Roberto Esposito: Philosopher of Community and Immunity?

Some time ago I called Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society a “gift” for Christians. The short book, which has been translated into 18 languages, is a rare example of chic political theory that resonates with homilies. Han calls upon us to develop practices of contemplation to resist overextending ourselves in a hyperactive digital age. In the book’s opening pages, Han proposes that we abandon an “immunological paradigm”[1] that sees the threat of infection from outside us. Instead, according to him, the real threat to our wellbeing comes from ourselves, from our own desires to achieve self-imposed goals. We over-work, over-consume, and over-achieve till we “burn out.”

Now, Han’s concerns about burnout suddenly seem to belong to another age. As we wall ourselves in against the threat of the COVID-19, Han’s gift looks like the proverbial “gift horse”: well past its prime, once a concern we could afford, now an expensive luxury to maintain. Collective anxieties about bodily survival lower our expectations about our own personal projects. Contemplation, of course, is still timely.[2] But to think politically about the world, the immunological paradigm deserves a second look.

1. Agamben, Biopolitics, and Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic will—at the very least—change the way we think and talk about politics for years to come, much like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.[3] In the niche market of chic political theory, frequented by those of us who indulge grand sweeping claims, etymology, and neologism, Giorgio Agamben was a hot commodity in the 2000’s. His State of Exception proposed that the Bush Administration’s War on Terror signaled a permanent and global state of exception to international law. Today, he proposes that the coronavirus is a similar pretext for governments to invoke emergency powers.  

Agamben’s political categories explain his initial suspicion that the coronavirus epidemic in Italy was a pretext—a flimsy one—for disciplinary measures. A month before Italy’s reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed China’s, Agamben compared coronavirus to the common flu, suggesting that public alarm was exaggerated. In the intervening weeks, torrents of information have debunked this once-common comparison, and it has become taboo to make it. Agamben follows Michel Foucault who, with considerably more historical distance, argues that surveillance and control of bodies intensified considerably during 17th century epidemics.[4] Agamben was quickly charged with “medievalism”—one way journalists call people “out-of-touch.” But this reminds me of a grim Italian joke[5] that is circulating the Internet these days: “If you ever wanted to know how people lived in the 14th century, now you know: you have two popes and a plague.”

One may conclude that masters of suspicion like Foucault have warped Agamben’s perspective so much so that he cannot see a serious public health emergency for what it is.[6] Yet, Christians should heed this untimely warning of his. Agamben warns that we now see one another, and ourselves, as vectors of contagion. By keeping “social distance,” he writes, we abolish “the neighbor.” The Christian conscience should be pricked to reflect upon a difficult question with no easy answer: will God judge our actions amidst the pandemic in the same way that the public authorities do?

If 9/11 vaulted Agamben onto political theory syllabi around the world, the pandemic coronavirus could do the same for another contemporary Italian thinker, Roberto Esposito. It is Esposito’s “immunological paradigm” that Han attempts to surmount at the beginning of The Burnout Society. It will not be surmounted. On the contrary, it should command new attention. Esposito organizes his political theory around concepts drawn from biology, and he asks timely questions about the intersection of politics and immunization efforts, borders, and specters of totalitarianism.

It is a truism that events change our perspective, but Esposito thinks they ought to, even to the point of reorienting philosophy. The signature of Italian philosophy, according to Esposito’s 2010 book Living Thought, is that it does not shy away from complex, world-changing events. Thinking life in its complex totality is an Italian legacy, he argues in Terms of the Political, that runs from Machiavelli to Augusto del Noce and into the present day. Esposito claims in Terms of the Political that the task of philosophy, quoting his mentor Gilles Deleuze, is to find “appropriate concepts for the event.” Now events find his.

Esposito proposes that we need new political concepts, because the democracies’ political language of equality, rights, and sovereignty is 50 years out of date. Between 1968 and 1972, he writes, sexual liberation, generational politics, genetic modification, and ecology all raised new kinds of problems and questions about what “life” and “freedom” mean. Esposito wants a conceptual register that is capacious enough to think about these events together. This propels him beyond historically oriented continental thinkers like Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini.          

