Malcolm Bull reviews (sub. req’d) the latest book by Roberto Esposito “Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy” (U. Minnesota Press).
Where does immunity come from? Perhaps paradoxically by being part of something–the community.
This is the paradox that lies at the root of the recent work of the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito. In a sequence of books – Communitas (first published in 1998, and probably the best introduction to his ideas), Immunitas (2002) and now Bíos – Esposito has developed an account of modern politics in terms of immunity, where immunity is defined as the negation of community. The interpretation is derived from the linguist Emile Benveniste, who showed that, etymologically, ‘if munus is a gift carrying the obligation of an exchange, immunis is he who does not fulfil his obligation to make due return . . . Consequently communis does not mean “he who shares the duties” but really “he who has munia in common”.’ A community is therefore ‘a group of persons united by this bond of reciprocity’.
The review (and the book presumably) covers security, eugenics, Nazi science and pregnancy.
Esposito’s maternal model of immunity may represent an attractive alternative to Nazi biopolitics, but his response does not meet its full challenge. If ‘the state is really the body of its inhabitants,’ as Esposito claims the Nazis believed, then the individual bodies concerned are also the state. Either the body is outside the covenant or else the state is in some sense inside the body, and even within liberal states the body is at best a public-private partnership. In the camps, Esposito writes, the ‘body without a soul belonged to the sovereign’. But that does not go quite far enough. The cruel genius of Nazism lay in the realisation that the state is trapped by the physical limitations and deficiencies of its population, that the body is the prison of the state, and that science at last has the potential to liberate the prisoner. Esposito’s maternal model of immunity gets things the wrong way round. Like Blake’s Leviathan, writhing within the womb of the world, the state lies curled inside us. The problem is not being inside the whale; it is the whale within.
For more on Bull’s views on biopolitics (and a useful discussion of Foucault and Agamben) see this piece from NLR.
Filed under: Biopolitics