Home > Uncategorized > Roberto Esposito “The Dispositif of the Person”

Roberto Esposito “The Dispositif of the Person”

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)

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