Roberto Esposito “The Dispositif of the Person”

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Esposito, Roberto 2012. The Dispositif of the Person. Law, Culture and the Humanities 8: 17-30.

The concept of person functions as the crucial passage through which a biological material lacking in meaning becomes something intangible. Only a life that has crossed beforehand through the symbolic door of the person is believed to be sacred or is to be valued in terms of its qualities since only life is able to produce the proper credentials of a person. (18)

[…] the notion of person isn’t able to join together the epochal hiatus between life and rights, between nomos and bios, since it is the notion of person itself that produces it. (19)

When we move, however, from the doubled nature of Christ to what makes man a totality composed of soul and body, the qualitative difference between the two elements becomes decisive. Rather than being equal, these elements are actualized in an ordering [disposizione] or more precisely in a dispositif that layers or superimposes one under the other. Such an hierarchic effect, which is quite clear in Saint Augustine, extends to all Christian doctrine so that there cannot be the least doubt: although the body isn’t in itself something evil (because it too is a divine creation), nevertheless it constitutes that part of man which is animal. (20-21)

Here too in a formulation unsurpassed in its dogmatic clarity, the Christian idea of person is tethered to a unity that isn’t only constructed from a doubleness, but is put together in such a way that one of its elements is subordinated to another, separating it from God. Yet the distancing from God also means diminishing or degrading humanity since humanity only finds its ultimate truth in relation to the Creator. This explains how Saint Augustine can describe the necessity of meeting man’s bodily needs as an ‘‘illness’’ (De Trinitate, XI, 1,1) in the sense that this part isn’t properly human in man, or how Augustine can say that these needs make up the impersonal part of the person. (21)

Man is a person if and only if he masters the more properly animal part of his nature. He is also animal but only so as to be able to subject himself to that part which has received the charisma of person as a gift. (22)

On the one hand, person is the more general category since it encompasses the entire human species. On the other hand, it is the prism through which the human species is separated in the hierarchical division between types defined precisely by their constitutive difference. Such a characterization doesn’t have meaning outside of the ius, which is to say that the homines take on the guise of personae only de iure (and therefore are situated in distinct categories) is further proof of the performative power of law [diritto] in general and of the notion of person in particular. It is thanks to the category of person that human beings are unified in the form of their separation. (22)

Outside of this differential logic, a right would never exist as such, but instead would merely constitute a juridically irrelevant given; and indeed it wouldn’t even be spoken of as such. Consider in this regard the irresolvable antinomy of so-called natural rights, the aporia of defining an artifice as natural or a fact of nature as artificial. (23)

What is striking here, even more than the absolute clarity of the distinctions, are the zones of indistinction and transition which the first distinctions give rise to in their continual movement. If the servile res, those homines who are reduced to strumentum vocale, are in some way contained within the most generalized form of the person, this means that the category of person encompasses all the intermediate stages of the person over time; of the potential person as well as the semi-person up to and including the non-person. It also indicates that the person not only includes its own proper negative within it, but constantly reproduces the negative.8 Seen from this perspective, the mechanism of depersonalization is the reverse of personalization and vice-versa. It isn’t possible to personalize someone without depersonalizing or reifying others, without pushing someone over into the indefinite space that opens like a kind a trap door below the person. Silhouetted against the moving backdrop of the person looms the inert figure of the thing. (24)

The person doesn’t coincide with the body in which it inheres, just as the mask is never completely one with the actor’s face. In this case as well the element that most strongly characterizes the “machine” of the person is to be traced in the subtle interval that always differentiates it from the character [personaggio] that acts, regardless of the qualities of the actor. (25)

We should also note that from the end of the 18th century on, men are declared equal (at least in principle) as subjects of law [diritto]. Still the formal separation of different typologies of individuals, driven out from the domain of species, is transposed, so to speak within the single individual, and which is doubled across two different and layered spheres: one capable of reason and will and therefore fully human and the other reduced to biology, practically assimilated to the animal. While the first, called person, is considered to be the center of juridical imputation, the second, coinciding with the body, constitutes on the one hand the required layer and on the other hand a piece of property akin to an internal slave. (25)

Alexei Sharov “Functional Information”

August 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Sharov, Alexei A. 2010. Functional Information: Towards Synthesis of Biosemiotics and Cybernetics. Entropy 12(5): 1050-1070.

