Analytic notes on Roberto Esposito (Esposito 1)

“The Lovers,” Adrian Cox, 2012.

There are three major substantive claims in Esposito, and they’re reciprocally intertwined. They concern his core terms – communitas, immunitas, and the munus. It may seem like I’m going backward here. However, although Esposito begins Communitas by discussing the munus, the trajectory I trace follows a necessary logic of emergence and justification.

Claim 1 (communitas): Existence is irreducibly communitarian. This claim alters fundamentally what we are talking about when we talk about community. Typically, communitarian political theorists use community as a name for collective identity or for a group. For Esposito, a community is not a group, and he substitutes the term communitas to capture this transformation of the term’s meaning. Communitas names a general ontological condition. Accordingly, we do not have a community. Instead, we are always already in community (e.g., with each other and with the remainder of existence). This means that, in communitas, the modern, securitarian concept of identity becomes inoperative – because, if a collective or individual identity is entirely and irreducibly in common with all other identities, then meaningful or operable distinctions between identities become impossible.

  • Excursus 1 (immanent reciprocity): This is why communitas implies immunitas, which, in turn, relies upon communitas necessarily. This mutual relation of implication and reliance makes the terms immanently reciprocal. Communitas “without” immunitas entails an oceanic, Parmenidean universe in which there are no identities at all (“the night in which all cows are black”). Conversely, immunitas “without” communitas generates a self-consuming feedback loop that destroys its own conditions of existence. This names the condition of autoimmunity, or nihilation.
  • Excursus 2 (securitarian identity): What, then, is the modern, securitarian concept of identity? It defines identity in terms of the exclusionary relationship between “self” and “other,” in which the “self” defends or preserves itself against penetration by the “other” – either by rejecting the “other” (e.g., building the wall, closing the borders), or by marking the “other” as fundamentally alien in order to regulate contact, exchange, and passage (e.g., biopolitical tagging, Fichte’s “passport”). Accordingly, whether it materializes collectively or individually, the modern concept of identity entails the fantasmatic projection of absolute sovereignty and pure self-identity, and anything that challenges this fantasy needs to be extirpated. For Esposito, communitas renders the modern, securitarian concept of identity inoperative; indeed, it “annihilates” it, “explodes” it, “rends” it, “tears” it apart, and “wounds” it fatally. From this condition of inoperativity, however, Esposito salvages an immunitary concept of identity.

Claim 2 (immunitas): A functional concept of identity is an immunitary concept of identity. In other words, collective or individual identities emerge only by means of the process of immunization, which allows them to form and flourish in communitas. Much depends on how we understand this process. For example, the modern, securitarian concept of identity is dysfunctional because it premises itself on the violent exclusion of that with which it is necessarily in common – i.e., everything else, including its own conditions of material possibility, or the remainder of existence. Securitarian identity requires immunity to intensify to such a degree that it becomes autoimmunity. For Esposito, however, if communitas names our general ontological condition of disruption, then immunitas names an immanent (because it is latent), iterable (because it recurs) dynamic that enables the formation of immunitary identity. Immunitary identity partially incorporates a disruption, or potentially disruptive elements, into a mode of finite, porous existence. This entails two additional consequences. First, immunitary identity blocks the destructive incursion of its own total disruption, but, second, it does this only by transforming identity into a continuous process of structured responsivity. As such, not all incursions are destructive, or even disruptive. Indeed, many incursions are benign, or even beneficial. Identity is always an ongoing negotiation between agencies in motion. Such a process allows the ontologically discontiguous continuity of a given collective or individual identity to emerge.

