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Roberto Esposito “Third Person”

Esposito, Roberto 2012. Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal. Cambridge; Malden: Polity Press.


1. The Double Life: The Machine of the Human Sciences

The  classic  vitalists,  like Bordeu  or  Barthez,  limited  themselves  to  removing  the  living

organism  from the  general  laws  of physics,  and  by  doing so  they ended up depriving it of a normative principle capable of unifying its  variety  of expressions  within  a  scientifically  described  framework.  Bichat,  on  the  other  hand,  identified  the specific  status  of the living body precisely in its active opposition to the pressure of death. (21)

“The measure of life then,  in general, is the difference which exists  between  the effort of external  powers,  and  of  internal  resistance.  The  excess  of  the  former announces its weakness; the predominance of the latter is an indication of its  strength.” (21, Bichat, Recherches, 43-44)

To  arrive  at the  deepest  truth  about a  body,  medical science is  forced  to  insinuate  itself into  the  same  cut that  etched death  into  the  body,  and  then  redouble  it. (22)

This  predominance is exercised primarily from the outside, by the environmental forces that squeeze life into a circle it cannot break and whose fatal power  it can  only resist  as  long  as  its  own energy remains. But  then,  at  the  same  time,  death  also  exercises  its  ascendancy from  inside  the  body,  where  its  possibility,  indeed  its  necessity, takes  seat  from  the  moment  of  birth,  like  a  tumor  that  grows progressively and  inexorably.  Rather  than  a  clean cut that chops off the  head  in  a  single  sweep,  death  appears  as  a  dull  murmur accompanying  and silently gnawing at every moment of life,  distributing  itself  into  many  little  deaths,  which  only  at  a  certain point join together to form one lethal event. (22)

[…] there  is  organic  life  before birth,  when  the  fetus  experiences  only  a  nutritive  life,  and  at the end,  with  the  advent  of  death,  when  organic  life  continues  for some  time  after  animal  life  has  ended,  as  can  be  seen  from  the growth  of  nails  and  hair  even  after  the  ‘first’  death.  A  double death,  in  short,  is  matched  by  a  double  life,  which has  unequal importance  not  only  because  it  is  geared  for  different  purposes, but  also  because it has a  different intensity. (23)

What begins  to  break  down,  or  at  least  become  unrecognizable  in  its canonical formulation, is the very idea  of the  person,  understood as a site of legal and political imputation. […] It is  as  if  a  non-human  –  something  different  from  and earlier  than  animal  nature  itself –  had  taken  up  residence  in  the human  being;  or  as  if it  had  always  been  there, with  dissolutive effects on the personal  modality of this  being.  From this moment on, the role of politics – now inevitably biopolitics – will no longer be to define the relationship between human beings  as much as to identify the precise  point at which the frontier is  located  between what  is  human  and  what,  inside  the  human  itself,  is  other  than human. (24)

The  unity of life – in full harmony with the perspective opened  up  by  Bichat  –  is  no  longer  broken  down  by  the  old dualism  between  body  and  soul,  but  by the  biological  difference between  an  organic  type  of  “life  within”  and  a  relational  “life outside.” (25)

Not that Comte  disputes the  importance  of  the  vegetative  part  that  links  humans  to  all other  living  beings;  but  he  locates  the  specificity  of the  human in the possibility,  albeit partial  and  problematic,  of overturning this primacy  in  favor  of  animal  life.  Although  always  driven  by  a natural,  biological  impulse,  in certain circumstances  humans can come  to  break  the  cycle  of  individual  self-preservation  for  the purpose  of  social  order. This  is  the  always  reversible  passage  from  the  level  of  “biocracy”  to  that  of  “sociocracy.”  (29-30)

[…] knowledge of  life  is,  for  Comte,  the  exteriority  inside  of  which  political science, even before seeking answers, must seek the questions that cannot  be  framed  in  its  own  vocabulary. (30)

But – and this is the crucial point – for the subject, being inside the world means to  be  somehow  outside  oneself,  to  be  part  of  something  that  at the same time includes and transcends  oneself. This something  is life:  not  only  of the  single  individual  but  of the  large  collective body that includes the individual, while exceeding it, in the totality of humankind. (31)

Inevitably  embedded  in  life,  death  constitutes  both  its absolute  outside  and  the  internal  center  of  irradiation  from which  living  beings  experience  the  limits  of  their  own identity and  the  extent  of  their  alteration. (32, of Comte)

