Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Response to Miguel Vatter's the Republic of the Living: Biopolitics and the Critique of Civil Society

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Response to Miguel Vatter's the Republic of the Living: Biopolitics and the Critique of Civil Society

Article excerpt

One of the great pleasures for me in reading Miguel Vatter's The Republic of the Living has been to see how he reinterprets and criticizes the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben.1 Miguel produces a Deleuzian reading of Agamben, not in the sense of finding an element of the French philosopher's thought in the Italian, but rather in the sense of offering, as Deleuze did with Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Spinoza, a "forced" yet forceful interpretation of Agamben that proves to be refreshing and productive. Hopefully, my response reflects both my exhilaration and my occasional perplexity as I try to understand how the author reconfigures crucial concepts in the Italian philosopher's thinking. My remarks on The Republic of the Living will focus primarily on chapter 3, "Reification and Redemption of Bare Life in Adorno and Agamben," but also will make reference to chapter 7, "On the Rights to Have Rights," and its readings of Arendt and Agamben.

I will do my best to elaborate on the rich conceptual tapestry that results from the book's main project: to explain why and how biopolitics matters for an understanding and critique of modern civil society (family, law, economy), which for Foucault operates in relative autonomy from the state, a territory confined by liberalism to the dynamics of the free enterprise. In so doing, Miguel undertakes to continue and complete Foucault's late analysis of "governmentality." As the author points out in the introduction to The Republic of Living, "The thrust of this book lies in the argument that civil society can be both described and criticized from the perspective of biopolitics by studying the different relationships established between the components of natality, normality and normativity" (RoL, 3).

The author quickly proposes that we regard the first two notions, natality and normativity, as the equivalents respectively of zôê and bios, defining zôê in light of Marx as "species life" (Gattungswesen) and bios as a form of life that derives from rule-following conduct. In what follows shortly thereafter, Miguel declares that he aims to develop the "affirmative biopolitics" established in Italian philosophy by Negri, Agamben, and Esposito, albeit according to different paradigms. The author's ensuing claim that recent Italian critical theory formulates an affirmative biopolitics within the horizon of a communist form of political life that lies beyond capitalism and liberalism in my view betrays an excessively optimistic reading of Esposito and Agamben, while ascribing to Negri a perhaps undeservedly hegemonic role. Can we really speak of an Italian biopolitical "school"?2 This is that first question that I would like to raise. Esposito's argument in favor of an affirmative biopolitics and his critique of thanatopolitics, which he advances in Communitas (2009) and Immunitas (2011), do not seem to me to lead truly toward a communist form of life.3 In Categories of the Impolitical (2015), he sets out to explore the consummation and inactuality of the political categories of modernity in order to determine the boundary lines of an otherwise hard to envision space of "radical reflection."4 In no way does Marxism or communism animate his observations on the limits of the political. His attempts to get beyond the category of the subject in Third Person (2012) and in the just published Persons and Things (2015) do not seem to offer any political project beyond a routine admonition of liberalism, notwithstanding his conclusive invocation of the multitudes.5

When it comes to Agamben (who, to my knowledge, never cites or engages with Esposito), I am happy to follow the daring and certainly useful suggestion of The Republic of the Living that we reconsider Agamben in relation to Adorno's precedent. However, I confess to being more than a little disoriented by the absence of any reference to Debord in Miguel's encounter with Agamben, despite the fact that, setting aside Benjamin, Debord represents the most evident link between the Italian philosopher and Marxism. …

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