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BiosReview - Bios
Biopolitics and Philosophy
by Roberto Esposito
University of Minnesota Press, 2008
Review by Daniel Hourigan
Mar 7th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 10)

Bíos (2008) is an important volume on biopolitics and philosophy by Roberto Esposito, and it promises to enliven the debates of modern political philosophy. Bíos is the first of a trilogy of political philosophy treatises written by Esposito to be translated from Italian to English. Because it is placed third in the trilogy, Bíos does rely on some of the arguments put forward in the previous two volumes: Communitas and Immunitas. This would have been quite off-putting to the reviewer but the translator Timothy Campbell provides a very substantial translator's introduction to Bíos that both situates Esposito's work in the terrain of contemporary political philosophy and annotates the catalogue of Esposito's published treatises, giving the reader a robust guide to the volume.

The heart of the argument in Esposito's Bíos is the paradigm of immunization. Esposito uses the language of immunity to dislocate and dissect many of the assumptions about community, sovereignty, liberty, life, and power that constitute the fundamental grounding for modern national and international political debates. The book opens with four dramatic examples of biopolitics in France, Afghanistan, Russia, and China. Esposito skilfully reveals the common bond between these examples while announcing his immanent use of a post-Foucaultian approach for his analysis of the conceptual structures of biopolitics.

The first chapter takes up Foucault's use of the term 'biopolitics' and locates the enigma at the core of two different uses of the term by Foucault. This chapter also provides a genealogy of biopolitical thinking that begins with the Aristotelian tripartite of bios, zoe, and techne, then shifts to the modern usage of biopolitics in the early twentieth century, a discussion that invests much time in critically elaborating the use of biopolitics by Nazism in the Second World War, before moving on to the biopolitical currents present in France during the 1960s and Foucault's conceptualization of biopolitics in the capillaries of power counterpoised against sovereignty. Esposito spends most of the latter part of this discussion highlighting the limitation of Foucault's semantics for his conception of biopower and how the thinking of biopolitics through the lens of 'immunity' elucidates the paradigm of immunization as a key interpretative point that becomes the mainstay of Esposito's subsequent chapters.

The second chapter of Bíos elaborates on the contours of this paradigm. The exploration centres on the constitution of power in a community through three notable areas, namely: sovereignty, property, and liberty. While Esposito does phrase 'power' as a fourth term, it is spread throughout the discussion to such a degree that it is never relegated to a separate heading. The discussion of sovereignty, for example, highlights the power of a sovereign immunization--the tension between an exception and the norm--to exclude the excessiveness of its own sovereignty and limit its rule through the category of exception that constitutes sovereignty in the first place. Property and liberty are similarly characterized by an antinomy that is undone by the formal structure of each respectively: property is displaced by the power of appropriation and liberty by the democratic condition that relinquishes autonomy from the individual. The chapter ends with a rather Nietzschean insight into the degeneration of the soul's potential for achievement through liberal institutionalization.

The importance of Nietzsche to Esposito's Bíos is then announced with increasing clarity in chapter three. This chapter examines the nexus of forces competing with, overcoming, and negating each other in the power of biopolitics and its potentiality. A double negation of bios takes centre stage in this chapter that negates the 'Darwinian' idea of an initial lack or deficit that pushes human beings to struggle for their survival, a struggle that is guided by the deficit's fundamental favoring of the fittest. Esposito unveils a converse Nietzschean understanding of life as "a discontinuous series of increments and decrements that are governed … by the struggle within the will to power," and which can redound to "the benefit of the weak and the worst." (p. 95) It follows from this conception of bios that while the fearful weak tend to protect themselves from the threats surrounding them the courageous strong continually put their lives in peril, exposing themselves to an early death. Yet Esposito is not satisfied with the Nietzschean position and criticises Nietzsche (as does Heidegger) for remaining on the decadent meridian of nihilism, a position brought on by the reaction against the negative lexicon of immunity. As Esposito states: "It isn't by coincidence that the more Nietzsche is determined to fight the immunitary syndrome, the more he falls into the semantics of infection and contamination." (p. 96) The 'truth' of bios for Nietzsche thus appears to be degeneration as both its cause and its effect. Whatever the contestability of this reading of Nietzsche (or, at least, this Nietzsche), it serves to facilitate Esposito's attack on the oversimplification of bios by posthumanism at the end of the chapter.

The fourth chapter takes up a discussion of the politics of death from the vantage of the eugenic trap set by posthumanism's collapsing of ethnos and genos. Here thanatopolitics function as the dark underbelly of biopolitics; the ontogenetic truth made whole by the political claim to race and ethnicity. Esposito begins this discussion with a layered biopolitical interpretation of Nazism that returns to Foucault. Esposito lays out the coincidence of the "therapeutic attitude with the thanatological frame," (p. 115) discussing the Nazis' categorization of degenerates in the wider context of eugenic literature of the late nineteenth century. Esposito then gives a detailed survey of the eugenic thinking from America to Europe, particularly France and Germany. The chapter ends with a discussion of genocide and how the term itself, 'genocide,' has been difficult to apply in the consignment of guilt because it must be differentiated from 'ethnocide.' This discussion gives Esposito the opportunity to present three theses of the Nazi event: the absolute normativization of life wherein the law is biologized and biology is juridicalized, the double enclosure of the body wherein there is an absolute identity between our body and our identity, and the anticipatory suppression of birth that suppresses the genesis of life itself through sterilization. While Esposito demonstrates these three theses as the deadly logic of Nazism, they also feature in the broader paradigm of immunization as the traces of eugenics.

The final fifth chapter offers a crescendo to Esposito's argument. It opens with a framing of philosophy after Nazism, asking the important question of 'where philosophy is to begin its questioning?' Dancing between Foucault, Arendt, and Heidegger, Esposito weaves a post-Foucaultian view that goes beyond the classical philosophies of life put forward by Bergson or Dilthey. Herein Esposito suggests that the facticity of life is not derived through philosophical investigation but through its reversal, which makes life the origin of its own philosophy, removed from any categorical presupposition. To unveil this vision Esposito deconstructs the three aforementioned theses of Nazi biopolitics. This investigation is not without its problems however. It seems that the shift from the interrogation of the absolute normativization of life to the double enclosure of the body promotes 'nationality' as that which goes beyond ethnicity or genetics, only to retroactively substantialize the experience of nationhood as a sort of new absolute identity that cannot speak its absolutism because Esposito does not adequately unravel the coincidence of degeneration as the cause and effect of bios. Instead, Esposito opts to announce its effects as a Hegelian 'bad coincidence of opposites.' This criticism is largely targeted at the Hegelian dialectics deployed incognito in the fifth chapter. These dialectics become especially evident in the almost phrenological discussions of Simondon that Esposito uses to rethink the weak contradictory coincidence of opposites as the framing of a degeneration that feeds on itself. That said, the chapter does end with an open challenge to think biopolitics and this challenge is ever more urgent to observe today given the examples with which Esposito opens the book.

Bíos is an important book for contemporary political philosophy because it invites the reader to engage with the critical discussions of what life is and is to be. This invitation is coupled with a style that is very readable. The brevity of the volume perhaps bespeaks the polemical character of some sections of the text. But these sections are often an invitation to the reader to take the thoughts further. Esposito's Bíos is a book that should entice readers from many different fields, including legal, social, and political thought.

© 2009 Daniel Hourigan

Daniel Hourigan teaches philosophy, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and film studies at Griffith University, Australia. He writes on philosophy, psychoanalysis, ideology-critique, technology, and culture.


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