Living Thought Book Event: Italian Philosophy, a Distinction that Fails to Hold

This is a guest post by Alex Dubilet, a PhD candidate at UC-Berkeley in the Department of Rhetoric. – APS

I want to begin with a reflection on the overall framework that gives Living Thought its internal consistency. In his genealogical reconstruction of modern Italian thought from Machiavelli and Bruno onwards, Roberto Esposito argues that the specificity of Italian philosophy is located in its intensive exploration along several theoretical axes – the immanent relation between order and struggle, the interaction of the unhistorical origin and history, the tensions between life and subjectivity. Esposito frames this innovative power of Italian thought, in both its contemporary and historical forms, in relation to the deadlocks of twentieth century European and Anglo-American mainstream philosophy. In contrast to the impasses and exhaustion of both analytic and continental philosophy in their linguistic turns – caught between Heideggerian exultation of language, Wittgensteinian language games and deconstructive textuality – Esposito proposes Italian philosophical thought as engaging in a set of conceptually-innovative investigations that entirely evade this field, elaborating instead the nature of biopolitics, the common and the proper, the reversibility of immanence and life, etc.

Yet repeatedly over the course of the book, this distinction fails to hold. Take for example, this comment in the last chapter: “What Italian thought on communitas should instead be brought close to, as one of its initial sources of inspiration, is the French reflection that stretches form Bataille to Blanchot, up to Nancy, intersection with the Mit-sein of Heidegger with an explicitly critical attitude towards all substantialist metaphysics.” (255) At other times, Foucault and Deleuze as well as Weil and Nietzsche, among others, all provide insights that are theoretically convergent with the Italian tradition. That, by the end, a whole lot of Germans and French seem Italian on this account, might be due, I would suggest, to the constricted and deforming way Esposito frames what counts as mainstream modern European thought (Cartesian, Enlightenment, Immunitary) and contemporary philosophy (linguistic and hermeneutic) –definitions against which he articulates the particularity of Italian philosophy. Indeed, my suspicion is that the conceptual form of some of Esposito’s key problematics – say, the theoretical potency of immanence and its relationship to life – are dependent less on the Italian thinkers like Bruno and Gentile, and much more on the theoretical work of Foucault and Deleuze. Indeed, any reader of Agamben, Negri, and Esposito would agree that their thought is deeply indebted to and is a productive elaboration of the problematics and conceptual field of that preceding generation of French thought. This is hardly a revelation. What bothers me is the polemical and somewhat disingenuous gesture of organizing contemporary philosophy around the linguistic turn only to polemically reject it – all the while knowing that not only Foucault and Deleuze, but even Heidegger and deconstruction are not in the least reducible to such a portrait. This wouldn’t be worth the mention had this gesture not become something of a commonplace for contemporary philosophers, deployed also by Badiou, and in slightly modified form, by Meillassoux. The problem with such a gesture is that it distorts the philosophical field, reducing its actual complexity of positions, investigations, topics and conceptual schemes – and for what? In order to be able to assert the stark, contrastive originality and innovative nature of one’s own paradigm (in this case it’s not that of Esposito himself, but more of the Italian philosophy as such – that said, the book does end with Esposito’s own thought as a culmination of the entire genealogy.) But of course, this portrait fails to hold – precisely because continental thought of the twentieth century so radically exceeds the so-called linguistic turn. It seems the alternative to this gesture would be to acknowledge a broadly conceived diversified European thought, instead of delineating a singularity of a national difference – and to avow what the readings themselves show, i.e. that Bruno and Spinoza, Nietzsche and Leopardi, Foucault and Deleuze, Negri and Agamben should be read together not along national or linguistic lines, but along common theoretical axes of distribution (e.g. the critiques of the subject, the metaphysics of substance, the nexus of history, abstraction and violence, etc.) (As an aside, and as one thread of an answer to an earlier post, I wonder – especially in relation to the 19th century figures – whether a number of the critical topoi vis-à-vis Enlightenment, Progress, Rationalization and the French Revolution are really an Italian specificity at all, or rather ones that were produced repeatedly in the periphery of Europe. I note this remembering the critical discourse on all those topics that had large currency and circulation in Russia’s philosophical and literary culture from the 1830s to the Revolution in ways that did not seem at all foreign to Esposito’s description of Cuoco, Leopardi and de Sanctis.) To repeat the general point once more though: I wonder whether it would be useful to abandon the all-too-easy polemical narratives and periodizations about the exhaustion and dead-ends of philosophy surrounding the linguistic turn, and instead acknowledge that indeed the thought of the past century has been incredibly theoretically diverse, pursuing investigations in a myriad of theoretical directions at once – even if that disables one’s own declarations of innovative singularity.

