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For a Philosophy of the Impersonal

Roberto Esposito
Italian Institute for the Human Sciences

Translated by Timothy Campbell

1. Never more than today is the notion of person the unavoidable reference for all discourses that assert the value of human life as such, be they philosophical, political, or juridical in nature. Leaving aside differences in ideology as well as specifically staked-out theoretical positions, no one doubts the relevance of the category of person or challenges it as the unexamined and incontrovertible presupposition of every possible perspective. This tacit convergence with regard to the category of person is especially obvious in a hotly debated field like bioethics. Truth be told, the debate between Catholics and secularists turns on the precise moment at which a living being can be considered a person (for Catholics, at the moment of conception, for secularists much later), but never on the decisive weight being awarded this attribution of personhood: whether one becomes a person by divine decree or naturally, awarding personhood still remains the threshold, the decisive means by which a biological material lacking in meaning becomes
CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2010, pp. 121134, issn 1532-687x. Michigan State University Board of Trustees. All rights reserved.



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something intangible. What is presupposed here, even before other criteria and normative principles come into play, is the absolute ontological predominance, which is to say the incommensurable value added to the personal with respect to what it is not: only life that has passed through this symbolic door can be sacred or qualitatively significant, and so provides the proper personal credentials. Turning to law, we find the same presupposition at work here, but now reinforced by a more elaborate argumentative apparatus: to be able to assert legitimately what we call subjective rights (at least in the modern juridical conception of rights), one needs beforehand to have penetrated the enclosed space of the person. Thus, to be a person means enjoying these rights in and of themselves. This thesis, which appears most frequently in the recent work of Stefano Rodot (2006) and Luigi Ferrajoli (2001), is that the renewed value awarded the category of person lies in the fact that only it is able to bridge the difference that is established between the concept of human being and that of citizen, one that is formed at the very inception of the Modern State. This differenceas Hannah Arendt argued in the immediate postwar period (1994)is born from the exclusive attachment to nation or territory that characterizes the category of citizen, where citizen is understood as a member of a given national community and therefore not to be extended to every human being as such. The idea was that only a concept that was potentially universal, such as that of person, would allow for the strengthening and expanding of the fundamental rights of every human being. Its on this point, then, that we find calls in many different cultures to move away from the limited notion of citizen (or individual) to the more general one of personas Martha Nussbaum has recently argued (2002). It is a formulation that a large part of contemporary philosophy has accepted under different guises. Turning to more theoretical work, we find the same movement of ideas. Reflections on personal identity, and hence the renewed interest in the category of person, constitute one of the rare points of intersection between Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy and so-called continental philosophyaccording of course to different typologies, but within the same horizon of meaning, one that is defined by the privileged reference to the notion of person. Where the analytic school, in Strawson (1990) and Parfit (1984),

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understands the concept of person to be an indispensable point of departure for elaborating a complete ontology of subjectivity, Italian authors associated with phenomenology are in one way or another explicitly proposing a new philosophy of the person, based in particular on a revival of Edith Steins phenomenological personalism (2005); see especially de Monticelli (2000). All of this is taking place some years after Paul Ricoeur (1991) attempted to relaunch a French Catholic personalism thought in a hermeneutic key. To sum up: in contemporary culture there is an undeniable convergence, indeed almost a postulate, that acts as the condition of and basis for legitimating every philosophically correct discourse. It is this one: the affirmation of the person, of its philosophical, religious, ethical, and political value. No other concept in the Western tradition seems today to be able to garner anything close to such a large and broad consensus. We note as well that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations) assumed the concept of person as the basis for its own formulation: after a catastrophic war and the defeat of the idea of crushing human identity into mere biology (which was precisely what the Nazis wanted), it seemed that only the idea of person could reconstitute the broken link between human being and citizen, spirit and body, and right and life. Today when the dynamics of globalization are breaking apart the old world order, philosophical, juridical, and political thought turns once again, more convinced than before, to the unifying value of the idea of person, entrusting itself completely to it.