  • Excursus 3 (biological immune response): Consider how the human immune system actually functions. Except for the nervous system, the immune system is understood to be the most complex system in the human body. It consists of a heterogeneous and distributed set of companion ecologies – including cellular infrastructure, macromolecules, proteins, and organs, as well as the numerous and wide-ranging agencies (like bacteria, particles, and pathogens) that traverse every fold of the body. The body already is crawling with its companions (from the Latin com-, meaning “together with,” and panis, meaning “bread”; hence, companions, the plurality with which one “breaks bread,” or, more generically, those with whom one carries on together). Historically – and, although this history still inflects the theory of immunology, it appears to be contested increasingly in the face of an empirical paradigm shift – the immune system was understood as a means of differentiation between “self” and “other” (i.e., non-self) bodies. Here we can see on full display the securitarian logic discussed above. According to this logic, the immune system enables the self-perpetuation of its host body by means of asserting or preserving functional integrity against incursions of pathogenic exteriority. However, while there are indeed elements of risk mitigation at play in immunological responses, we fundamentally misconstrue the immune system when it is characterized in terms of the “self”/“other” dynamic, which invariably translates into the policing of borders and the repulsion of invading hordes. As Carosella, Pradeu, Tauber, and others – including, ultimately, Esposito – argue, the “self”/“other” model depends upon an “excessively strong metaphysical conception of biological identity” (Pradeu and Carosella 2006: 236) that operationalizes what I have been calling the securitarian concept of identity. Even empirically, the “self”/“other” model deteriorates insofar as the processual continuity of immunitary identity entails both immune responses to so-called “self” components (e.g., the auto-regulation of T lymphocytes and the consumption of dead cells) and the lack of immune response to so-called “other” components. For example, Pradeu and Carosella 2006 point to the phenomenon of chimerism, as well as the extensive tolerance of bacteria, certain parasites, the developing fetus, and grafts. One also recalls Esposito’s extensive reading in Immunitas of Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of his reception of a heart implant – and the degree to which both discussions reflect Donna Haraway’s argument that the site of the body is always already a site of distribution, transfer, and transit (Haraway 1989). In contrast to the modern, securitarian concept of identity, then, we can pose the altermodern, immunitary concept of identity. This latter concept grounds itself in what Pradeu and Carosella 2006 call the “continuity thesis” regarding immunogenicity, which suggests that, given empirical observations about immune response, it is “strong discontinuity in the interactions between immune receptors and their targets” that “triggers an immune response” (241). In other words, “the immune system does not discriminate between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’, but between epitopes [endogenous or exogenous molecular patterns] that are constantly present in the organism […]” (ibid.). They proceed to taxonomize provisionally the necessary and the sufficient (or insufficient) conditions for various degrees of observed responsivity. For us, however, the significance of the continuity thesis – that is to say, of the immunitary concept of identity as opposed to the securitarian concept – is precisely as stated above: we get to refigure identity as a continuous process of structured responsivity that allows the ontologically discontiguous continuity of a given identity to emerge and to sustain itself for a time.
  • Excursus 4 (autoimmunity): Consider also the function of autoimmunity. For Esposito, autoimmunity does not refer merely to what Pradeu and Carosella describe in terms of immune responses directed toward entities “originating from the organism,” which can be a necessary contributing factor to functionality or good health (238). Instead, Esposito conceives of autoimmunity in terms of a full-fledged autoimmune disorder, in which the very conditions of existence for identity are misperceived as a threat that must be eliminated in order for identity to form in the first place, or else for it to survive. In many ways, the securitarian concept of identity ultimately generates an autoimmunitarian spiral, or a self-consuming feedback loop. This is because, if we accept Claim 1, then all of the conditions of existence for any identity are necessarily exterior to its own formation and self-perpetuation – at least, if we conceive of these latter processes in securitarian terms. According to the securitarian logic, then, this means such conditions must be destroyed – paradoxically, they must be destroyed precisely in order to preserve their own consequent. Hence, as autoimmune responses intensify, they nihilate; they nihilate because they destroy their own conditions of existence. For Esposito, then, pathological modernity is a civilizational autoimmune disorder – he also calls it “global nihilism” – in which our reliance upon, and our desire to preserve, the securitarian logic of identity actively contributes to the destruction of our world. In extremis, we must destroy the world in order to save the world. In a different register, I call this disorder “the ecological crisis.”