In this paper I follow a functional-evolutionary approach to agents in general, which are defined as systems with goal-directed programmed behavior. Agents are either living organisms or their products because only these systems are known to pursue their goals. Agents are interconnected horizontally, hierarchically, and genealogically; they often include subagents and are always produced by other agents of comparable or higher complexity. Agents can be well individuated or diffused (“swarm agents”), autopoietic, autotrophic, with or without learning capacity. What unites them, is their ability to perform functions for the purpose of reaching certain goals. Functions of agents are encoded and controlled by a set of signs which I call functional information. These include stable memory signs, transient messengers, and natural signs. Agents always receive some of their functional information from parental/recruiter agents and often follow parental/recruiter goals. This induced semiosis is common for living organisms and artificial devices. In contrast to the cybernetic understanding of agents with its emphasis on control, feedback loops, and attractors, my approach is focused on the origin, evolution, functionality, and communication of agents. (1052)

Agents represent a new cross-disciplinary ontological entity because we can describe them in terms of actions, signs, goals, and benefits, which do not belong to the vocabulary of physics. (1052)

Goals are considered in a broad sense, including both achievable events (e.g., capturing a resource or producing an offspring), and sustained values (e.g., survival, energy balance, and attention). Goals of autopoietic systems include production of functional body parts during development, survival, and reproduction. (1053)

The following three criteria can help us to distinguish agents: 1) agents select specific actions out of multiple options, 2) these selected actions are useful in a sense that they help agents to reach their goals, and 3) agents do not emerge by chance, they are produced only by other agents of comparable or higher level of functional complexity. (1053)

[…] the world of all agents, which I propose to call pragmasphere, is an extension of the biosphere. The distinction between natural and artificial appears less important than the distinction between agents and non-agents. The notion of pragmasphere thus becomes the meeting point of cybernetics and biosemiotics. […] It should be recognized that any agent is more than a physical body but a link between its parental agents and potential future products. (1055)

Any function of an agent has to be reproducible, which means that agents should be able to repeat corresponding actions with a certain fidelity to ensure the same beneficial result. The only way to ensure this reproducibility over long evolutionary times is to manufacture, preserve, and replicate signs that control actions; thus, every function is encoded and controlled by signs. Storing signs in memory (e.g., genetic, epigenetic, or neural) can be interpreted as self-communication, because memory is a message sent by an agent to its own future state. The purpose of self-communication is to transfer the ability to perform functions, so that the agent preserves its functionality. (1057)

[…] semiosis can be defined as a set of processes by which functional information is interpreted, duplicated, modified, and disseminated by agents for their own benefits. (1058)

At the vegetative level, signs are mere prescriptions of actions and do not carry knowledge. In contrast, signs at the animal and social levels of semiosis are linked with ideal representations of objects, situations, and actions. (1062-1063)

Information processed by animal and social semiosis does not necessarily induce physical actions, however it still can be called “functional information” because: 1) it involves mental functions (e.g., accumulation of knowledge) and 2) may affect future physical actions. (1063)

Sharov & Vehkavaara “Protosemiosis: agency with reduced representation capacity”

August 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Sharov, Alexei A.; Vehkavaara, Tommi 2015. Protosemiosis: agency with reduced representation capacity. Biosemiotics 8(1): 103-123.

Terms “vegetative” and “animal” remind of phylogenetic branches of plants and animals, to which they are not directly connected. Our approach in this paper makes the general application of Peirce’s term “icon” to vegetative semiosis questionable. In particular, the distinction between icon, index, and symbol is based on the type of the
relation between a sign and its object, and the result of such association creates an interpretant-sign of the object in the interpreting mind. But molecular signals (that are in the domain of Kull’s vegetative semiosis) appear to control actions of specific cell components directly without any internal reference to either an object or mental interpretant. Most cellular components seem to have no capacity to handle and classify objects. In this paper we discuss two major modes of semiosis: the primitive “mindless” semiosis, which we call “protosemiosis” and the more genuine advanced kind of semiosis, or “eusemiosis” which requires at least a minimal mind capable of tracking and classifying objects. Eusemiosis becomes possible in the sphere of Kull’s animal and cultural semiosis and protosemiosis corresponds roughly to the vegetative semiosis. We think that at least in protosemiotics, the Peircean logical concept of sign should be substituted by a more general one, by a concept where signs are not associated with objects.