His 1988 book Categories of the Impolitical addresses these figures and others in broad outline; Esposito makes a sustained critique of “the political” in the sense of something that has an “origin,” a founding moment or crisis, an “essence” somehow opposed to technē. Esposito dismisses these attempts to chart the direction of political history, insisting instead that politics is only technology acting within nature and upon its plurality.[7] He calls this the “impolitical” perspective. The impolitical gives Esposito leverage to shut out political concepts that transcend events and biotechnological responses to them. This materialistic plane conceptually excludes “existential” anxieties, “what-is” questions about the political, right, and law, and even “the person.”[8] From now on Esposito’s philosophical reflections will take place within bio-politics,[9] exploring how the political might preserve life in all its complexity, difference, and heterogeneity, and explaining why so often it does the opposite.[10]

2. Esposito’s Affirmative Biopolitics

Esposito thinks towards an “affirmative biopolitics,” or a “democratic biopolitics,” that moves beyond Foucault’s hermeneutic of suspicion. What does this mean? Recall that Foucault introduces “biopolitics” to the language of political theory in his 17 March 1976 lecture at the Collège de France. Foucault argues that the collection of statistics like birth rate, mortality rate, and life expectancy changed medical science, which in turn ushered in new regimes of public hygiene and public health. These new forms of normalization, discipline, or simply power are “biopolitics,” as practiced upon a population. As we saw, Foucault thinks these forms of discipline were particularly intense during early-modern epidemics. But by the 18th century, biopower addressed “endemics,” as states tried to keep their populations alive against the permanent threat of death. At this point in the lecture, Foucault moves quickly, making admittedly “enormous claims” that sketch connections between biopower and state control of sexuality, racism-as-policy, and Nazism.[11] Biopolitics is first theorized in a critical mode. No doubt this hermeneutic of suspicion trains Agamben’s instincts that the coronavirus is a pretext for discipline.

Biopolitics can describe the new language that has appeared seemingly overnight these days—“social distance” (verb), “flatten the curve,” “community spread”—along with the morality estimate graphs and infection-rate maps. All of a sudden, the health of the population takes precedence over other political concerns, individual rights, commerce, and elections. Everywhere new relations of power seem to spring into action to meet the dual threats of spreading pandemic and future social unrest. Despite positioning himself within biopolitics, Esposito can quietly criticize Agamben for overreacting to coronavirus: one can read Foucault without equating quarantine and incarceration.[12] Esposito insists that a democratic biopolitics is possible. We the people can only hope so.

The essay collection Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics is the best introduction to Esposito’s post-Foucauldian affirmative biopolitics. As the subtitle suggests, community and immunity are the important technical terms. Esposito constantly points out that munus, “a task, obligation, duty (also in the sense of a gift to be repaid),” is the etymon for both community and immunity.[13] In response to any event, the political is what simultaneously embraces and rejects munus.

Community is what is outside us, but Esposito emphasizes that it is also the condition of our growth into the “others” that are our future selves.[14] Community is both necessary for life and the site of freedom. Freedom for Esposito is the experience we have when we are open to difference and growth in community. Esposito is critical of political theory that makes freedom a past achievement or a future hope, and insists it must be a “fact,” a “connective, aggregative, unifying power” that “frees existence to the possibility to exist.”[15] Our obligation (munus) to the community is simply what we owe to ourselves, the condition of our existence in freedom. There is no primordial founding moment, no myth of origins, and no social contract to justify our obligations to the community. Esposito’s notion of community is total, because it is the environment where growth, freedom, and life are. Yet Esposito does not idealize the community. Because a community has no essence, it has no potential. His notion of community is in one sense deflationary—there are no “communities” in essence—because there are only actual, flawed communities at any given time. Community is always defined, or limited, by its opposite: immunity.

Communities are inherently limited, Esposito thinks, because there is no politics (or democracy) without immunity, the limits of our obligations to others.[16] Esposito explains, “Immunis is he or she who has no obligations toward the other and can therefore conserve his or her own essence intact as a subject and owner of himself or herself.”[17] Democracies are not planetary in scope because groups immunize themselves with borders, the denial of obligations to a global community of living things. But Esposito’s concept of community challenges us to envision a politics for the sake of preserving life, starting with exigent demands of “nude and terrifying images” of the world’s refugees and displaced persons, but also branching out to all living things.[18]

Immunological responses define all communities all the time, Esposito thinks, but he warns that carrying their logic too far leads to violence. To make secure ourselves, we imperil others. Picking up where Foucault leaves off in 1976, Esposito argues that the Nazi regime is best understood not according to the historical category of totalitarianism, but the biopolitical category of immune response.[19] In his 2004 book Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, which develops this theme at length, Esposito argues that the Nazis medicalized sovereignty (or dissolved it into biological categories): “If the ultimate power were the boots of the SS, superior auctoritas was dressed in the long white gown of the doctor.”[20] Nazism is like an autoimmune disease that turns the state’s defensive potential against its own population—most famously the “Jewish virus”—and “attacks the very body it should protect.”[21] To think critically about 1933-1945 with immunitarian rather than totalitarian concepts, Esposito thinks, reveals there are immunitarian crises where the desire for security is pursued to self-defeating ends even today. Esposito provocatively considers the Western democracies’ and Islamic extremists’ respective “immunitarian obsessions”: the former to secure individuals and their wealth worldwide, the latter to secure their religion from ideological contamination. These two opposed obsessions lead to an “immunitarian crisis” (which Esposito likens to René Girard’s “sacrificial crisis”) of ever-escalating violence.[22]