2. What have been the results? A quick glance at the international scene raises troubling questions precisely on this point: at no time more than today do human rights, beginning with the right to live, seem so utterly denied. No right more than the right to live seems contradicted by the millions of victims who die because of hunger, sickness, and war. How is this possible? Whats the origin of this drift in meaning of person that is taking place today when the normative reference to the value of the person is being affirmed in all languages and its banner raised high? One could respond, as often happens, that the reason is only because this return to person has been a partial one, or


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has been limited, or still remains incomplete. Frankly this seems like a weak response both historically and conceptually. My own impression, which I articulated as more of an argument in my recent book, Terza persona: Politica della vita e filosofia dellimpersonale (2007), is that this kind of reasoning is to be reversed. It isnt the limited extension, the partiality, or the unfinished character of the ideology of the person that produces these counterfactual results. If the fog lifts surrounding the original premise, which has taken on the features of a true and proper personalist fundamentalism, what we see is that the category of person cannot, somehow, make up for or fill the gaping hole between rights and humanityand in turn make possible something like human rightsbecause it is precisely the category of person that produces and even enlarges this gap. The problem we are facing is the absolute impracticability of a right of humanity as such, one born therefore not from the fact that we failed somehow to enter fully into the regime of the person, but rather that we havent yet found our way out of it. I do realize that what Im sayinga line of inquiry, reallybutts up against all the evidence that a modern tradition has reinforced and that indeed has constituted modernity itself (in this regard see Bodei 2002). But I believe that we need to develop a perspective over a broader period of time that will be capable of registering the subterranean knots and deep junctures that are perhaps less obvious but certainly at work here, both by looking backward and from within at the obvious epochal discontinuities. From this point of viewone that opens onto a double axis, both horizontal and verticalthe person, rather than being a simple concept, appears as a true and proper performative dispositif, one that has been in operation over a very long period of time, and who has erased its own proper genealogy and with it its own very real effects. This genealogy of the person is to be reconstructed in all of its complexity, beginning with the distinction (but also the relation) that from the outset is established between two powers (radici), one Christian and the other Roman, since it is exactly at their intersection that the power of separation (and selection) will be found, one which constitutes the most important effect of the dispositif of person. A first element of splitting is already implicit in the idea of a mask, which we find in the etymology of the Greek prsopon and the Latin persona. We

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note, moreover, that although mask adheres to or is placed on the face of the actor whose task it is to represent the character (personaggio), the mask never coincides with the character. Not even in the ritual of the funerary mask, where the true spiritual nature of humanity ought to show through what it covers, is this difference lacking. In this case, in fact, we can see the originary splitting up close, a splitting that is typical of the Christian conception, on the basis of which it is precisely the noncoincidence of the person with respect to the living body (which also encloses it) that allows one to pass to an other-worldly life. Both the idea of the double nature of Christ and that of Christs relation to the Trinity are proof of this internal interval, this structural split in the dimension of person: the unitybetween human and divine nature or between body and soul within the personalways passes, in other words, through a separation that cannot somehow be done away with.

3. The separation that defines the concept of person in Roman juridical experience is even clearer because it is codified according to a precise doctrinal mechanism. Despite all the shifts that took place during different phases of Roman law, what remains always fixed is the initial difference between the artificial person and a human being as a living being in which the first inheres (see, above all, Thomas 1998). The most tangible evidence of this separating dispositif resides in the fact that, as we know, not all men in Rome (no women, and indeed only a small portion of men, the patres, free adult males) were defined for all intents and purposes as persons. This was not the case with slaves, who belonged to the domain of the thing as well as other categories situated between the thing and the person. Im unable to examine here the multiple typologies of men that the Roman juridical machine foresaw or better produced, but what counts for the purposes of our discussion is the effect of depersonalization, which is to say being reduced to a thing, which is implicit in the concept of person: its very definition emerges in negative fashion from the presumed difference with respect to those men and women who were not persons or who were only persons in part and temporarily, ones always exposed to the risk of falling into the domain of the


