(The news that this book will soon be published in an English translation by Gareth Williams and Vincenzo Binetti in Fordham UP prompts me to post this review here. The connections between infrapolitics and Esposito’s “impolitical” are as intricate perhaps as the connections between Arendt and Weil Esposito explores here.)
This 1996 book occupies an important place in the context of Roberto Esposito’s work. It marks the transition from a dominant or primary concern with the deconstruction of the fundamental concepts of political modernity associated with a sustained reflection on the “impolitical” to the emphasis on the understanding of the constellation of concepts around the Latin munus (immunity, community) and its derived biopolitics. And it marks it in rather complex ways.
For instance, there are different ways in which Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil are thinkers of the limits of the political. On their lifelong reflections, however, it is possible to sustain that they are both still thinkers of the limit, and that both were finally unable to renew the ontological horizon of political modernity. If L’origine studies both authors, it is primarily with a view to the dismantling of a tradition in and through the work of two of the authors that, for Esposito personally, nevertheless originate the possibility of a genealogical move towards an ontology of the present. But, if Esposito will later sustain that Arendt’s entire discourse becomes exhausted in its very productivity as a modality of political thought, Weil will retain her force in the post-munus stage of Esposito’s thought, and will be influential in his formulation of a renewed concept of “the impersonal,” which today sustains his project.
The grounds for such moves are explicitly treated in L’origine—a book that opens by announcing that Arendt and Weil each think the shadow within the other’s light, the silence within the other’s voice, the void within the other’s fullness. A thought of “life” is already prefaced here when we understand that political action fulfills for Arendt a function similar to what the notion of labor fulfills for Weil—and how both thinkers, who paradoxically think of what the other negates, do it for the sake of establishing “a rapport with the world” that would not let itself be reduced to the immediate facticity of “bare life.”
In the process, we learn, for instance, that while Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism is based on the positing of its radical opposition to a political life, for Weil 20th century totalitarianism stems from the same logic as political modernity. It is therefore no longer a matter of rescuing the origins of politics from themselves, and thus rescuing politics and the possibility of a political life, but rather of understanding that there will be no political life that is not at the same time the unworking of politics and its abyssal confrontation with its impolitical underside. In other words, and this is already Esposito’s parti pris, Modernity is not sick because it has betrayed its origins, rather it is sick because it has brought out its antinomical foundations in full force. So—what is there to do?
The succession of chapters studies the relationship between the two major thinkers of the 20th century on the basis of a thematic constellation—truth, beginnings, war, third spaces, nothingness, force, the common, empire, topology, and love. This is not just any thematic constellation. It means to point out how, in the Western tradition of realist political thought, the conflict between power and interests has always resulted in the suppression, on the side of power, of conflict itself, as major violence and major political violence. If Arendt and Weil are indeed major thinkers, it is because both of them, in different and even complexly different ways that were paradoxically, even chiasmatically, related, were able to replace a thought of conflict at the site of its symbolic mediation or suppression, thus liberating the terrain for a fresh, genealogical look at political ontology.
If politics is after all always already a thought of the real, then the real is what comes through the Auseinandersetzung of the two thinkers. Esposito will say that true passion, through the most extreme effort of thought, always results not only in a passion for the real, but in a loving passion as well: in other words, the passion of thought is only a loving passion of the real, as Alain Badiou will claim himself in quite a different key. But, if so, that means that thought is not and can never be an attempt at the suppression of conflict. Thought does not just fight—it is the fight itself. This is the impolitical reflection of political thought, the radicalization of the realist tradition, and finally the possibility of a new beginning for (im)political thought, away from the aporias of modernity and of its classicist internalizations. That political thought turns impolitical for Esposito is another way of saying that Esposito moves on the basis of a fundamental ontology of war. For him, as for Heraclitus, perhaps Nietzsche, perhaps Heidegger, perhaps Derrida, war marks what a previous tradition would have called “the unity of being,” which has implications.
The development of those implications is of course what Esposito has been trying to accomplish with his work. L’origine della politica constitutes a privileged vantage point into it, not only through its masterful conceptual analysis and through its insights into the two key thinkers it studies and critiques, but also because, as it makes explicit the stakes of the impolitical approach, it also ruins so many of the foundations of modern political thought and prepares the way for its fundamental renewal.