What do Esposito’s biopolitical concepts offer, however, when we face non-metaphorical viral contagion, literal immunizations, and a country that closes its borders as an immunological response? I think two things. First, in a more specific theoretical contribution, Esposito moves Foucauldian biopolitics beyond Agamben’s kneejerk suspicion of public health.[23] Esposito accepts that immunity defines every community, even if it is the antithesis of community. This acceptance allows him to see the Italian response to coronavirus not as a disciplinary apparatus clamping down, but rather as an actual community struggling to control a chaotic situation for the sake of preserving life.

More broadly, Esposito dispels the specter of totalitarianism for non-Foucauldians as well. Esposito offers us an interpretive framework that refuses to see COVID-19 within a master narrative of historical drifts away from freedom (or the origins of the political) towards totalitarianism. “What occurs when an ‘outside’—namely, life—bursts into the sphere of politics,” Esposito asks, “causing its supposed autonomy to explode and shifting the discourse to a terrain that is irreducible to the traditional terms (such as democracy, power, and ideology) of modern political philosophy?”[24] Many of us wonder the same thing now, when all of a sudden the only political concern is the preservation of life, and not only biological life, but also the return to a richer, freer, life that we only have in community with others. The danger is not totalitarianism, if Esposito’s historical lessons hold true, but that an immunitarian democracy will identify human vectors of contagion. Conspiracy theories about bioweapons that escaped containment in Wuhan, and blame games in China and the United States alike, suggest ripe conditions for the immunological response to become violent.[25]

The pandemic calls us to think in immunological terms, but most of us will ultimately resist Esposito’s adventure to think only in biopolitical terms. Such thinking excludes questions of legitimacy and right, and of course a fundamental “what is” question about the nature of politics. A world immanent to itself, where right is commensurable with power, is nothing new, as any of us who read Spinoza know—Deleuze first among us! Is Esposito simply fashioning political concepts appropriate to post-1968 events, then, or reintroducing a metaphysical “plane of immanence” that Deleuze can date back to the 17th century?[26] Either way, Esposito’s combination of biopolitics and Deleuzian materialism to think “big events” rules out an existential dimension where personal experiences of anxiety and wonder impress a sense that we do not belong wholly to the world. So long as those remain true to our experience, there are categories of freedom that transcend becoming-other (or “becoming-animal”)[27] in and through the communities where we encounter difference.

3. When Immunology Is Not Metaphorical

Esposito’s concepts seem fitting for the present coronavirus pandemic, but this event may show the limits of his metaphors. As Susan Sontag once wrote, “illness is not a metaphor”; it rather purifies our “metaphoric thinking.”[28] Ironically, the immunological paradigm is better suited to describe genocide, racism, security dilemmas, and xenophobia than to grapple with a community’s actual immunological response to preserve life. Esposito does not lament, I assume, that the present medical effort to contain or eradicate coronavirus immunizes us from planetary community with virus life. His concepts of immunity and community are a metaphorical language to deal with political problems of ecology, gender, sexuality, race, and generation—not disease.

Perhaps no language of political concepts is suited to a time of plague, the high noon that casts no shadow of the future. Epidemics rescind what Deleuze calls our “right to problems,”[29] the way democracy under normal circumstances can respond to events, formulate political problems, and solve them collectively. If public health authorities do not suspend politics, then chaos will. As John Panteleimon Manoussakis reminds us, this lesson comes down to us from before political philosophy has a name, when Thucydides saw that the plague of 430 BCE was stronger than speech or reason. Individuals who fear imminent death are no longer citizens who can cooperate on long-term collective projects, or think with political concepts that point towards munus, duty, gift, obligation, or openness to difference.

Total immunization reduces the space of community to zero. We are not yet close, perhaps, but even now panicked shoppers flock to the stores to hoard everything that might avail them from ammunition to zinc. We foresee an event where no political concepts are viable, even metaphors drawn from immunology, because no ideas are strong enough to secure cooperation.