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thing. What Roman law practiced with unequalled impositive imagination is in fact not only the distinction among persons, semipersons, or nonpersons, but also the elaboration of intermediate situations, of zones of indistinction, of exceptions that regulate the passage or the oscillation between one state and another. That every son was, at least in the more archaic period in Rome, subject to the fathers power of life and death (since the father was authorized to kill the son, sell him, lend him out, or abandon him) means that no one in Rome, even if born a free man, was defined once and for all by the statute of person. Anything but a natural gift, the statute of the person is the artificial extension, the exceptional residue that is separated from a common servile condition. No one is born a person. Some may become a person, but precisely by pushing those who surround him into the dimension of the thing. This procedure of selection and exclusion by means of the dispositif of the person, which is typical of Roman law, is handed down (and so naturally transformed) to modern juridical systems, as some historians of jurisprudence have understoodthose who are able to see through the most radical changes, but also who can make out the lines of continuity along which these changes take place. At this juncture, and without wanting to lessen in any way the epochal opposition between the objectivist conception of Roman law and the individualistic subjectivism that is typical of modernity, the common feature that joins them together in the same semantic orbit can be traced precisely in the presupposed difference between the designation of person and the body of the human being in which it appears to have been implanted. Only a nonperson, which is to say a living material that is not personal, can provide the place requiredas both ground and object of someone elses sovereigntyfor something like a person. Yet, the person is such only if partially or completely restricted to being a thing of its own body. Not only does persona not coincide with homo (a term by which Latin mainly denotes the slave), but persona is defined in its difference from homo. This is the originary reasoninstalled as some kind of ancient foundation in our own contemporaneityfor which the category of the person doesnt allow us to think a right that is properly human, and whats more that renders it conceptually impossible. Person is the technical term that separates a

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human beings juridical capacity from the quality of naturalness and therefore that distinguishes each one from his or her own mode of being. It is the noncoincidenceor perhaps the divergence of humanity from beingof being with respect to its mode of being. When Hobbes argues that the person is he whose words or actions are considered as his own or as representing the words or the actions of another man, he does nothing other than decisively push this division to its completion, to the point that the term person can also be used for entities that arent human like a church, a hospital, or a bridge (1976, 155). Not only doesnt the mask stay on the face that it once covered, but now it can coverin the technical sense of to representthe face of another. It is true that, at least from the French Revolution on, all men were declared equal because they were all equally subjects of rights. But that doesnt change the fact that attributing subjectivity refers to the noncorporeal (or the morethan-corporeal) element that inhabits the body, thereby splitting it in two: one a rational, spiritual, and moral part, which is precisely the personal; and another, the animal. It isnt an accident that, at the very moment in which he collaborated in formulating the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain could claim that the term person indicates the being who is able to exercise mastery over his or her biological part, which is properly animal: If a healthy political conception, he writes, depends above all upon the consideration of the human person, it must at the same time keep in mind the fact that this person is that of animal endowed with reason, and that the part of animality is immense in such a measure (1942, 52). Here then we see a double separation: the first within the very same individual, divided between a personal life and a life of the animal type. And a second, between personal individualsbecause they are capable of dominating their own irrational partand others who are unable to muster this kind of self-power and therefore are situated below the person. We are dealing here with a logical construct, but as is often said, one productive of powerful impositive effects that really concern the beginning of our philosophical tradition. As Heidegger intuitively grasped, when one defines the human being as the rational animal, according to the Aristotelian expression that Maritain uses, one is then forced into choosing between


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two possibilities in what is ultimately a self-reflective analysis: either one crushes the rational part directly into the corporeal as Nazism did, or on the contrary, one subjects the second to the domination of the first, as the personalist tradition has always done.

4. As we can see, this dispositif that separates and excludes traverses as well as moves beyond the conventional opposition between secular culture and Catholic culture. It can do so because it originates in a concept like that of person, which from the very beginning has a double connotation that is both Christian and Roman, and theological and juridical. The dispositif today finds one of its greatest expressions in liberal bioethics. Whereas for Locke and Mill, the person is only the one who is proprietor of ones own body, authors like H. Tristram Engelhardt (1996) and Peter Singer unambiguously accept the Roman doctrine of the initial distinction between person and nonperson through the intermediate stages of the quasi person, the semiperson and the temporary person. Furthermore, they assign to the first, which is to say to true and proper persons, the power to keep alive or to push toward death (respingere nella morte) those who belong to the intermediate stages, based on social and economic considerations. Proof again, as if we needed it, of the structural connection between seemingly opposite movements of personalization and depersonalization. Every attribution of the personal always implicitly contains an operation of reification with respect to the impersonal biological layer from which it distances itself: only if there are human beings that can be assimilated to this biological layer is it then necessary to define others as persons. For some to be awarded the label of person, a difference needs to be identified from those that are no longer persons, are not yet persons, or are not persons in any way. The dispositif of the person, in other words, is that which at the same time superimposes and juxtaposes humanity on human beings and animality on human beings; or that distinguishes the part of humanity that is truly human from another that is bestial, that is enslaved to the first. And yet separating life from itself, the dispositif of the person is also the conceptual instrument through which one can put

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some part of the person to death. Singer, who is a liberal, argues that todays parents can decide between letting their child live or aborting it in the event that an eventual anomaly is discovered during pregnancy. There is no logical reason for limiting the basis on which a decision is made by the parents only to the kind of anomaly (2004, 211).

