Roberto Esposito Third Person: Politics of life and philosophy of the impersonal (Translated by Zakiya Hanafi) Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, 177 pages.
At the outset of Third Person Roberto Esposito forcefully asserts that the category of person occupies an almost unassailable position in contemporary discourse. From analytic to continental philosophies and Catholic to secular schools of thought the idea of the person holds sway as the definitive category of meaning. Esposito holds that the category of personhood, allegedly the qualification capable of bridging the gap between human being and citizen, is in fact guilty of creating the separation between the voluntary rational part and the purely biological part of human life. Against the performative power of the person Esposito pursues a philosophical inquiry into the impersonal, as a category which can release us from the “exclusionary mechanism” of personhood into the originary unity of living being.
Esposito draws on the language of philosophy, bioethics, and law to make his case. Bioethics seems to hinge on defining when a living being becomes a person or what kind of living can be considered a person. Yet whether the definition is slated to begin at conception or birth or somewhere in between, it is the entrance into personhood that secures its unquestionable value. The centrality of the person cuts across what Esposito calls the Catholic and secular schools of thought as well:
If a tacit point of tangency exists between the seemingly opposing conceptions of the Christian sacredness of life and the secular notion of its quality, it resides precisely in this assumed superiority of the personal over the impersonal: only a life that can provide the credentials of personhood can be considered sacred or qualitatively significant. (2)
Turning to the lexicon of law Esposito points to the belief that personhood has the conceptual, and subsequently practical, function of bridging the gap between the concept of human being and that of citizen. The contemporary discourse on human rights, he argues, is conceivable and viable only through the language of personhood. In legal discourse too “the category of person appears to be the only one that can unite human beings and citizens, body and soul, law and life.” (4)
But all is not as it seems. Growing numbers of deaths from hunger, war, and epidemics stand as a testament against the effectiveness of “human rights.” How to respond to this divergence between principle and practice? One answer is that the concept of the person has simply not been fully affirmed, and has not taken “root at the heart of interhuman relations.” Esposito offers us a rather different perspective, wherein the ancient Roman separation between persona and homo remains firmly engrained in modern philosophical, political and legal conceptions. To be human is not necessarily to be a person, and vice versa. One need only think of the status of corporations for a contemporary example of this logic. A person is therefore an artificial entity, the result of abstract categories which resulted in procedures of exclusion. Esposito argues that the process whereby the experience of personhood is defined by reducing others to the level of a thing is still very much at work today, and can be seen at work in the rise of twentieth century biopolitics as well as the liberal tradition.
Drawing our attention to the work of the 19th century physiologist Xavier Bichat, Esposito traces the lineage of biopolitics through linguistics and anthropology. Esposito argues that the mixing of new biological knowledge with politics and philosophy set in motion a biopolitical current which, under the guises of the hierarchical anthropology of the 1800s and later the racist anthropology of the early 1900s, appeared to crush the person-human dualism into a single biological referent with incredible and decisive violence. This biological referent, articulated in terms of comparative zoology, sought to judge types of human species on the basis of “how closely or distantly they are related to animal species.” (7) The animal, held by Darwin to represent the origin of species, thus became a point of division and a mechanism of exclusion.
That the biopolitical currents produced a politics of exclusion and destruction in the Nazi regime, dubbed “thanatopolitics” by Esposito, could be read as an argument in favour of the personal. Surely the performative space opened up by the separation of the person from the body affords some protection against the crushing politics of death which, after all, appeared to undo the distinction. Esposito, however, makes the case that appearances once again deceive. While conflict between cultures built around personhood and the ideological attempts to crush the person back into pure biology certainly exists, there are continuities as well as ruptures between the two perspectives.
Hearkening back to Roman law, Esposito points to the position of the slave who is not considered a person, but instead occupies a place somewhere between person and thing. More than this, the act of defining who is counted as a person depends on the act of excluding what does not, as Esposito says,
-not only in the general sense that the definition of the human-as-person emerges negatively out of that of the human-as-thing, but in a more meaningful sense that to experience personhood fully means to keep, or push, other living individuals to the edge of thingness. (10)
On this reading it becomes clear that the “animal” of the emergent biopolitics and later thanatopolitics of the late 1800 and early 1900s functions precisely to define the lines between person and thing. The relationship between the two, Esposito is careful to note, exists at different levels. Under liberalism it is the individual (person) who is considered to own the body wherein it is implanted. Under Nazism, by contrast, ownership of the body is assigned to state sovereignty. What remains constant is the role of bodily life as a subordinate thing to the higher aims of the person who owns it. Even when the goal of the person is the maximization of individual freedom, as under liberalism, this freedom “comes by way of potential reduction of the body to an appropriated thing.” (13) On careful reading the bioethics developed as part of the liberal tradition reveals the ancient Roman distinction between persona and homo; not all human beings are persons and not all persons are human beings. “Hence” Esposito relates,
the resulting gradation –or degradation –from full person to semi-person, non-person, and anti-person, represented respectively by the adult, the infant or disabled adult, the incurably ill, and the insane. Hence to each level of personalization – or depersonalization – there corresponds a different right to determination, and even preservation of one’s life. Here, too, in formulations that closely recall the sovereign power of the paterfamilias over his children and over anyone whose condition is a reified reproduction of that state, the personhood-deciding machine marks the final difference between what must live and what can legitimately be cast to death. (13)
Personhood, and the politico-legal machinery behind, thus threatens to overwhelm contemporary discourse, but this is not the end of the story. Esposito counsels the impersonal as a way to trace lines of resistance. The impersonal, while lying outside the horizon of the person, remains related to the person; this peculiar relationship allows the impersonal to function as an alteration to the personal, calling it into question and overturning prevailing meanings. Esposito draws on the work of Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, and Gilles Deleuze among others to sketch out the figures of the impersonal in twentieth-century philosophy.
Following Weil, Esposito establishes the third person as a figure of justice. Opposed to the privative, exclusive character of both Roman and modern law, the figure of the third person or the impersonal is a generalized term. As such it renders possible the thinking of a “common right” a term which appears nonsensical in the lexicon of privative law. The radical formulation here is that it is not the personal, but the impersonal that constitutes the sacred.
Esposito traces this figure in from the non-person Emile Benveniste’s linguistic studies, the animal in the thought of Alexander Kojeve, the neuter in Blanchot’s writing, and the figure of the outside in the work of Michel Foucault. All of these come to a mighty crescendo in Deleuze’s “systematic destruction of the category of the person in all its possible expressions.” (142). In situating the philosophical horizon towards the impersonal event the category of the person becomes decentred, its boundaries opened to investigation and reinterpretation. Couched in terms of our animality, what is at stake here is the possibility of being human in ways not coextensive with the person or thing, but rather as living persons, that is, coextensive with life itself.
Third Person recasts the nebulous history of biopolitics with insight and ingenuity. Weaving together the biological, anthropological, linguistic and philosophic filaments of its genesis, Esposito finds that both liberal traditions of personalism and the catastrophic biopolitics of the twentieth-century share a common focus in the centrality of personhood. Esposito goes as far as to suggest that the horrors of biopolitics, which began as a naïve and unprejudiced science, are attributable to the cult of the personal. The figure of the impersonal, then becomes the place of refuge, or rather resistance. The book ends with a sort of invitation to meditate upon the impersonal as a way of being open to the radically new. Whether or not the impersonal is successful in unseating the hegemony of the personal, or indeed whether it provides sufficient resources for the conception and practice of politics, is still very much an open question. Regardless Third Person stands as an important reflection whose demanding rigor and sparkling insight prove very much worthwhile.