That said, Living Thought is powerful in its stylistic analysis of individual figures and impressive in its ability to extract from those readings broader theoretical ramifications. Though perhaps not quite as theoretically cogent and systematic as Esposito’s other works, it’s a fascinating an engaging read. Below is an attempt to briefly trace out several interrelated conceptual questions that arose for me in the process of reading the text.

The first deals with the political resonances of immanence. In light of Deleuze’s work, we have become accustomed to read immanence as one of the central orientations, tasks and axes of contemporary theoretical discourse and one ultimately (and seemingly unproblematically) aligned with some constellation of deterritorialization, the challenging of morality, the overturning of the validity and stability of all transcendent points, and liberation (of desire, but not only…) – ultimately, that is, partaking in a left-wing project regardless of its exact conception. In arguing that the fascist-aligned philosopher Giovanni Gentile was preeminently a thinker of immanence, Esposito reminds us that immanence had been, prior to Deleuze’s use of the term, often associated with the opposite political formation – namely, with fascism. The question this raises for me is the theoretical one: Under what conditions is the thought of immanence a fascist one rather than a deterriotorializing one, and vice versa? What concepts deform the plane of immanence into a right-wing direction? What are the structures and limits that determine the politics of immanence? Is immanence inherently not fascistic unless something deforms it in that direction, or does it get its political valence from the general theoretical use in which it is embedded? The significance of these questions lies precisely in the fact that they seem to be almost completely elided and effaced in Deleuze’s forceful imbrication of immanence with liberation.

If one follows Esposito’s account of Gentile, a possible answer emerges. In a formulation that directly borrows from Deleuze’s critical lexicon and logic of immanence, Esposito writes, “On the one hand, we can say that the process whose immanence we assert has no other subject than its own unfolding. In this case, that which is immanent would be nothing but immanence itself, with no subjective mediation distinguishing between levels….” (178) So far so good. On the other side, however, for Gentile, there is the operation of encompassing this immanence of processual expression into a philosophy of the Self, a kind of idealism of the I, a movement that sacrifices the finite subject only to reassert a transcendental subjectivism. For Esposito this transcendental idealism is what makes the immanence of the common, of communitas, revert in the most violent way back to immunitarian identity and sameness. This explanation follows Deleuze’s own logic: Immanence is a problem only when it is attached to or aborted by a transcendent point which appropriates it, when it becomes an immanence to something and not absolute immanence, immanent only to itself. However, as Deleuze seemed to acknowledge in his final works, immanence as such is never quite achievable, not only theology but also by philosophy itself: it has always been, and maybe constitutively has to be, coagulated into points of transcendence.

The other part of the Esposito’s description of Gentile’s abortion of immanence – the transcendental subjectivity – also seems insufficient to answer the general question of when exactly does immanence take on a fascistic valence. Partially because for Deleuze himself there it is a kind of transcendental field (albeit without a subject) that closely accompanies the thought of immanence. It is insufficient also because if one take seriously the history of theological and mystical thought on divine intellect or transcendental divine subjectivity, one has to avow that at stake is not a simple finite subject made really large, but a something like pure act of generation or creativity that in reality is not easily ‘subjective’ at all, but winds up much closer to the process of immanence itself (and, I think that something of this holds as much for a medieval mystic like Eckhart as for Hegel). The question for me remains: Does immanence become fascistic only when it is subverted and instrumentalized? What concepts would deform it in that direction (Unity? Identity? Sovereignty?) Or are there articulations inherent to immanence, forms of immanence, that incline towards the right?