If one were  to  summarize  the  role played by anthropology in the reciprocal  process  of  drawing  implications  between  politics  and biology,  one  might  say  that it concerns  the  transfer  of its  object- the human being as a living species – from the sphere of history to  the  sphere  of nature.  This  move  –  the  naturalization  of what had  always  been  represented  in  historical  terms  –  was  precisely what enabled  the  taxonomic placement of the  human being  in  a hierarchical  scale  that (in  its  lower ranks  at  least)  included characteristics  from  the  animal  world.  The  human  being,  or  at  least its  sub-types,  can  only  be animalized  if  it  is  first  dehistoricized. However,  in order for this shift  to take place  in all its scope  and leaving no traces behind, so to speak, it was necessary to overcome an obstacle of no small importance, because  it coincided with the essential difference between any type of human being and any type of animal: that is to say, language. While any other human ability can  in  some  way  be  at  least  compared,  if  not  identified,  with  a corresponding capacity  in  some  of  the  higher  animals, this  is  not true  for  verbal  language,  which  is  proper to  the  life  form  called Homo sapiens.It is this difficulty – the need to overcome it – that lends the highest strategic importance to another discipline, located at  the  point  of  juncture  between  anthropology  and  biopolitics, namely  linguistics.  The  observation  we  made  previously  about how the mutual exchange between the human sciences has a  productive role in bringing about a paradigm shift, in terms of legitimization  as  well,  comes  forcefully  back  into  consideration.  One might  say  in  this  respect  that,  as  anthropology  is  the  semantic commutator  that  allows  politics  to  model  itself  on  biology,  linguistics – more specifically, comparative grammar – constitutes the flow channel for the complete politicization of anthropology. (36-37)

If language  as  such was  the  last ontological  obstacle  to  the  full  naturalization  of the

animal-human, or human-animal, the science that studies it identifies a  primary level whose roots  are firmly established in nature. (39)

If  different  languages  correspond  to different  biological  structures,  language  is  the  best  reference  for classifying the various human races. But, since different languages have different values, the corresponding races will also necessarily have  different  values.  This  is  how  the  biological  superiority  of certain  racial  characteristics  determined  the  equally  biological superiority of certain languages, while the superior quality  of the languages  confirmed  the  superior  quality  of  the  races  who  used them. (41)

When  he  writes  that  “it  is  a  matter  of introducing  history  into  the  family  of  natural  sciences,”51  his intention  is  more  complex  than  that  of  simply  juxtaposing  the languages  of  biology  and  history.  His  aim  is  rather  to  translate history itself into the language of the natural sciences. This is made possible  through  a  double  homologation  that,  on the  one  hand, models  historical  order  on  the  basis  of  individual  development,

while  on  the  other  hand  it  derives  individual  development  from the evolutionary fate of the species.  Instead of limiting himself to naturalizing  history,  it  is  as  if  Gobineau  had  stretched  out  the segment  he  had  previously  dehistoricized  over  the  long  duration of  humanity’s  life. (46-47, of Gobineau)

Language does not have the  same  substance  as  spirit,  nor  is  it  a  part  of  the  body.  This  is proven by certain illnesses in which the  absence of speech is compatible with a  state of perfect physiological health; or, conversely, by diseases in which  the  dissolution  of the  body does  not lead  to a  similar crisis  in  linguistic capacity –  at  least  not  until  the  spirit is also struck dead. In other words, although they are born together, there  is  no  guarantee  that  spirit,  body,  and  language  will  die  at the same time. (49)

Only  when  united  by  the  same  race  can spirit, body, and language – the three  “individuals”  that comprise the animal called human – experience their vital power most fully. Life as such – any life, even  one that is formless or degraded, with a tendency to degenerate like  that of all  modern peoples exposed to ethnic hybridization – is always possible; Gobineau still cannot imagine that we can, or should, act on life to extinguish or restrictit. He merely states that  “the idiomatic individual  born and living in the brain of a common man is never equal to another idiomatic individual  which  partakes  of the  attributes  of the  same  race  and is  attached  to  a  superior  person.” (49-50)

The  animal  – explicitly breaking even with the  Darwinian paradigm, which had also  formed the epistemological framework  of Haeckel’s monism – no  longer  constitutes  the  place  of origin  of the  human  species, but the  measure  of its  internal  difference.  Hence, after  a detailed description  of  the  various  races  on  the  basis  of  hair  type,  skin color, and shape of the skull – which forms a hierarchy going from homo  australis through  homo  mongolicus up  to  the  Caucasian and Indo-Atlantic – we learn that the higher animals are closer to humans  than  to  other  lower  animals,  but  also  that  the  lower humans  are  more  similar  to  animals  than  to  the  higher  humans. (52, of Haeckel)

