Roberto Esposito is an Italian philosopher whose writing crosses disciplinary divides. Born in 1950, Esposito studied at the University of Naples Federico II and graduated in 1973. Currently, he teaches philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy.
While he is best known for his multi-volume political philosophical project on community (see Communitas, Immunitas, and Bíos), Esposito’s work also engages with biopolitics and the nature of the subject, as well as political theology, understood as an unstable yet overarching signifier whose content has been endless debated (by, for instance, Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson, and Jacob Taubes), yet curiously presupposed (Two, 1-3). Political theology, for Esposito, is, fundamentally, a “performative mechanism” rather than a “historical fact [or] a conceptual category” (Two, 72).
In Esposito’s work, the formative ligaments connecting community and political theology could be distilled down to a single element: the contours of the subject, including its connection to the body politic.(Immunitas, 68-72). The “performative mechanism” of political theology has underwritten what it means to be a person, even impacting professed non-theological accounts of the subject (Terms of the Political, 115). In the end, Esposito’s account of the subject questions the dynamics at the heart of capitalist subjectivity and how the person relates to themself and others.
In Esposito’s most explicit work on political theology, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology. While destabilization of the “machine” of political theology—political theology’s dual nature as both universal and autopoietic—is a goal of Esposito’s political theology (and economic theology) work, it is not isolated from his larger project on community and the subject. After all, capitalism molds the subject in line with its operations and values. It is a machine that is “configured as a two-headed process—once facing toward desire and the other toward its capture” (Two, 194).
Esposito is most known for his work on community. Communitas: Origine e destino della comunità (1998, trans. as Communitas, 2010), enters into conversation with previous theorizations of community, foremost being Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community (1983), Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1986), and Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (1993). It offers a pointed genealogy of community’s form in modern political philosophical thought, starting with Hobbes, moving through Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, and ending with discussions of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Bataille. In contrast with the focus of earlier works, Esposito is less concerned with centering notions of with-ness, literature, and communication, though he shares the goal of breaking from identity and belonging centered models of community.
Esposito notes that there is an intractable balancing act between the community and the subject. Two deadly pitfalls emerge. Community, often, either dissolves the subject or creates a hard separation between hyper-individualized subjects. The latter form is a false semblance of community that “[separates] the bodies so as to enclose each individual inside unbreakable boundaries” (Two, 167). While two distinct problems, both result in facades of community.
For Esposito, “community refers to a constitutive otherness that strips it of any identitarian connotation rather than to a property of belongingness of its members” (A Philosophy for Europe, 175). Property implies having or owning, but Esposito’s understanding of the subject eschews the subject’s self-ownership. Community, then, isn’t based on identitarian connections, on members having the same properties, or characteristics, or origin. Instead, community members are bound through voids, through debt, and through obligation (Communitas, 2-3, 6).
Community is etymologically associated with the munus (gift) and cum (with-ness). Esposito uses this etymology to underscore the point that the community is chiefly concerned with gifting rather than simply “being-with” (Communitas, 3-4). Gifting binds subjects together; however, for Esposito, the reason for gifting is due to a sort of deontological contract—a duty to give and an indebtedness that calls for gifting. Drawing on his reading of classical sources, Esposito identifies three components of the gift/munus: burden, duty, and the general gift.
The munus, in Esposito’s gloss, lacks expectation of return from the giver. This, at least superficially, overlays with dominant theological readings of grace which are linked to notions of the “free gift.” However, “freeness,” is usually qualified by a hidden expectation, such as believing or acting in a way that is worthy of receiving the initial gift.
Beyond the topic of grace, gestures to religious and theological terms show up often in Esposito’s work on community and biopolitics. For instance, Esposito introduces the complexities of community by pointing to the eucharist, Pauline koinonia (community) (Communitas, 9-12), and katechon (Immunitas, 52-74). Though, katechon exists as a kind of essential obverse of community, acting as an agent policing the boundaries of community (an immunitarian agent).
Esposito’s account of community resituates the political around mutual commitment; the ever-present duty to gift creates a common debt that lies at the center of the community. One is both consistently in debt and called to gift. There is a type of social circularity, but also an emphasis on “obligation” rather than “demanding” or “asking.” Esposito explains:
…the munus that the communitas shares isn’t a property or a possession. It isn’t having, but on the contrary, is a debt, a pledge, a gift that is to be given, and that therefore will establish a lack. The subjects of community are united by an ‘obligation,’ in the sense that we say ‘I owe you something,’ but not ‘you owe me something’Communitas, 6
Esposito focuses community around the munus, or a form of non-remunerative gifting, rather than a gifting that ties two distinct subjects in obligation, or the usual alternative of with-ness, cum, which can side-step the multiple elements found in munus (debt, duty, gift, etc). The gift is not simply part of an exchange, but part of a duty to give without an expectation of return.
Communities without safeguards fall. This is precisely the importance of the immunitas for Esposito, a term which is a sort of obverse of community. Esposito notes that the “immunis is he or she who is exempt or exonerated” from the demands–the duty of the gift–of the community (Terms of the Political, 38-39).
The immunitarian agent negates community only to the extent that it saves individuals from possible excesses found in giving. The immunitarian agent is given the gift of not gifting; it exists as a sort of boundary around the community. Unlike a hard border, the immunitarian agent, like a body’s immune system, is present to assist with inoculation and invite from the outside. The immune system not only opens the borders of the body, accepting foreign material, but also augments the foreign material, in-corporating it.