If politics can cease, and reemerge, this suggests contrary to Esposito that the political is a “something” with origins and termini. Mass immunization and quarantine brings the impolitical perspective into question: What is it that has disappeared? The deeper irony, I think, is the event of a mass immunological response, where Esposito’s metaphor becomes literal, raises all the questions that his metaphor brushes off.

Let us return to Han, where I began, with more a chastened perspective than I had two years ago. The immunological paradigm will not be overcome, but it can be supplemented, if we consider that the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates a pre-existing neurotic crisis. Panics that dump stocks and deplete stocks of toilet paper are nothing new. New, however, are those anxieties related to our ability to consume and share vast amounts of information that is up-to-the-minute, ever changing, and often contradictory. The pandemic has only begun, and experts already warn of “coronavirus fatigue.” If we cannot find the “releasement” to let things be that are outside our control (Han borrows this term from Heidegger), then it is not only material concerns that will prevent people from relaxing at home for the next few weeks or months.[30] Han would not be surprised, probably, if many of us “burn out” trying to save ourselves before we are truly in danger.

The old problems of politics will be supplanted, for the near future, with criticism of the administration of the pandemic response. Politics is much reduced. While Agamben is unable to distinguish this new state of affairs from totalitarianism, Esposito is simply unable to conceptualize the suspension of politics. Even so, facing a threat to our survival, we forfeit the right to formulate problems. Christians will remember, however, that immunized and isolated as we are, we still belong to a communion that is not entirely immanent to this world. The duties of citizenship can be suspended; the obligations of sainthood cannot. Whosoever will save his life shall lose it . . . Christians face difficult problems in plague-time, but not political ones.


[1] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford: SUP, 2015), 1-6.

[2] Quarantine experts share Pascal’s notion, mutatis mutandis, that all the world’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in one room.

[3] I leave it to others to speculate about how it will probably change political and economic structures, maybe in ways that were unthinkable only weeks ago.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage, 1995), 195-199.

[5] https://twitter.com/Devadip96/status/1232082783583002625

[6] On March 17, he modified his view somewhat, emphasizing that it is because “we” are so accustomed to permanent states of emergency that we sacrifice our civic life to cling fearfully to bare biological survival

[7] In Han’s terms, Esposito is complicit with the “disintegration of time” that renders it meaningless and allows it to “whizz” around us. Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

[8] Esposito, “Towards a Philosophy of the Impersonal,” Terms of the Political, 112-122.

[9] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 69.

[10] We can object that philosophy is not simply concept-formation to respond to events. Jean-Luc Nancy sums up this objection in a curt e-mail to Esposito recently distributed online: “Dear Robert, neither ‘biology’ nor ‘politics’ are precisely determined terms today. I would actually say the contrary. That’s why I have no use for their assemblage. Best regards, Jean-Luc.” Esposito describes his turn to biopolitics, around the time of his 2002 book Immunitas, as a break with Nancy (as well as the aforementioned continental thinkers), and an embrace of Foucault. See: Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); See also: Timothy Campbell and Frederico Luisetti, “On Contemporary French and Italian Political Philosophy: An Interview with Roberto Esposito,” Minnesota Review 75 (Fall 2010), 109-118, 112.

[11] Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 261.

[12] https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/02/28/curati-a-oltranza/

[13] Esposito, Immunitas, 5.

[14] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 26.

[15] Ibid., 52-56.

[16] Ibid., 65.

[17] Ibid.,. 39.

[18] Ibid., 43.

[19] Ibid., 102.

[20] Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2008), 113-114.

[21] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 84-85.

[22] Ibid., 62,132.

[23] Esposito modifies but does not break with a Foucauldian understanding of discipline, as Han does. See Han, The Burnout Society, 8.

[24] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 106.

[25] Esposito might commend, however, the reluctance of the New York State health authorities to declare the Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community of Borough Park a “cluster” of community spread. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/nyregion/Coronavirus-brooklyn-hasidic-jews.html?searchResultPosition=2

[26] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 121; Perhaps, as Antonio Negri thinks, the events of 1968 can only be understood with Spinoza? See: Antonio Negri, Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity (New York: Columbia, 2013), 3.

[27] This term, which Esposito deploys several times, comes from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 237ff.

[28] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1978/01/26/illness-as-metaphor/

[29] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition [1968], trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 158.

[30] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, 83.

Featured Image: NIH, Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that emerged in 2012; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.

Author

Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on modern theories of envy in democratic life, especially in the political psychology of Benedict Spinoza.

Read more by Robert Wyllie