I was not able to get much from Roberto Esposito’s book through casual perusal. It required a proper sitting down to read at a desk for me in order for any rays of insight to penetrate the clouds of confusion. Once I’d given the book more focused attention I began to be intrigued and excited by Esposito’s methodology and ideas. Nevertheless it is a challenging read, and very dense.
It is not an easy book to categorise. Esposito is a professor of ‘theoretical philosophy’ (is there any other kind?), but very much a political philosopher in the Italian tradition of Machiavelli, Croce and Gramsci concerned as much with history and politics as hermeneutics and ethics. In this interesting interview he claims that an interest in biopolitics – the meeting of nature/bios and the political – is a particularly Italian precoccupation.
‘Immunitas’ is an exploration of the affordances of the metaphor of immunity and immunisation when applied to different fields (law, anthropology, religion, politics, medicine). It is a historical analysis that sees the intensification of the logic of the ‘immunitary dispositif’ in contemporary society. Immunization is directed as protecting the individual and the group by introducing a proprietary amount of something inimical to wellbeing: it functions through the use of what it opposes. It protects life, but taken to extreme (‘an excess of preservation’ p143), also negates by resisting processes that might support life such as commonality, integration of ‘the other’, cross-fertilisation.
We all had a go at reading the Introduction, which explores the ‘immunological paradigm’, partly by a semantic deconstruction of the term and its relationship to its constituent parts (community, munus/obligation). This chapter also summarises the rest of the book which deals with the different spheres within which immunological processes operate. I also read the chapter on biopolitics.
The biopolitics chapter covers a lot of ground; the genealogies of the metaphor of ‘the body politic’ and the immunitary metaphor, a reference to the pharmakon (which paradoxically combines cure and poison in the same substance), a review and expansion of Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics as governmentality, Canguilhem’s reflections on the normal and the pathological. I do not feel confident that I managed to follow all (or even most) of Esposito’s arguments, which at times are very abstract and made reference to thinkers that I am not well acquainted with. What I did enjoyed were his creative juxtapositions and paradoxical statements. What to make of the final statement of this chapter – that ‘bare life’ as a subject of biopolitics “is not the object or effect of the norm, but the place of its invariance…it is the entropic contrary of anormativity”?