Organisms with a low level of functional organization (e.g., with small number of sensors and/or weak information processing) tend to have reduced representations of objects around them. Thus, it seems reasonable to expect that there is some threshold of functionality below which objects are no longer represented by organisms (Bickhard 1998: 196–198, Sharov 2013; Vehkavaara 2003: 579–582). Instead, such organisms (e.g., bacteria) respond to external and internal molecular signals with specific functional actions. Bacteria do not anticipate any object standing for ligand molecules that interact with receptors; they simply utilize signals for better regulation of their living functions. We define objects here as distinct components of the environment which can be addressed selectively and repeatedly by agents for sensing and action purposes. Because protosemiotic agents do not seem to be able to interact with the environment in this way (i.e., they select actions but not objects), we think that the notion of object is not applicable.

Here we propose a new definition of protosemiosis as a kind of sign processing, where agents3 (i.e., active systems guided by natural self-interest) initiate or modify their functional activities in response to incoming signs directly, rather than by associating signs with objects. In contrast to the concept of code-based semiosis, which is narrowly focused on a mappings between signs and meanings, our analysis of protosemiosis attempts to uncover signaling networks that support these mappings and evaluate their functional roles within a cell or entire organism. A sign is considered here in the context of its functional role within the agency, which is not the same as its physical nature. Of course, the role of signaling molecules should be consistent with their physical properties. But the agent provides specific and unusual local contexts for the action of signaling molecules; and therefore, the functional roles of signs are not reduced to their physical properties.

Eusemiosis roughly matches to the “interpretative semiosis”, as defined by Barbieri, as well as to the animal and social semiosis, as described by Kull. Eusemiosis is possible only in agents capable of tracking and classifying objects, which can be viewed as the core functions of the “minimal mind” (Sharov 2013; 348, 354).

John Locke “Second Treatise On Government”

Locke, John 1980. Second Treatise On Government. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.

[…] no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. (18-19)

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hat mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (19)

We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. (19)

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. (21)

[…] the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions. (22)

[…] though the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself, and properietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it, had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that, which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own, and did not belong in common to others. (27)

[…] but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own. (32)

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. (46)

Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner; which is, as I have before shewed it, the perfect state of nature. (47)

And thus the common-wealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it, committed amongst the members of that society, (which is the power of making laws) as well as it has the power to punish any injury done unto any of its members, by any one that is not of it, (which is the power of war and peace;) and all this for the preservation of the property of all the members of that society, as far as is possible. (47)

If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up his empire, and subject himself to the dominion and controul of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (65-66)

[…] The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own. (73)

Frédéric Keck “Les usages du biopolitique”

Keck, Frédéric 2008. Les usages du biopolitique. L’Homme 3: 295-314.

Si la politique porte sur la vie, alors tout peut devenir biopolitique : chaque phénomène social trouve immédiatement sa traduction en phénomène vital. (295)

L’hypothèse du biopouvoir est alors une façon de reposer le problème de l’apparition des sciences humaines, en cherchant l’explication du côté des techniques de pouvoir, et non d’un mystérieux basculement d’épistémè. (298)

Le terme de biopouvoir apparaît donc chez Foucault à la jonction entre deux réflexions sur la notion de sujet : d’une part, celle des Mots et les Choses, sur le sujet comme pôle de connaissance constitutif des sciences humaines, d’autre part, celle de l’Histoire de la sexualité, sur le sujet comme pôle d’activité et de passivité dans le rapport entre les corps. (299)

À travers ce que Foucault appelle une « biopolitique de la population », c’est l’État qui trouve dans les sciences sociales un outil permettant de se réfléchir comme organe de savoir. (299)

Un deuxième usage attribue au contraire la réflexivité aux individus en tant qu’ils sont des corps vivants – ce que Foucault appelle une « anatomo-politique du corps humain ». Dans le sillage des études de Foucault sur la discipline, il ne s’agit plus seulement de montrer en quoi les corps sont soumis à l’emprise d’un pouvoir qui les contrôle en les mesurant et en les redressant (Vigarello 2004), mais aussi de voir en quoi la réflexivité des sujets est nécessaire à l’établissement de ce contrôle. (299)