Another question about the politics of immanence arose from a different side of the text, namely the exact contours of the immantentization of antagonism, which Esposito proposes as one of the characteristic traits of Italian thought. Beginning with Machiavelli, order is theorized not as a neutral space that exceeds and represses or sublates antagonism, but rather as a space that is always fundamentally conflictual. This position, shared by Machiavelli with that other Italian, Spinoza, stands in opposition to the dominant formation of political theory from Hobbes onward that interprets the State as a neutral space that transcends all conflict. Yet while resisting the logic of immunity and transcendence and its political theological consequences – whether in the guise of the State or the unitary egological subject – seems like a worthwhile critical task, it turns out to be a precarious one. Esposito writes, “For both Spinoza and Machiavelli, although the logic of antagonism is inscribed in the plane of immanence, there is always a point beyond which they enter into political friction… When antagonism rises beyond a certain threshold, it is liable to lacerate the very plane of immanence that encompasses it, resulting in the need for a new momentum of transcendence capable of creating a new order.” (54) So antagonism constitutes immanence of order – but only relative antagonism, only antagonisms that the order itself can withstand. At this point the critical maneuver sounds quite pedestrian and reformist, unable to deal immanently with (or account for) ontological breaks and serious conflict. What was presented as immanence seems a whole lot like a totality that can mediate minor difference but reverts back to transcendent forms (of constitution and sovereignty) for anything that exceeds them.

The question regarding the “inherently antinomic relationship between the language of conflict and the logic of immanence” (218) arises again at the end of the book in relation to contemporary political philosophy, namely in relation to the difference between Tronti and Negri.

In Esposito’s account, we see in Tronti a prioritization of living labor and class conflict, theoretically siding with class war and political conflict that theoretically threatens the pole of immanence. Negri, on the other hand chooses the alternative: “When faced with the impossibility of reconciling immanence and conflict, Tronti chose conflict; Negri, by contrast, chose immanence, sacrificing the political form of conflict in favor of the social being.” (233) The relationship of conflict and immanence is both one of necessity and impossibility: they are thought together in a tension of co-existence that always breaks apart. Yet I wonder whether this formulation is itself not a product of the way one articulates the plane of immanence. What if one thinks of immanence not as something that can be appropriated by transcendence or broken down by conflict, but as something radically indifferent to all transcendence and conflict? A kind of Laruellian logic of immanence, not as multiplicity fitting into the One, but as an immanence that precedes and courses through and undoes all operations of transcendence, mediation, appropriation? Esposito writes, “Immanence threatens to absorb conflict and conflict tends to bring down immanence” (221) – But what if, quite to the contrary, immanence is something that cannot be broken down by conflict, a kind of natura naturans that exceeds all forms. Rather what can be (and is repeatedly) broken by conflict is totality or unity of a given political formation (whence arises the necessity of class war). On this account, immanence would be that which is always to use a Laruelle term, in prior priority. Most likely, Esposito’s would say that this is yet another instance of absorbing political conflict into immanence, but one can say, on the contrary, that such a formulation allows both the affirmation of immanence and struggle (or better yet, rebellion) – without falling into the aporetic tension that seems prevalent in his description, from his discussion of Machiavelli to the Tronti-Negri articulation.

One other way to get at this problem is to ask how exactly one should configure the relationship between this logic (of the interrelation of immanence and conflict) and the other conceptual logic central to Esposito’s genealogy – that of the primal, opaque, unhistorical origin that persists throughout historical time while remaining discontinuous to it. The most direct articulation of this unhistorical core of the Real occurs in Vico’s mythological account of giants who embody this common life and primal vitality and remain unformed, deformed, even in excess of all form. History proper can only begin with the breakdown of this savage communism, for their life embodies the very notion of the improper and the common that rejects the possibility individual personhood and the operations of appropriation and differentiation on which it is established. Herein is an exemplary case of Esposito’s immunization paradigm that works in history – protecting life by subjugating and ordering it. But the Real and its animalistic force that persist through history and the human subjects even as it remains discontinuous and disavowed by them – can always be reactivated, reappear, and break through. The common and the communal are never eliminated without a trace, without having history itself collapsing in on itself. With this in mind, let us repeat the question again: what is the relation between the opaqueness of the real that must be broken to generate history and yet can never be fully eliminated – and the logic of the immanence of conflictual antagonisms. How do we think these two logics together?

