- "Foucault was not a person":Idolatry and the Impersonal in Roberto Esposito's Third Person
The title of my paper comes from one of the most surprising passages in Roberto Esposito's most recent work Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal. Foucault not a person? In what sense precisely was he not a person, and if not a person, what was he? Leaving aside for the moment Esposito's answer, we should note that Esposito's interest in the concept of the person (as well as the personal) has been a recurrent theme in his work over the last fifteen years. Beginning with Categorie dell'impolitico, continuing through the trilogy of Communitas, Immunitas, and Bíos, and now Terza persona, Esposito has taken up a number of different perspectives in what amounts to a thorough-going deconstruction of the concept of person. Certainly one of the most significant approaches for Esposito of late has been the biopolitical in his genealogy of the juridical person as "the pedestal of an immense pyramid of sacrifice on whose steps millions of dead have fallen (2007, 169). Clearly Esposito's own understanding of the impersonal cannot be separated from the politics of life in the subtitle, what we will want to [End Page 135] call his affirmative biopolitics. And yet an earlier term seems to me to be equally at work in Esposito's more recent engagements with the personal, and that term is precisely the "impolitical." Indeed one of my principal arguments herein is that we cannot properly understand Esposito's inflection of the impersonal without uncovering the deeply impolitical nature of the impersonal, particularly as it emerges from his discussion of Simone Weil's writings on idolatry and the Good in the important pages he dedicates to it in Categorie dell'impolitico. Out of these impolitical reflections on the concept of person, Esposito will assemble a notion of relationality among all living phenomena that will become central to his declination of the impersonal in Terza persona, while setting out Esposito's own particular inflection of the Deleuzian impersonal, an inflection deeply indebted to the notion of idolatry. The answer to why Foucault was not a person will be found there.
To begin then: What does the impolitical refer to? What are its subject and object? Writing in 1999 in the preface to the re-edition of Categorie dell'impolitico, Esposito offers a number of different perspectives with which to grasp the elusive concept, though none is more important than the question of tecnica and its relation to the origin of politics in the modern period. He writes:
This is exactly the originary problem—the problem of the origin—that the Modern doesn't discover or produce, but is limited to conceptualizing—in an increasingly conscious manner from Machiavelli onward, which is to say the constitutively 'diabolical nature' of the political—its irreducibility to a unitary symbol. From this point of view, we can say that it isn't the history of political thought . . . that explains the impolitical perspective, but the latter that illuminates and deconstructs the political.(xxvi)
The impolitical, he goes on, recognizes something that the political cannot: that the political originates "together and within tecnica." How so? Where do tecnica and politics originate? The answer will be found not surprisingly, [End Page 136] according to Esposito, in the Platonic myth of Prometheus who steals fire for humankind. This was how humankind received the wisdom "for staying alive; wisdom for living together in society, political wisdom, it did not acquire" (Plato 1999, 49).
Leaving aside for the moment the echoes between "staying alive" and zoe, and "political wisdom" and bios, what matters most for Esposito in the myth is that politics, which is associated here with "convenient living," originates together with and within tecnica such that what is traditionally seen as the first origin (the political) is always secondary with respect to something other out of which it originates, here tecnica. In line with Bernard Stiegler's analysis of technique, especially in those pages of Technics and Time devoted to Rousseau, Esposito will have politics denote a "defect of origin" (Stiegler 1998...