Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

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.

7 thoughts on “Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

  1. I think part of the “Italian” distinction comes, for Esposito, not only from the style of thought, relationship to the nation-state, and subject matter of these philosophers but from that intellectual triad you mention at the beginning: Bruno, Vico, Machiavelli. When he discusses later philosophers, Esposito is keen to establish a line of influence that goes back to one or more of those first three. He strongly advocates, it seems to me, the notion that these three are thinkers it is necessary to “go through” in order to arrive at a place in the Italian tradition. Spinoza, for example, as Esposito points out, is a reader and interpreter of Machiavelli and Bruno.

    Perhaps, according to Esposito, there’s something even more unique to the manner in which these three thinkers engage their subject matter and the nonphilosophical than those distinguishing qualities you mention. But if that’s the case, then your speculation on his “insistence on the continuity” becomes important. As you say, What if Esposito is “obscuring the individual contributions of each of the individual thinkers”? In that case, it’s difficult to ascertain the “unique” contribution of the Italian tradition that distinguishes it from the contributions of Benjamin, Keller, Freud, or Schneider. In that case, as you say, “there is potentially no limit to the number of ‘Italians’,” and we’re back at the original question. And I think it’s safe to say—considering the length of the book as a whole—that we are indeed necessarily missing a great deal from these thinkers and their work.

    But then again, how is it that Esposito introduces Living Thought? By looking briefly to three anthologies of Italian philosophy previously published. Maybe one of the thrusts of Living Thought is to encourage what an anthology encourages you to do: dig deeper.

  2. Not quite sure how to put this, but something like: productivity, power of making, creativity … these seem to be the criteria that (at least w/r/t Vico, Machiavelli, Bruno — and especially Spinoza) separate Italian thought from someone like Freud, for instance. The “italian” emphasis is not on fantasy, illusion, the false, etc., but on the power of construction.

    Hence Deleuze, w/r/t fabulation, power of the false, etc., would be “italian” too. Benjamin would not be “italian”, at least in terms of Critique of Violence or Theses on Philosphy of History, where what is invoked is something that is somehow being foreclosed. For similar reasons, Schmitt would not be “italian” — even if he advocates katechon, he’s still opposing it to some kind of breakdown. (My hunch, in fact, is that most of the discourse surrounding German-Jewish thought would be precisely what is different from “italian.”)

    Also, while the Spinoza of Deleuze, especially of Negri, is Italian, the Spinoza of Lacan (or of Kordela) might not be, given the latter focus on the opposition between the fantasy and the real.

    Anyway, this is partly my inference — wouldn’t say it’s absolutely explicit in Esposito’s text (and it’s also other things in Esposito’s text), but this is how i tended to take it.

  3. Yes, exactly — to put it in my own terms, Schneider and Keller would both be Italian in the same sense, namely that they see the doubleness of origin / more than one-ness in a positive or “symbiotic” sense, rather than in an intrinsically conflictual sense. The undecidability is productive rather than nihilative.

    Those of course are pretty broad / vague terms, but i think it makes sense.

  4. I had the same thought about Spinoza very early on while reading the book, but I don’t think that Freud fits in. If we say that Freud responds to an Italian problematic, but not as Italian (which I like), I wonder if that is sufficient enough to avoid the problem of over-broadness that I think you rightly put your finger on. However, and this might be too meta- to really be worth pushing further, but if we set up something like Freud or a specific German-Jewish tradition as a contrast class to the Italian thought, does it then risk referring it back to a kind of dialectical oppositional movement that it seems to want to ignore. I realize I may be over-reading your point here, but I think this gets at the precise strangeness of Italian thought and something I’m left wondering about after working through the book twice, namely the relation between ontology and politics. I don’t have my copy of the book with me in Europe, so perhaps I’ll have to leave this short with a promise to return, but I want to say that a constitutive part of Italian thought is our ambivalence over whether to accept the uniqueness of its claims with respect to other traditions rather than returning it to the same. I also think Gabriel is right to point out that the book partly serves to urge readers into a deeper engagement with Italian thought, but I think this latter point about ambivalence is one reason why Spinoza is a natural fit within this category (or at least as Dan points out, a certain take on Spinoza). I want to look back through the book with this in mind, though, or at least try to tease out whether adding Spinoza, Keller, and Schneider into the mix would problemetize the notion of geophilosophy he is working with.

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