The reason why this question is important is that it gets us to the heart of the question of the exact theoretical semantics and conceptual contours of immanence. Namely: is history immanent and the opaque real what always is transcendent to it?  There are moments where Esposito’s discourse would suggest precisely such a distribution – which would then follow something of the logic of Blanchot’s disaster – a radical, immemorial exteriority that is both intimate and impossible, and radically transcendent to all presence; something that cannot appear to consciousness but persists as its double throughout all of conscious life. There is the alternative possibility as well, however, – that in fact what is most immanent is what is most common and living, and thus is not history itself, but the original force of the Real – that very ferocious animalistic communality that needs to be dealt with for the historical engine to begin running on its remains. On this reading, immanence would be radically foreclosed. What this would, in turn, mean is that the order that mediates and encompasses antagonism is itself not immanent, but a totality that works to tame and temper immanence. Order and history are then both not immanent, but merely planes which mediate conflictual positions in order to persist. They are names not immanence, but tamed totalities that stand in for immanence and feed on it. At the same time, real conflict is precisely a rebellion against order and for immanence, precisely the kind that order cannot incorporate within itself. In this case, perhaps, history and order are never immanent, but are closer to the structure of natura naturata, always a product of a process, but never the process themselves. But beyond these critical extrapolation, my basic intuition is that there are at least two different conceptions of immanence functioning unacknowledged in Living Thought – and that the reason why they are left unacknowledged is that they might not quite add up.

3 thoughts on “Living Thought Book Event: Italian Philosophy, a Distinction that Fails to Hold

  1. Thanks, really great post.

    Completely agree about the “gesture” you mention. Kept thinking of this book in analogy with Badiou’s _Century_, and of Badiou’s move in general, namely to periodize variegated philosophical trajectories in order to position one’s own intervention, and in fact to make this intervention constitutive of one’s own originality. (Interesting, too, to think about the way such a gesture of “the great philosopher” is in relay with the gesture of nationalism.) Also: there something of this in Speculative Realism, i.e. the “being done” with poststructuralism, with Kant, etc.

  2. Regarding the two terms of immanence and antagonism, i also found this to be a really compelling problematic, one probably more compelling insofar as i was dissatisfied with Esposito’s treatment (my post on the book says some things about this). There’s a sense in which antagonism, understood “as such,” can never really be a something. More like nothing.

    To clarify: antagonism “as such” is antagonism not between two recognizable elements but rather prior to the constitution of such elements. To borrow from Deleuze’s notion of relation exceeding / prior to its terms, antagonism as such would similarly be irreducible to the elements in antagonism. (And I don’t think Esposito generally addresses the “as such” of antagonism.) So antagonism would then be like a conflictuality resistant, if not itself antagonistic, toward something(s).

    If this is the case, then it helps a bit with the immanence / antagonism situation. Antagonism as such, in its refusal of something(s), enacts what Deleuze had in mind (and what you refer to) when he said that immanence is immanent only to itself, that immanence is never immanent to something. Somehow, then, antagonism as such becomes a necessary (or at least a helpful) condition for thinking immanence, for it enacts the resistance-to-something that is necessary for immanence’s own / intrinsic resistance-to-something.

  3. Dan – that makes a lot of sense. That the conflict should be seen as between two positions, but as the antagonism of immanence within itself against any node of transcendence, be it in terms of an subjective appropriation or theological projection. The conflict is a conflict not within the order of things but within immanence and against any reification into a ‘world’ or into a set of ‘somethings’ .

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