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  • Preface to Categories of the Impolitical
  • Roberto Esposito (bio)
    Translated by Connal Parsley


When I submitted Categories of the Impolitical to the printers exactly ten years ago, my expectations for its success were certainly not high. Those of the editor were even less so, I suppose, even though the faith he afforded the book (thanks largely to friends like Carlo Galli and teachers Nicola Matteucci and Ezio Raimondi) later proved to be decisive. How could we have supposed that a political philosophy conquered by the apodictic certainties of “political science” and the normative stance of various forms of public ethics might be willing to concern itself with the “impolitical”? Faced with an intellectual debate almost wholly occupied with raising methodological barriers between political science, political theory, and political philosophy, how could one present authors with no real disciplinary statute—authors who are in fact decidedly undisciplined—such as those interrogated in this volume? These authors are not only resolutely “undecided” between politics, philosophy, theology, and literature; they are in principle positively allergic to any descriptive or normative model. It is true that some more sophisticated research perspectives were already in play, particularly a new attention to the history of political concepts (which was essentially a descendant of the German Begriffsgeschichte). These perspectives certainly constituted an improvement on the traditional “history of ideas,” but they remained within a hermeneutic frame characterized by a direct, frontal approach to political categories. For this reason, they were incapable of traversing those categories laterally, and even less capable of returning to the place prior to their imagination. It was as if political philosophy remained immune to, or not sufficiently gripped by, the deconstructive vortex that had radically called into question the “positive” sayability of every other object of twentieth-century knowledge—from critical theory to anthropology, from psychoanalysis to aesthetics—suspending it in favor of the determination of its “non-”: the shadowy place from which it came, and the margin of difference which crossed it as its irreducible alterity. It was as though our political philosophy had not fully grasped the heuristic productivity of thinking its lexicon’s grand concepts and big words not as already concluded in themselves, but rather as “terms”: as border-markers, but at the same time as the places of a contradictory overlapping between different languages. Or it was as if the search for the ultimate sense of every concept beyond its epochal stratification, encompassing also the line of tension that connects it antinomically to its opposite, had been neglected. Certainly, this deficit of complexity was not true of the entirety of Italian political philosophy. In those same years, important and innovative books on power, modernity, and sovereignty appeared, along with the first attempts at the genealogical reconstruction of and topological inquiry into political semantics. But these represented [End Page 99] more the individual tastes of single authors than a comprehensive leap in the quality of research. It goes without saying that, in this slightly stagnant environment, to “risk” a book on the impolitical may have appeared somewhat reckless.

But instead—as sometimes occurs through an unpredictable confluence of circumstances—things were to unfold differently. The “Atlantic wave,” having reached its apex at the end of the 1980s, began to ebb away—in part because of the obvious unworkability of the models, parameters, and dilemmas it so painstakingly constructed. And, at the same time, the most radical continental thought regained currency. In the 1970s, Carl Schmitt ably defended the positions that had already been conquered, albeit with some ideological equivocation between right and left. Heidegger survived the ultimate political trial—not without difficulty, but confirming, through precisely this extreme ordeal, the unquestionable importance of our century. Wittgenstein revealed himself to be completely incompatible with the neo-positivist methodology to which he had been hastily assimilated, reinstating the problem of the limit or the undecidable foundation of language at the center of the debate. Meanwhile the first translations of Leo Strauss were at once widespread, and these were soon joined by more, with the effect of at least calling into question his profile as a literal reactionary—a characterization that had been foisted upon him by the guardians of local...