Un troisième type d’usage réflexif consiste à articuler l’hypothèse du biopouvoir avec l’analyse des sociétés libérales. Foucault rattache en effet la naissance de la biopolitique à la formation de la pensée libérale autour de la question : comment ne pas trop gouverner ? Si les individus d’un État sont des corps vivants dont il faut maximiser la production, le pouvoir doit leur laisser la plus grande liberté compatible avec la production en commun. Foucault appelle « gouvernementalité » cet art de ne pas trop gouverner, qui vise à suivre les mouvements des individus pour les laisser opérer. (300)

Ces trois types d’usage restent tributaires d’une hypothèse lourde de la pensée de Foucault : celle d’un basculement du pouvoir souverain au biopouvoir avec l’apparition des sciences de la vie et des sciences de l’homme. Poussé par une logique des conceptions du monde qui était déjà à l’œuvre dans Les Mots et les Choses, Foucault tend en effet à considérer la biopolitique comme une époque du pouvoir venant en remplacer une autre. C’est pourquoi on peut dire que ces usages sont davantage réflexifs que critiques : ils font retour sur les opérations des sciences humaines, découvrant ainsi de nouveaux objets et de nouvelles subjectivités, mais ils ne donnent pas de nouveaux appuis à la critique. Pour faire une critique de la biopolitique, il faut en effet partir d’une position d’extériorité par rapport à ce régime de pouvoir, rendue intenable par l’hypothèse généalogique. (300)

[…] Negri et Hardt modifient la conception foucaldienne du biopouvoir : ce que Foucault avait décrit comme discipline des corps individuels dans Surveiller et punir serait en fait de l’ordre du pouvoir souverain, alors que le biopouvoir serait seulement ce que Foucault appelait biopolitique des populations. Autrement dit, Foucault aurait conceptualisé le biopouvoir au moment où celui-ci était en train d’apparaître, raison pour laquelle il ne pouvait pas véritablement décrire la nouveauté de son mode de fonctionnement, et restait pris dans une grille de lecture structuraliste encore appliquée dans l’analyse du Panoptique de Surveiller et punir. C’est pourquoi Negri et Hardt se réfèrent finalement aux analyses de Deleuze sur les « sociétés de contrôle », gouvernées par les multiplicités organisées en rhizome dans des séries divergentes de flux temporels (Deleuze 1990). (301)

Le travail immatériel, c’est donc l’ensemble des rapports sociaux qui produisent de la substance vitale par le simple fait de communiquer et d’échanger des informations. (302)

[…] alors que le peuple est un ensemble d’individus unis dans le cadre d’un territoire sous un pouvoir souverain, et que la masse est une population animée par des désirs entièrement irrationnels et imprévisibles, la multitude est un ensemble d’individus dépourvus de frontières délimitées et pourtant unis par des affects et des concepts communs. (302)

On voit que l’analyse d’Agamben est radicalement inverse de celle de Negri : car au lieu de chercher une histoire générale du pouvoir dans la façon dont sont pensées des populations ou des multitudes, il en cherche la structure logique intemporelle dans le rapport entre le souverain et l’individu. Selon Agamben, en effet, la structure paradoxale de l’Homo Sacer illustre la logique du pouvoir souverain qui, comme l’a montré Schmitt, repose entièrement sur l’exclusion et l’exception : la règle énoncée par le pouvoir ne peut fonctionner que si elle pose à l’extérieur de son champ d’application une exception, ce geste d’exclusion constituant originairement le pouvoir dans une sphère délimitée. (304)

Agamben appelle « vie nue » cette forme d’être que le pouvoir souverain pose à l’extérieur de son ordre comme insacrifiable et pourtant tuable. Cette expression désigne un être qui n’a pas d’autre vie que biologique, parce qu’il ne fait pas partie de l’espace politique : c’est au sens propre un survivant, en état de vie végétative, que la mort guette à chaque instant parce qu’aucune instance politique ne le protège, donc un être sans droits, pas même celui de vivre. (305)

Tout se passe alors comme si Negri et Agamben exploraient deux axes inversés de la combinatoire construite par Foucault pour analyser le biopouvoir : Negri retient l’axe qui fait passer du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique de la population par un ensemble de savoirs, selon un schéma horizontal de progrès situé sur le plan d’immanence, laissant ainsi dans l’ombre le mécanisme par lequel le pouvoir souverain se porte sur l’individu (ce que Foucault avait appelé la discipline, et que Negri rejette du côté d’un structuralisme obsolète) ; alors qu’Agamben explore précisément ces mécanismes structurels du pouvoir politique et juridique, selon l’axe vertical du sacrifice, insertion de la transcendance dans l’immanence, laissant alors de côté l’axe par lequel le pouvoir porte sur les populations en produisant un ensemble de savoirs, ce que Negri appelait travail immatériel. (306)