5. It is with regard to this mechanism of separation and exclusion that I would like to juxtapose a thought (when not a practice) of the impersonal. I want to add quickly here, and not in the sense of negating what many continue to see as noble, just, and worthy in the term person, but rather to valorize and make it more effective as a concept. Its only that herelets call it a project we cannot avoid taking up a radical critique of that process of depersonalization or of reification that inheres in the same dispositif of the person, at least as it has functioned or still functions today. On the one hand, this thought of the impersonal doesnt simply emerge out of nowhere at this moment in time, even if it is also true that only today does it acquire the urgency of a task that can no longer be put off for later. It is already virtually or implicitly present in certain areas, not only in philosophy, but also in contemporary art (as well as some segments of post-Freudian psychoanalytic practice), which have now for some time been addressing a radical deconstruction of personal identity (in this regard, see Montani 2007 and Petrini 2007). Without even dreaming of being able to reconstruct completely this hidden tradition, precisely because it is covered over and blocked by the knowledges and powers of the person, I would like to make reference here to those features (or some itineraries) that are able to provide us with the coordinates for a work that is anything but simple or quick. I will be working within three horizons of meaning or three semantic areas: these are justice, writing, and life, each of which is associated above all with three figures from twentieth-century philosophical culture. The first is that of Simone Weil. At the center of her work is an explicit polemic against the hierarchical and proscribed relation between right and person, in ways that recall our earlier discussion:


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The notion of rights, by its very mediocrity, leads on naturally to that of person, for rights are related to personal things. They are on that level. It is much worse if the word personal is added to the word rights, thus implying the rights of personality to what is called full expression. In that case the tone that colours the cry of the oppressed would be even meaner than bargaining. It would be the tone of envy. (1996, 78)

What Weil grasps here when she connects rights so deeply to the dispositif of the person, is the exclusionary or biased nature of rights, in both their private (privato) and depriving (privativo) features. Once understood as the prerogative of established subjects, right excludes in and of itself all the others that do not belong to the same category. This is the reason that the subjective right, or even more, the personal right, always concerns, on the one hand, the economic exchange between measurable goods and on the other, force. Only force is able to impose the respect for a tendentious right on those that do not share it. Weils conclusion? If the person has always constituted the normative paradigm, the originary figure within which right has expressed its own selective and excluding power, the only way to think a universal justice, one that belongs to everyone and is for everyone, cannot lie anywhere except on the side of the impersonal. So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being, is the impersonal in him. Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else (Weil 1996, 62). If right belongs to the person, justice is situated in the impersonal. It is that which reverses what is proper into the improper, the immune into the common. Only by dismantling the dispositif of the person will the human being finally be thought of as such, for what he or she has that is absolutely singular and absolutely general: Every man who has once touched the level of the impersonal is charged with a responsibility toward all human beings; to safeguard, not their persons, but whatever frail potentialities are hidden within them for passing over to the impersonal (78). As we can see, Weil isnt asking us to deny the person. She doesnt make the impersonal the opposite of person, its simple negation. Rather the impersonal is that which, from within the person, blocks the mechanism of distinction and separation with respect to

