Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is a strange hybrid of a book. On the one hand, it’s an extremely erudite and yet readable history of Italian philosophy, but on the other hand, it’s also a creative and constructive work of philosophy. The burden of the argument is that there is something about the Italian experience of the late and never fully constituted arrival of a nation-state that allowed for the development of a style of thought that sits askew relative to the mainstream discourses of modernity — and that this is the reason for the contemporary success of Italian thought under the conditions of globalized late capital. He proceeds by pointing to a series of distinguishing traits that mark the tradition of Italian thought from its beginnings in Bruno, Vico, and Machiavelli: an ambiguous relationship to the question of “origin,” resulting in a curiously bi-directional concept of history; a mutual “contamination” of philosophy with other discourses and practices; and an emphasis on immanence and life.
This procedure can sometimes become a bit repetitive, and I began to wonder whether Esposito’s insistence on the continuity of these traits in the Italian tradition was actually obscuring the distinctive contributions of each of the individual thinkers discussed. At times it could almost seem that when they came in for criticism, it was because they weren’t being sufficiently “Italian” in the philosophical sense — they had fallen victim to one of the traps of mainstream modernity (linear progress, for example) and betrayed the fundamental insights to which they were heir. Others can probably assess this better than me.
A question that was more important to me came from the other direction: who else might be “Italian” in Esposito’s sense? He is eager to claim Spinoza as an exemplar, and in fact it seems that he holds to the “Italian” insight more consistently than most of the literal Italians Esposito profiles. One thinker who came to mind for me was Freud. He sits at the intersection between conceptual or speculative thought (which he wouldn’t be comfortable calling philosophy) and the practice of clinical psychology, and the two mutually contaminate each other. He is continually drawn to the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny, and much of what Esposito says about the origin and life could be easily mapped onto Freud’s discussion of the drives. The discussion of constituent and constituted power also immediately made me think of Benjamin. Clearly Benjamin rejects a linear view of progress in favor of a more complex model incorporating the counterforce that he calls messianic, and his philosophical practice is inseparable from the political and even the mundane realities of popular culture.
Perhaps there is some kind of “special relationship” between Jewish and “Italian” thought, which would make sense if the ambiguous relationship to the modern nation-state is as decisive as Esposito claims. I also thought, however, of contemporary feminist theologians like Catherine Keller and Laurel Schneider. Face of the Deep and Beyond Monotheism both sit askew the mainstream of modernity as well as the mainstream theological tradition — and the relationship between the two comes up frequently in the final chapter of Esposito’s book — and both works reread the historical tradition in the light of a pre-historic and yet always contemporary origin or life (tehom, the divine multiplicity). Perhaps women’s ambiguous relationship to the theological tradition makes them especially good candidates for being honorary “Italians,” a status that Esposito might nod toward in his very frequent references to Simone Weil.
Now that I start down this path, though, it seems that there is potentially no limit to the number of “Italians.” Certainly Foucault has something “Italian” about him — particularly as Esposito’s main claim to the contemporary urgency of Italian thought is that it has served as the most important incubator for the Foucauldian paradigm of biopolitics. Might not Carl Schmitt, another persistent point of reference, be “Italian” in his own weird way? And to step outside Esposito’s explicit citations, what about Zizek, for example? What about Laclau? What about Latin American liberation theology? What about queer theory? You could make a case for all of them, I think, and that’s where the weakness of Esposito’s approach becomes pronounced: more than just objecting that his schema is too broad to designate the distinctively “Italian,” it might be too broad to designate anything specific enough to be useful. What’s to prevent us from declaring the entire continental philosophy/comparative literature/political theology milieu to be Esposito-style “Italian”?
Someone may have a good answer for this. In any case, I learned a great deal from Esposito’s guided tour through Italian thought — though his paradigm may have led to repetition, it also proved its worth in generating compelling readings of the figures involved, especially Dante. I’m glad to have gotten a good overview of Italian thought, even if I’m not sure about its relationship to “Italian” thought.