Agamben et Negri ont bien posé la question critique : celle du passage du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique, par lequel le pouvoir acquiert une prise sur la vie. Mais ils ont échoué à répondre à cette question parce qu’ils visent une ontologie de la vie. Il leur manquait un champ d’expérience dans lequel les reconfigurations du biopouvoir puissent être analysées. (307)

À la suite de Paul Rabinow, on peut formuler l’hypothèse selon laquelle la biopolitique produit des sujets critiques parce qu’elle fait apparaître de nouveaux événements rendant inadéquates les formes de problématisation antérieures. L’articulation entre pouvoir souverain et biopouvoir se rejoue à chaque fois que des technologies introduisent dans le social de nouveaux êtres dont l’ambivalence pose problème. (309)

Laura Bazzicalupo “The Ambivalences of Biopolitics”

Bazzicalupo, Laura 2006. The Ambivalences of Biopolitics. Diacritics 36(2): 109-116.


[…] biopolitics undoubtedly is a polemical concept that only becomes comprehensible when seen in action. It is also to watch with suspicion. Still, could the concept function heuristically by bringing to light, even without clarifying, some of the transformations that have occurred in our political existence? (110)


To my mind biopolitics effects two significant changes related to how we conceive politics, two essential though admittedly ambiguous features that provoke a reciprocal tension:

1) The “displacement” of the site where power seizes life. When political strategies wager on the qualities of the human species, they do so at the level of genetic manipulation and at the level of the survival of the species. Indeed the latter can become the principal reason for armed intervention by the great powers. Another reason for this displacement will be found when we recognize that disease threatens the human species, which in turn wages and unprecedented fight against it. […]

2) The shift and the transformation of the modality or, rather, the stigma of power. Power, always less juridical in the sense of general and abstract law, now tends to dissolve into the norm, that is, into the shared, immanent rule of effective praxis or active participation. It is not about demystifying the rhetoric of the law. Today political power easily adopts the language of normalization, management, and control; not the dyad of exclusion/repression, but rather a margin of tolerance that can be seen in emergency management and risk-oriented government. (110)


In Greece, zoe, or biological life, was excluded from the political. Producing and consuming the means of sustenance as well as the reproduction of the species – hence work and family – are subject to necessity; they engender relationships of dependence, inequality, and nonfreedom. It is exactly this biological life that takes center stage in the new modern space, a life whose needs are common to the entire species. It is a site in which work, production, and family are bound by the constraints of nonchoice and of the struggle to survive when resources are scarce. (111)


The neomaterialist vitalism seeks out those who resist in the folds of the subject/object of power, which is akin to desiring [a] life that resists and evades power. We should be concerned, however, that this resistance, no matter how seductive it may be, is indebted to Romanticism, as well as being characterized by infrapolitical features. Furthermore, we need to recognize fully the contradiction of affirming life which arises against biopolitical life. We need to ask how effective immanent resistance can be against a power that seems continually to reject the glories of transcendence more every day. That is, how plausible is resistance if we have not entirely rethought the ubiquitous and immanent site of power? (114)


[…] the body is elusive. On the one hand, it is anonymous; it is the fungible site of the species; it is generic and as such is the chosen object of biopolitical power. On the other hand, it is the most singular singularity we have; it is an extreme singularity that cannot be exchanged for another. It is difference itself, and therefore it is corporeality that the demands of a power for self-managing the body take hold; a power for the management of happiness and for satisfying needs, as well as the capacity and the possibility of finding one’s expressive spontaneity against discipline, docility, and repression. (114)


With biopolitical discourse, power ideologically establishes a reductive paradigm that entails survival and necessity. It limits the space for discourse on forms of life and therefore on politics. Is life then absent, if it cannot speak itself? Bare life “in itself” is revealed as a formidable limit-concept that is nonpolitical: it is the life of fungible, anonymous bodies, common to all sentient bodies that experience pain, hunger, loss, and deprivation. It is this limit-concept which is truly general, common, and universal. It is far more universal than those transcriptions of rights that have little to do with us, and that seem far removed from phenomenological diversity: universal rights that ought to allow the convergence of different cultures and to be the guide of moving ethics toward politics, were it not for its disregard for people as what they are. These “lofty rights” that float high above the corporeal exhibit a dangerous tendency to authorize the suffering of bodies in order to better glorify the spirit. (115)

Béatrice Han-Pile “The “Death of Man”: Foucault and Anti-Humanism”

April 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Han-Pile, Béatrice 2010. The “Death of Man”: Foucault and Anti-Humanism. – O’Leary, Timothy; Falzon, Christopher (eds). Foucault and Philosophy. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 118-142.