This  means  that  domesticated  animals,  or  animals  that  can  be domesticated, are located in the hierarchy of living species between primitive races  and civilized races – and that therefore  humanitasis split into two distinct parts, set off from each  other  by a  transversal  line  formed  by  reference  to the  animal.  The  animal  is  not the origin of the human  species,  but rather the  line  of separation inscribed within the  human species. (52)

Death is no longer the unavoidable background, or continuous challenge, out of which  life  emerges  and  against which  it exerts resistance, but  the  primary instrument  of its preservation and  enhancement. The  conceptual  and  operational  locus  where  this  reversal  takes form is the concept – or, more precisely, the ‘practice’ – of humanity. (56)


2. Person, Human, Thing

The concept  of  ‘person’ was intended  to  fill  in  the  chasm  opened up between the poles of human being and citizen that had existed since the Declaration of 1789. (70)

Even  when  interpreted  in  secular  terms,  in  short, the idea of person is never entirely reducible to that of the biological substrate of the subject it designates; rather, its most significant meaning is to be found precisely in a  sort of excess, of a spiritual or moral character,  that makes more  of the  ‘person,’  yet without letting it coincide completely with the  self-sufficient individual  of the  liberal tradition.  It is  actually  the  locus  of their most  intense combination: the inseparable relationship between body and  soul in a  single  entity,  open to relationship with other persons. (71)

Already the  separation initially established by Bichat between the two types of life – organic and animal – with  the  quantitative  and temporal dominance of the first over the second, had disrupted the idea of the person as responsible for his or her own actions and,  thus,  as  a  site of legal  imputation for obligations and rights. Subsequently, when this biological division was transferred from the body of the individual to that of humanity, the process of depersonalization was driven to the point of no return.  Sucked  back  into  its  purely  corporeal  substratum,  the biospiritual core  that the  modern  tradition  had called  person was now deprived  of all  its  attributes,  in favor of collective  entities – national,  ethnic  or  racial  in character – whose  fates were predestined  by indissoluble  blood ties. (71)

My  thesis  is  that  the  dispositif  of  the  person, intended  by  the creators  of the Declaration  on  Human  Rights to fill  in the chasm between man  and citizen left gaping  since  1789,

produced  an  equally  profound  gap  between  rights  and  life.  The very  paradigm  that  appears  to  be  a  vehicle  for  their  epochal reunion acts instead as  a  separation filter,  or  as  a  differential diaphragm  between two elements  that fail to meet up,  except in the form  of  their  separation. (74)

Both  the  Cartesian  tradition  –  with  the  prior  distinction between res extensaand res cogitans- and the Lockean tradition, which  assigned  a  functional  rather  than  substantial  character  to personal identity, are inscribed within this  division: in both cases, ‘person’ qualifies that which, in a human being, is other than and beyond body.  Far from identifying the living being in its entirety, inside  of  which  it  is  nonetheless  inscribed,  person  corresponds rather to the irreducible  difference that separates the living  being from  itself. (76)

The  moment  all  human  beings  were  considered  to  be bearers  of  a  rational  will,  regardless  of  differences  in  status  or social  standing,  they were for this very reason  also  considered to possess  a  legal  personality.  In  this  way,  instead  of  rights  being superordinate  to  the  subject,  they  become  the  subject’s  defining trait,  understood  as the power any subject has  over itself and the things  that  belong  to  it.  From  this  point  of  view,  the  difference between  homo and  persona that  the  Romans  upheld  no  longer had  a  reason  to  exist. (82)

The  moment the  person  ceased  to  be  a  general  category into which someone could be transferred, passing in  and out of it the way they did in Rome, and  became  a  quality implicit in every human  being,  it  revealed  itself  to  be  different  and  superimposed on the natural substrate it was implanted in. And this all the more as – or to the extent to which – it was identified with the rational and  volitional  or  moral  part  of the  individual,  the  part  invested with a universal value, so to speak. This is exactly how that splitting, or doubling, that first separated the human being as a simple homo from  the  general  category  was  re-established  within  every individual. (82-83)

Far from  disappearing, the splitting  action  penetrated  from  the  outside  inside,  dividing  the human  being into two areas:  a  biological  body  and  a  site  of legal imputation,  the  first  being  subjected  to  the  discretionary  control of  the  second.  Once  again,  and  perhaps  even  more  than  before, the person is not the same  as the  human  being in its entirety. The person is  actually  superimposed onto the  human  being – but also juxtaposed  with  it –  as  an  artificial  product  of the very law  that defines  it  as  such. (83)