As with bodies, immunity can develop into autoimmunity, where the immune system attacks or atrophies the body it exists to protect. Esposito writes that “once pushed beyond a certain limit, which was crossed long ago, [immunity] forces our lives into a cage where not only our freedom ends up withering away but also the meaning of existence itself—that opening toward the outside called communitas” (A Philosophy for Europe, 176). Concretely applying this theory, Esposito highlights the biological and medical terminology of the Nazi regime, whose [auto-]immunological reasoning rationalized the murder of millions of innocent people (Terms of the Political, 84-87).
In Two, Esposito wants to problematize the conceptual space of political theology, which is inescapable from our conceptions of the world. He worries, “We have neither mental schemas nor linguistic models that are free from its syntax” (Two, 1). That inescapability is where the force of political theology lies. Political theology, according to Esposito, impacts conceptions of the subject.
In order to find a way past the dominance of political theology, Esposito turns to Heidegger and his concept of “machination.” Machination is the metaphysical structure that upholds enchantment and disenchantment. For instance, in the push-pull of religion and secularization wherein secularity is the disenchantment of religion, machination is the entirety of that entwined duality. Machination describes the reinforcement of one by the other. There is a reciprocal quality, a simultaneous incorporation and negation.
This holds even for political theology models that depart from dominant ones, such as Assmann’s reversal of Schmitt’s thesis. Instead of political theory being founded in theology, Assmann maintains that “theological dogmas are rooted in political semantics” (Two, 70). Further, there is an “inevitability of their involvement, in a form that both politicizes theology and theologizes politics” (Two, 5).
How does this all concretely connect to the dispositif of the person? Personhood is bound to notions of property. One is not a person without the ability to own oneself. As Esposito says, “The person is what directs its own bodily part, which is thus placed in a position of ontological inferiority” (Two, 8-9). To illustrate this point, Esposito employs examples of the enslaved and those with diminished mental capacity.
At first, these two categories do not seem linked, neither the enslaved nor those with diminished capacity can own themselves. With the enslaved, we see the realization of Roman legal traditions carried on in Christian thought. Secularity does not escape this negligence either, as evidenced by popular figures like Peter Singer, who draw from these traditions of political theology and reject the personhood of humans with diminished capacity. For these figures, “[o]nly a being who thinks can be introduced into the sovereign enclosure of personhood” (Two, 9).
Political theology is “neither a simple historical fact nor a conceptual category, but [is] a performative mechanism that acts on what it takes hold of, in some way separating the latter from itself” (Two, 72). This is broader than persons, but ultimately effects subjects and their relations with self and others.
If personhood is usually constituted by the division between thought and body, then thought must be opened up as a potentiality, no longer bound to personal ownership. That way, there are no hierarchies based on obtaining higher levels of thinking. To Esposito, notions of the person that privilege the thinking self’s ownership of the body have to destabilized. Esposito is careful, however, to say that this is “not the negation of the person, but its affirmative liberation from the dispositif that divides it from itself” (Two, 197).
Drawing on figures like Spinoza, Averroes, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, Esposito finds sources where thought is not constituted as a “property of the few.” Instead, thought is an exteriority that is revealed, or instantiated, through subjects.
Averroes is a premier example, because, to him, thought “is in itself independent of the biographical events in the life of the individual, because it precedes this individual in time” and exists beyond death (Two, 148). Averroes’ impersonalization of thought anticipates the “modern dispositif[s] of the person. . . and even divested [modern dispositifs of the person] of their political-theological foundation” (Two, 149).
This democratization of thought shows a way beyond the “machine of political theology.” It removes the propertied aspect of personhood which Esposito sees as necessary to think beyond the confines of political theology. This attempt follows the train of thought found in Esposito’s broader work, which is concerned with the relation between notions of the proper and the political nature of the subject. His critique of the dispositif of the proper is meant to highlight the universal understanding of the subject as an owning-being, a subject understood primarily as a thing that appropriates, including its own private self. A community bound to identity and self-ownership falls into auto-immunity.
However, Esposito explicitly shows political theology’s connections between our relation to the proper and seemingly inescapable political theological legacies, including those legacies of property (self-ownership) that cement capitalism.
Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. Stanford University Press, 2010 .
Communitas is a good full-length entry point for new readers of Esposito. While a dense volume, it provides a foundation for subsequent works, expanding on concepts worked out in Terms of the Political, most notably communitas, immunitas, and munus. It also includes analyses of negation and sacrifice, as well as insightful readings of Bataille, Heidegger, Hobbes, and others.
Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Polity Press, 2011 .
Immunitas is a follow-up to Communitas that includes some of his earliest and most explicit political theological work, with a section committed to the katechon.
Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics. Fordham University Press, 2013 .
As a collection of eleven essays, this book is the best text for readers who have never read any of Esposito’s work. It summarizes his work from the past few decades on community, the individual, and biopolitics.
Two: The Machine of Political Theology. Fordham Press, 2015 .
In this volume, Esposito interrogates the concept of political theology, showing how it acts as an encompassing system that provides the vocabulary and space in which it is debated. To transverse the space of political theology, Esposito provides different ways for thinking about the place of thought and the conception of personhood, both of which are thoroughly indebted to the dual Roman and Christian history of political theology.