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those who are not yet persons, who are no longer persons, or who have never been declared to be persons. Where Simone Weil situates the impersonal in the horizon of justice, Maurice Blanchot places it again in relation to the regime of writing: only writing, which breaks the interlocutionary relation that in the dialogic word links the first and second person, creates an opening into the impersonal. When he states that writing is equivalent to moving from the first to the third person (1977, 506), he not only alludes to the refusal on the part of the writer to any possibility of speaking in the first person, but also argues in favor of the impersonality of a story interpreted by characters themselves lacking in identity or qualities, as in Robert Musils man without qualities. But he also is referring to that decentering of the same narrative voice (effected in the first instance by Kafka) in which impersonality penetrates into the very structure of the work, forcing it continually to move outside itself. This implies two further effects that are embedded in the same global movement: on the one side, the lowering of the narrative voice in what is a true and proper aphonia of itself, masked by the anonymous swarm of events; on the other hand, the loss of identity of subjects in action that takes place with respect to themselves. Whats produced in this way is a process of depersonalization that invests the entire surface of the text, lifting it up out from its banks and then making it turn round upon itself. In other places this is what Blanchot will define as a relation of the third type, referring to a dislocation of the entire perspectival field, comparable to a true and proper shift in the epistemological paradigm. What matters even more than this, however, is that, for Blanchot, the movement of depersonalization experienced by writing doesnt remain limited to the field of mere theory, and indeed is subjected to a sort of political experimentation. I am speaking of a whole series of interventions, declarations, staking out of positions, that most often originated in the 1950s and 1960s, in which impersonality, which is to say the exclusion of the proper name, constitutes not only the form but the very content of the political act, its nonpersonal dimension, in its collective and common sense: Intellectuals, Blanchot writes to Sartre in December 1960, . . . experienced a way of being together, and Im not thinking only of the collective nature of the


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Declaration, but also of its impersonal power, of the fact that all those who signed did so with their proper name, but without the authorization to speak of their own proper and particular truth or their own nominal reputation. The Declaration represented for them a sort of anonymous community of names (2004, 51). The third horizon of sense or semantic orbit associated with the impersonal is that of life. In contemporary philosophy it is situated from the outset at the intersection of Michel Foucault with Gilles Deleuze, and even biographically, with the common deconstruction of the paradigm of the person: Foucault himself, Deleuze writes, one did not grasp him exactly like a person. Even on insignificant occasions, when he entered a room, it was rather like a change of atmosphere, a kind of event, an electric or magnetic field, or what you will. This did not at all exclude gentleness or well-being, but it wasnt on the order of the person. It was an ensemble of intensities (1995, 99). What joins Deleuze to Foucault in a relation that goes beyond simple friendshipprecisely because there is nothing personal; there is exactly this reference to the third personis what Emile Benveniste rightly defines as non-person, because it is traversed and made lacking by the power (potenza) of the impersonal: And then theres the emphasis on one, in Foucault as in Blanchot: you have to begin by analyzing the third person. One speaks, one sees, one dies. There are still subjects, of coursebut theyre specks dancing in the dust of the visible and permutations in an anonymous babble (in Deleuze 1995, 108). This anonymous but also multiple babble, impersonal but also singular, has the form of life in Deleuze, or better a life (as the last of his texts is titled, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life [2001]) when that life, despite being common to all those that live, is never general, but always of someone in particular, though it doesnt have the exclusive (and excluding) form of the person because it is one with itself, which counteracts the dispositif that separates. Before any juridical subjectivization, life constitutes the indivisible point in which the being of a human perfectly coincides with its mode, in which the form, precisely of life, is the form of its own content. This is what Deleuze means when he associates it with what he defines as level of immanence. It

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concerns the always-moving fold or margin on which immanence, the being life of life (lessere vita della vita) folds upon itself, eliding any figure of transcendence, any ulteriority to the being such as it is of the living substance. In this sense life, when it is understood in all its impersonal power, is that which contradicts at the root the hierarchical separation of the human type (genere), and of the same human being, in two superimposed or subjected substances: the first rational and the second animal. Its no accident that Deleuze understands the enigmatic figure of becoming animal as the culmination of the deconstruction of the idea of person, in all its philosophical, psychoanalytical, and political tonality. In a tradition that has always defined humanity in the separation and difference from the animal, only to animalize again a part of humanity because it wasnt human enough, asserting animality as our most basic nature to rediscover breaks with the fundamental prohibition that governs us. Contrary to the presupposed split of the dispositif of the person, the animal in the human being, in each and all human beings, means multiplicity, plurality, metamorphosis: We do not become animal, Deleuze affirms, without a fascination for the pack, for multiplicity. A fascination for the outside? Or is the multiplicity that fascinates us already related to a multiplicity dwelling within us? (1987, 23940). The becoming animal of and in the human being means and demands the loosening of the metaphysical knot tightened by the idea and the practice of person in favor of a mode of being human (uomo) that no longer moves toward the thing, but ultimately that coincides only with itself.

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