The  fact  that  the  person  is  constrained  to  obey  the sovereign  outwardly,  in  the external  sphere  of his  or her  actions, but  not  inwardly,  in the internal  sphere  of his  or her conscience and  judgment,  which  remained  free,  splits  the  person  into  two different parts, which later would be reproduced in the irreconcilable modern dichotomy between human  being and citizen.  Separated  from  everyone  else  by  the  vertical  thread  that  binds  him or

her,  individually,  to  the  sovereign,  each  person  is  splayed  apart from its  own inside  in  such a  way that the two  are impossible to reunite.  This  is the  double  effect – of personalization  and  deper­sonalization – that  sovereignty  has  on  the  body  of  the  person:  it makes the person something that no longer has body, and the body something that can no longer  be  a person. (87)

[…] a person is the entity that is qualified by its dominion over its own biological substrate, a whole that can unify and dominate its parts. (88)

For liberal culture –  unlike  Nazism  – the  dividing  line  between  animal  and  human

passes  through the individual,  and not through a  racial hierarchy of peoples. The  fact remains, however – actually  it  becomes  even more  evident  –  that  the  reasoning  behind  the  relationship  thus established  between  body  and  thing  is  in  any  case  analogous:  if

you  start  from  an  instrumental  conception  of  life  –  whether enlisted  in  the  service  of the  sovereign  state  or  of the  individual – the condition  of one  tends  to slide into that of the other.  Now, contrary  to  what  has  been  assumed,  making  the  definition  of human  rights  dependent  on  the  language  of the  person  has  not managed to stop this drift. And the reason why it has been unsuccessful,  as  we  have  shown  by  opening  up  a  wider  perspective on  the  issue,  is  that what  created  this  drift  is  the  very  language of  the  person  itself.  To  the  extent  that  this  language  identifies, inside the human, an extracorporeal core defined in terms of will and  reason,  it  necessarily  ends  up  thrusting  the  body  into  an animal or vegetal  dimension,  putting it in  direct contact with the sphere  of things. (91)

[…] in a  tradition  that dates  back  to John Locke  and  John  Stuart  Mill,  a  person  is  such  –  a  human  being takes  on personhood,  in  other words – when  it has  ownership of itself.  While,  for  Locke,  “every  man  has  a  property  in  his  own person:  this  no  body  has  any  right  to  but  himself,”31  for  Mill, “the only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns  himself,  his  independence  is,  of  right,  absolute.  Over himself,  over  his  own  body  and  mind,  the  individual  is  sovereign.”32  Even  in  this  case,  the  body  –  over  which  the person exercises his or her proprietary dominion – is thought of as thing, as  a  bodily  thing  or  a  reified  body.  Therefore  in  each  individual the  dispositif  of the  person  works  at  the  same  time  toward  per­sonalization  (in  the  rational  part)  and  toward  depersonalization (in the animal or bodily part).  In short, only a  non-person, living matter  with  no  personhood,  can  give  rise  to  something  like  a person  as  the  object  of  its  own  subject.  Just  as,  conversely,  a person  is  a  person  if  it  reduces  to  thingness  that  out  of  which  it arises on the basis of its own rational-spiritual status. (92)

The general transition  of humankind  toward  thingness,  which  has  become  the predominant  tendency  of our  time,  was  opened  up  by  this  continuous  transition from human to  animal,  from animal  to vegetal, and from vegetal to mineral. Neither the difference between animate and inanimate beings nor the difference between natural and artificial have withstood  the  allied  pressure  of  economy  and  technology. (96)

In any case, whether you start from the  beginning or from the end of life, what really qualifies  as  ‘person’  only  occupies the central section: that of adult, healthy individuals. Before and after this  lies  the  no  man’s  land  of  the  non-person  (the  fetus),  the quasi-person  (the  infant),  the  semi-person  (the  elderly,  no  longer mentally or physically  able),  the  no-longer-person  (the patient  in a  vegetative  state),  and,  finally,  the  anti-person  (the  fool,  whom Singer  puts  in  the  same  relation  to  the  intelligent  human  being as  obtains  between  the  animal  and  the  normal  human  being  – albeit with  a clear preference  for  the  animal). (97)

Newborn babies cannot see themselves as beings who might or might not have a future, and so cannot have a desire to continue living. For the same reason, if a right to life must be based on the capacity to want to go on living or on the ability to see one self as a continuing mental subject, a newborn baby cannot have a right to life. (98-99, Peter Singer „Writings on an ethical life”, p. 162)

The part of the person that should be rejected is precisely the one that says ‚I’ or ‚we’; better still, the logical thread that ties individual self-consciousness to collective consciousness in the grammatical mode of the first person. (102)