Claim 3 (the munus): The relationship between communitarian existence (communitas) and functional or immunitary identity (immunitas) necessarily implies normative obligations for the subject. These normative obligations derive from the munus. For Esposito, there is an originary form called the munus that binds communitas and immunitas together in a relationship of immanent reciprocity. I call the munus an “originary form” not because it stands at some privileged historical point of origin (while Esposito briefly discusses Roman law, it is not because the munus had a Roman legal meaning that it has any purchase upon us today), but because it constitutes the necessary point of contact between communitas and immunitas. It is a form in the two following senses. Etymologically, both communitas and immunitas stem from and modify the munus in complementary ways (i.e., communitas: from con- and munus, meaning “with” the munus and immunitas: from in- and munus, meaning “apart from” or “exempt from” the munus). Ontologically, the munus exists as a relational form or mode that generates normativity. Specifically, Esposito characterizes the munus in terms of donum, officio, and onus – that is to say, the munus connotes a gift, an office, and an obligation. In the ontological reading of the term that Esposito proposes, the munus is incurred by a (collective or individual) subject when that subject comes into existence. To play with Esposito’s terms, the existence of a subject is always given (a gift), which is to say, supererogatory. After being born, the subject becomes who she is; she comes to occupy the office of the subject. It is an office because it entails normative obligations. In other words, simply being born or formed imposes a normative obligation upon the subject who emerges. Let’s see why. For Esposito, the emergence of identity takes place only on the basis of Claim 1. Hence, the conditions of existence of any identity are themselves irreducibly communitarian, which is a fancy way of saying that the very concept of identity radically depends upon communitas. In fact, it is so radically dependent that, to be functional at all, identity only emerges and then operates as an ongoing immunological process (Claim 2). Accordingly, we could characterize the normative obligation under discussion in terms of an obligation inherent to such a finite condition of radical dependence. You have normative obligations to that upon which you depend for your very existence – that is to say, to your conditions of existence, to the remainder of existence. Therefore, we can say that there exists a form of normative ontological obligation that stems from the fundamentally ecological conditions of existence itself. Accordingly, what is the normative obligation in question? Abstractly, it entails the following dictum: (D1) Act revisably in such a way as to acknowledge and preserve the metabolic and vitalizing capacities of your conditions of existence. Each of the principal terms here can be elaborated upon: revisability means that actions and programs update when new knowledges or modes of knowing appear; action refers to the intentional programs by means of which collective and individual subjects express themselves agentially in the world; to acknowledge means to be informed affectively in such a way that affections, affinities, and attachments flow from contact with real conditions; to preserve means not to perpetuate mere sameness, but to conserve, experiment with, and stimulate material powers of alteration, resilience, and self-renewal; metabolic capacities refers to the fact that our conditions of existence evolve and shift under conditions of constrained chaotic interaction; and vitalizing capacities refers to the ongoing emergence of ontological novelty that, in turn, generates further novelty. In other words, accepting the munus means that we are obligated normatively to care about, and to care for, our conditions of existence. The invocation of care here is not merely or simply “ethical,” but directly ontological and strongly political. Refusing the munus – which is to say, adopting the securitarian framework which rejects the “gift” of existence, abdicates the “office” of the subject, and ignores in normative “obligation” – produces the intensifying trajectory of relational nihilation that constitutes our ecological crisis. Theoretically, then, there is a normative obligation that must be fulfilled. Empirically, there is also a practical reason for undertaking such an obligation. The earth is dying, and, if we do not change our material and political mode of being, then, effectively, we will die along with it. As such, as a civilization, we are facing a rather dramatic disjunction: Accept the munus, or die. It is worth noting that at stake in this decision is not merely our collective or individual survival, but also the tremendous amount of ecological damage we are doing as we grip harder and harder at our securitarian fantasies.