[…] for the early Foucault humanism has a very specific, narrow referent. This is indicated by his rather surprising historical reconstruction of its birth, which is referred to the Enlightenment and not, as is more traditional, to the revival and reinterpretation of the Ciceronian notion of humanitates during the Renaissance: thus the first humanists on Foucault’s list are not Rabelais, Montaigne, or Pico Della Mirandola, but Kant, Hegel, and Marx. (121-122)

Without entering into unnecessary details (Han 2003; Han 2005), his view is that during that period representation was both the ground and the privileged medium of knowledge: to be known was to be represented adequately (Foucault 1994e: 304). Conversely, beings were, at least in principle, fully representable, and the general aim of knowledge consisted in perfecting the best method to differentiate and arrange representations so that they would reflect the real order of things in the world (hence Descartes’ emphasis on the establishment of systematic differences between representations and the classical age’s obsession with the table as a synoptic form of knowledge). By contrast, the birth of “man” is due to the Copernican turn, whereby the focus shifted from representations to the representing subject. (123)

As a transcendental subject, “man” is the foundation of empirical knowledge: to be know is still to be represented, but in order to count as candidates for true knowledge, representations must conform to the epistemic conditions laid out in the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental analytic (Allison 1983: 10-13). Yet at the same time, “man” is also a possible object of representation within the field opened up by such epistemic conditions: thus we represent ourselves in space (we see our own bodies) and in time (we can be conscious of our internal states). (124)

Note, however, that at this point the two aspects of the double are neatly dissociated – thus in the Critique  there is no overlap between the empirical “I” of our self-apprehension in the form of the internal sense, on the one hand, and the transcendental “I” of the “I think” of transcendental apperception, on the other. Yet the analytic of finitude threatens this neat separation between the two halves of the double and gives the Copernican turn its further, anthropological twist. (124)

[…] during the classical age, the notion of the infinite was both central and primary; thus, for Descartes, one can prove the existence of God by the presence of the idea of the infinite in the finite. The underlying assumption is that the infinite has ontological pre-eminence over the finite. (124)

By contrast, for Foucault the hallmark of the anthropological turn is that human finitude, instead of being subordinated to God’s infinity, becomes self-foundational. (124)

Note, crucially, that transcendental finitude differs from its empirical counterpart in that the limitation it entails can be analytically deduced from the very concept of the transcendental as a standpoint (which implies a specific perspective and thus limiting conditions, by opposition to a God’s eye view which would not be limited in such a way). By contrast, empirical finitude can only be understood synthetically, from empirical observations about the nature of human beings as living or speaking entities. (126)

The problem, however, is that the ambiguity of “man,” which both separates and unites the empirical and the transcendental, causes the two forms of finitude to overlap by means of an implicit shift which makes epistemic determination ultimately dependent on its empirical, causal counterpart: the relation between transcendental and empirical finitude becomes a vicious circle. (126)

[…] the analytic of finitude is characterized by a paradox of retrospection whereby transcendental finitude is disclosed as pre-existing itself in the form of empirical finitude (Han 2002). Such pre-existence (which Derrida calls “primitivity” in the case of Husserl’s phenomenology) invalidates “man’s” ability to provide a universal and necessary foundation for knowledge. The empirical contents that were previously deemed causally determinant but epistemically determined acquire a “quasi-transcendental” function (Foucault 1994a: 244) in that they are now viewed as chronologically primary and causally determinant for epistemic conditions themselves. (127)

In other words, transcendental finitude and empirical finitude are superposed in such a way that the former, rather than being the analytic correlate of the notion of a transcendental standpoint, is now cashed out in terms of the synthetic, empirical limitations (life, language, labor) that bear causally on man. (127)