughly put, any true newness can (e.g. the concept of the revolutionary implied in Chaadayev seems to construe newness in such a way that it is the event of reason, and not nothing, which is the event of the new). The problem is how to conceive it as well as how to ground newness and struggle ontologically. I’m just starting to think about this so I can’t offer any ready conceptual solutions, but ideally I’m looking to pin down the ontological ground for thinking of this return – this newness – as an ontological mélange (again, variously conceived, e.g. as a return of the very polarity or tension of animality/rationality, the tension that history itself tries to erase/immanentize but that always remains, for Vico, a virtuality that accompanies history).

    So, Vico’s “providence” is one way of conceiving the ambivalence of the origin. In this scheme, the ‘creative’ character of newness is identified not with animality nor with reason but with the polarity itself, the nothingness-as-virtuality. I.e. both are creative when they exist together in this virtuality, but if we separate them and put all our stakes on either of them as separate, we get the entire spectrum of “bad” political attitudes like the conservative position, the nihilistic revolutionary fervor, the “bad version of Enlightenment” as you so aptly put it, etc. It is precisely this creativity that history attempts to erase so it can “complete” itself – but which reappears in any asylum-event (hospitality) and then when the ricorso arrives.

    Fichtean diasporic mélange is another option (though I’m yet to explore its implications in Fichte’s philosophy so I can’t really speak of the accompanying ontology yet); it is also a fruitful conceptual scheme for further thinking through the relation between origin and history and between transcendence and immanence in history. To make newness, history and struggle (towards true science/society) possible – and Fichte’s entire philosophy of history hinges, I believe, on this possibility – there must be neither full immanence or full transcendence (in either case the “normal people” would remain self-enclosed and the diasporic origin of history and the ensuing development would not take place), but a tension between transcendence and immanence, between the “normal people” and the surrounding “barbarism”, somewhat analogous to Vico’s originary virtuality of reason. (Which is also highly reminiscent of the role of the Fall and sin in German Idealism.) This kind of scheme also puts the division between “reason” and “wildness” in question.

    Then there are some possible Judeo-Christian answers to that question, such as the messianic origin in Judaism and the tradition of conceiving the Jewish people as the Messiah, or the Christ-event in Christianity. Here, I think the question should be not “What?” but “Who is the origin?” For Christians – but also for Hegel and, say, Zizek – the answer would, of course, be “Christ” as the ultimate ambivalent origin (especially if we take seriously his “dual” nature) in his life, death and resurrection (or just life and death for Zizek or the death of God theology). Every “return” of the origin would be a repetition of that – a Christ-event. The Hegelian emphasis would be that, after the Christ event, we are (the return of) the origin, that the presence/reenactment of origin in history is precisely what we are and what our “ontological practice” consists it. In the case of Schelling, I believe the notion of “abstraction” that Dan Whistler is currently exploring (he presented a paper on that at the Schelling symposium in Pittsburgh) could be important here; if I remember what Dan told me after the presentation correctly, abstraction is for (the early) Schelling a kind of transformatory reenactment of the origin as becoming-nature (I apologize to Dan if that’s a completely erroneous rendition of his point). Here too is a way of thinking through the ambivalence of the origin, this time between the human and the animal. Hegel’s anthropology also deals with that issue, but the origin here is more of an originary rupture, a hiatus between Geist and Natur. Etc.

    I’m afraid I can’t offer any unified conceptual scheme yet, but I hope this comment has made some of my intentions and the things I’d like to explore further a bit more clear, at least – and thanks again for your response!

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