3. The Third Person

Just  as  the person – in the  alternating form  of the  I and  the  you – can  only refer  to  itself in  a  purely  discursive  situation,  similarly  the  third person  –  the  non-person  –  always  refers  to  an  objective  type  of external referent. (107)

[…] the third is ‚he who is absent’. […] What is absent is always the subjective quality of the person or, better perhaps, the personal identity of the subject. (107)

Rather,  it  is  everyone  –  and  therefore  no  one,  as  Benveniste concluded,  following  a  different  line  of  reasoning.  Since  he/she does not exist for me,  for you,  or  ultimately,  says the  author,  for itself, it simply is not.  It is  an  opening,  or the  outside,  of the  personal relationship. It is a relationship without personhood and, at the same  time,  a  person  without relationship:  it is the  unrelated, the irrelative,  and the impersonal. (118)

For  the  third person to  be  identifiable – not a third inside the second person, hollowed out or scooped out from its  foundation,  but rather  one  that is  external  even  to  it,  located outside the first and second persons and actually constituted in an absolute outside – in order for this to happen, the dialogical structure of the face-to-face relationship – and thus  of the intersubjective  dialectic  that goes  along  with  it –  must  be  forced  open  and broken  down.  The language  of the person – or even  of persons, as  all  those  evoked  by  Levinas  are  –  must  be  turned  inside  out, into the form of the  impersonal.  This  would  lead  the  verticality of  transcendence  back  onto  a  plane  of  immanence  and  would multiply  the  singular  into  the  plural. (125)

As Blanchot maintained, literature  opens  up a  field of intensity in which the subject is sucked into the statement and, thus, catapulted into its own outside. (135)

[…] writing expresses nothing outside of writing itself. But if this is the case, if writing is always writing about  writing,  then,  evidently,  the  outside  of  literature  has  the form  of  an  inside;  it  never  crosses  over  its  own  pre-established confines. (136)

The reason why  this  outside is so  elusive is that somehow,  and without diminishing its degree of extraneity in  any  way,  it  lies  within  us:  we  ourselves  are  looked  at  from  a point of view that does not coincide, and indeed collides, with the transcendental point of view of our person, which flows out onto the  radically  immanent  plane  of  the  impersonal.  What  is  it  that we  are – beyond  or  before  our  person – without ever  being  able to become masters  of it?  What is it that traverses  us  and troubles us, to the point of turning over into its opposite, if not life itself? (137)

[…] power is what generates the resistance of that onto which it discharges itself. This explains why life, distinct from the subjectivity of the person as that which both underlies and overturns it into its material exteriority, constitutes the object of biopower, but also the locus that most opposes it. (139)

Precisely because it is impersonal,  the event coincides, in short, with an outflowing of singularities that have neither the apperceptive  form  of the  I nor the  transcendental  form of consciousness. This is what Deleuze defines as the plane  of immanence, meaning a  sphere  of life that  is  entirely coextensive with itself –  in which the cause is one with its effect, so to speak, and the actor with what is acted upon. (143)

The  only  avenue  for  escaping  the  dialectic  between  personalization and depersonalization,  which we  are  by  now  familiar  with, passes  through the  deconstruction  of the category of person, following a logic that privileges multiplicity and contamination over identity  and  discrimination. (145)

Whether this control passes through a  sovereign mediation  of an  external nature  or is entrusted to the will  of  the  individual  owner,  the  body  remains  exposed  to  a mechanism  of  appropriation,  disassemblage,  and  manipulation that ends up assimilating the  body to a thing owned  by others or by itself. Even the semantics of the Catholic discourse on the inaccessibility  of  life  –  its  absolute  value  deriving  from  the  act  of  a Creator  who  maintains  possession  over  it  –  remains  within  the same  paradigm.  The  body  is  always  at the  disposal  of  a  person, whether  divine  or  human,  who  is  not  coextensive  with  it  and whose  transcendence in relation to  the  body  is actually the  basis of its definition. (147)

What changes with respect to the plane of the subjects, besides a  certain  spatiality  that  is  irreducible  to  predefined  boundaries, is  a  temporality  that does not have the  stable  form  of presence, but  rather  the  form  of  the  event,  extending  between  past  and future.  Haecceity never has an origin or an end – it is not a point: it  is  a  line  of  slippage  and  assemblage  [ concatenamento].  It  is made  up  not  of  people  and  things,  but  of  speeds,  affects,  and transitions;  just  as  its  semiotics  is  composed  of  proper  nouns, verbs in the infinitive,  and indefinite pronouns. Haecceity is composed  of  third  persons,  traversed  and  liberated  by  the  power  of the  impersonal. (149)

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