Thursday, September 9, 2010

Esposito on the concept of the person

So, as I said in a recent post, part of the dissertation deals with the concept of the person. Well, it seems that much of the argument I was planning to make was done, in more detail, by Roberto Esposito in his Terza persona: Politica della vita e filosofia dell'impersonale Torino: Einaudi, 2007. (Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal, which I believe is forthcoming at some point by Polity). I mean one of the chapter titles is even The Dispositif of the Person, which is a phrase I use as well. It is a smart book, even if it makes a lot of research I did repetitive at this point. Esposito engages in a similar and longer genealogy of the concept of the person. Though his focus is mainly on both the Roman legal conception, and the early Christian trinity conception. I didn't get long to look at the book (I got to figure out cheap ways of buying foreign language books, particularly Italian ones), but let me talk roughly about the book, and highlight some of the disagreements.

The book is, in many ways, very Agamben-esque. In both the good and bad senses of that term. Everything is empty metaphysical machines separating and rearranging bodies into killable and protected in zones of indetermination. And of course the teleology of all of this is the Nazis. The solution is, of course, to render the machine inoperative by exiting from the metaphysics associated with the machine. A lot of sillyness is pushed against supporters of human rights and bio-ethicists (I'm sorry, I find it hard to believe that what this world needs is less attention paid to practical ethics, or that was really drove the logics of the Third Reich was bio-ethics and human rights). It is very learned and nuanced, with fascinating arguments and insights.

The concept of the person is one of the most important ethical and legal concepts of the present day. As Esposito notes, it is something that is considered of critical importance both by secularists and Catholic ethicists and legal scholars. I invite any of you take a dip into current discussions of bio-ethics, medical ethics, animal ethics, etc. and of course one of the major themes is trying to figure out exactly what counts as a person. Meanwhile, the question of the person is still very much a central concern in our legal debates, not only in discussions around abortion and other bio-ethical concerns, but also recently in things like the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling. As a matter of fact, that ruling prompted me to make a quick overview of the history of the concept of the person. Which I suggest reading. Esposito engages in a similar and longer genealogy of the concept of the person. Though his focus is mainly on both the Roman legal conception, and the early Christian trinity conception.
What Esposito draws out of those two traditions are two different ways that the person, rather than being an obvious unity and essence, is actually split both internally and externally. Internally, the split is revealed in the trinity, in which we see that the person does not lie in the body, but rather in the soul or an external essence. The economy of the trinity introduces the idea that the person is somehow an escape or an other of the animal body (both our own animal body, and obviously other animals' bodies). If the trinity provides a certain economy of an internal split (we are both persons and not persons), the Roman legal system provides a more external split. In the Roman system persona was given only to those who were full legal citizens. Obviously slaves were not persons, but also were not women or children. Moreover, stripping someone of their personhood was a penality for certain crimes. So, there was no automatic overlap between the person and the human, and there existed all of the obvious problems with not being a person (slavery, the possibility of being put to death, etc).
Then, in a move totally reminiscent of Agamben, we jump from the Roman legal system and the patristics to Nazism, human rights, and contemporary bioethics. This is, by the way, one of the differences I have with Esposito is that his genealogy seems to downplay the relationship of the person with property. Thus, while slaves, women, and children were not persons under Roman law, corporations or any entity that held property was a person. This is why the development of the concept of person in early modern philosophy under thinkers like Locke and Antoine Destutt de Tracy is absolutely crucial to understanding something like neoliberalism today. As I have said before, personhood seems to be the property to have property. I guess this also a good place to mention that Esposito repeats the common philological mistake (for example, Aquinas makes this same mistake) of saying that the Latin persona comes from the Greek prósopon, when it really comes from the Etruscan phersu. I don't think it is that bad of a mistake because the Latin translation of the Greek prosopon is persona, and therefore there is no doubt that the Greek influenced the Latin/Roman notion of persona. I think it is a mistake to see etymologies through a strictly generative lens than through a certain dialogical lens. Okay, back to the Nazis, human rights, and bioethicists (and if I was Esposito, I could make the joke, "Sorry, I repeat myself").
For anyone who has read Esposito, particularly his preceding book Bios, these arguments are fairly predictable. Nazis are the ones who achieved the complete biologization of personhood, while still maintaining the ability to create a split within the notion of the human from the notion of personhood. Human rights, with their emphasis on the personal expression and personal growth and protection are absolute failures. And they are failures because the notion of human rights repeats the same mistake as the Nazis (no, seriously, stop laughing). Bio-ethicists are also Nazis (especially Peter Singer) because they deal with complex questions of what gets to count as a person. Because they are involved with figuring out things like cloning, abortion, animal rights, ending life support, etc, they are Nazis. Well, to be rather more fair to Esposito, he mostly focuses on Singer's support for certain kinds of infanticide, which is without a doubt one of his most controversial claims. I'm not sure I agree with Singer, but I still find it hard to believe that any serious consideration of his argument would make it seem as a slippery slope to the Lager. I mean, I share very much Esposito's critique of personhood, and I am doubtful of that personhood is a system that can truly bring about liberation (animal or otherwise), but all of that said, I just don't think many of those people working in ethics and promoting human rights are secretly (so secret they don't even know it themselves) allied with the greatest forms of evil. And moreover, I am left doubtful that Esposito push against personhood is useful for us addressing issues of limited medical resources, abortion, end of life counseling and concerns, cloning and stem cell research, the birth of children with painful and fatal medical conditions. When I read Agamben, or Esposito in this case, it almost seems to me that even dealing with concrete ethical issues makes you a Nazi.
So, Esposito's solution or response to personhood is not depersonalization (which he sees as also a bad thing, and indeed a major part of personhood is that is always carries the risk of depersonalization), but rather the impersonal. He traces the impersonal out in basically the work of four thinkers: Simone Weil, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze (with and without Guattari). The impersonal, also the third person, or perhaps clearest for me is a life, life as situated on a plane of immanence. This is also the other shocking moment of convergence, where the solution to the problem of personhood is to be found in Deleuze and Guattari's notion of becoming-animal. Though I would say that Esposito's move here is a rather conservative. Whereas I am interested in pushing D&G's notion into a even more anti-anthropocentric register than it currently is in, Esposito seems to read it as an almost fully anthropocentric register. Thus, becoming-animal means stopping the separation of the human from its animal basis (which for Esposito means its thing-ness basis), and instead discovering the human as human. To put it another way, becoming-animal here is to end the division between bios and zoe, but only for humans. So, in a real way, to never end that distinction. I don't see much hope in Esposito's reading of moving us towards some sort of ethical and political relationship with other animals. Which shouldn't surprise anyone who has read Esposito before. You cannot fully deconstruct personhood without also deconstructing humanness, which is why D&G didn't speak of a becoming-human (well, they did quickly in their book on Kafka), but instead speak of a becoming-animal.
I found Terza Persona like I found the other books by Esposito I have read: well written, absolutely smart, insightful, and problematic. The problems tend to always be the same problems, as well. His downplaying or ignoring the issues of capital, and his complete and uncritical anthropocentrism. Still, I highly recommend the book.