notes on Timothy Campbell’s introduction to Bios

In this introduction, Campbell seeks to put Esposito’s work and the concept of immunity into intellectual and political context. Specifically, he contextualizes the book by making more explicit the dialogue with certain contemporary authors, elaborating a genealogy of biopolitics, and pointing towards certain unanswered questions regarding biotech and contemporary politics.

First, however, Campbell explains how Esposito has sketched the relationship between community and immunity in two earlier works: Communitas: Origin and Destiny of the Community and Immunitas: the Protection and Negation of Life. In particular, Esposito draws out the meaning of the Latin root munus, “a category of gift that requires, even demands, an exchange in return.” Campbell explains the relationship between community and immunity:
“For Exposito, immunity is coterminous with community.  It does not simply negate communitas by protecting it from what is external, but rather is inscribed in the horizon of the communal munus… Immunity connotes the means by which the individual is defended from the ‘expropriative effects’ of the community, protecting the one who carries it from the risk of contact with those who do not (the risk being precisely the loss of individual identify)… the condition of immunity presupposes community but also negates it… “ (x-xi)

Campbell then delineates Derrida’s contributions to immunity as a paradigm, and highlights where Esposito and Derrida diverge. Both authors emphasize the impact of the immunity paradigm on contemporary politics, particularly after September 11, 2001.  Derrida, however, sees immunity as always negative, as auto-immunity.  “Esposito clearly refuses to collapse the process of immunization into a full-blown autoimmune suicidal tendency at the heart of community.” (xvii) Esposito instead puts forth a proposal for an affirmative biopolitical immunity. Campbell outlines this proposal later in the chapter, suggesting a radical affirmation of life and an openness to community and difference.  The example of pregnancy and birth is highlighted as an example of immunization that fortifies or strengthens difference. “Esposito extends the category of birth to those moments in which the subject, ‘moving past one threshold,’ experiences a new form of individuation.” (xxxii)

Campbell, in some of the more interesting parts of the introduction in my opinion, puts Esposito into conversation with contemporary Italian political thought, particularly Agamben, Hardt and Negri. Starting with Agamben, Campbell glosses homo sacer as “a kind of flattening of the specificity of a modern biopolitics in favor of a metaphysical reading of the originary and infinite state of exception.” (xxii) Campbell criticizes Agamben for being too general or totalizing when foregrounding the state of exception, and not sufficiently historically specific, stating that “The result is a politics that is potentially forever in ruins… or a politics that is always already declined negatively as biopolitical.” (xxiii) Esposito’s emphasis on immunity, on the other hand, emerges particularly in the modern era. In his understanding of Nazi thanatopolitics, Esposito foregrounds biology or biocratic elements: “Esposito refuses to superimpose Nazi thanatopolitics too directly over contemporary biopolitics.  Rather, he attempts to inscribe the most significant elements of Nazi biopolitical apparatus in the larger project on immunizing life through the production of death… By focusing on the ways in which bios becomes a juridicual caterogy and nomos (law) a biologized one, Esposito doesn’t directly challenge Agamben’s reading of the state of exception as an aporia of Western politics… Rather, he privileges the figure of immunization as the ultimate horizon within twhich to understand Nazi political, social, juridical, and medical policies.  In a sense he folds the state of exception in the more global reading of modern immunity dispositifs.”(xxiv-xxv)

Campbell also describes Hardt and Negri’s understanding of a new regime of biopolitical power, and the new subjectivities and collectivities that emerge to contest it in the form of the multitude. According to Campbell, their affirmative vision of collective resistance, of a new commons, does not address the risks implicit in any community, the potentially negative, exclusionary, and violent power immunity highlighted by Esposito.

Campbell’s concluding discussion of biotech and contemporary politics extrapolate Esposito’s analysis to conversations about the war on terror and neoliberal eugenics. Campbell does explicitly address the similarities and differences of Nazi thanatopolitics and contemporary biotech and eugenics, stating:
“If for Nazism man is his boy, and only his body, for liberalism, beginning with Locke, man has a body, which is to say he possesses his body – and therefore can use it, transform it, and sell it much like an internal slave.  In this sense liberalism – naturally I’m speaking of the category that founds it – overturns the Nazi perspective, transferring the property of the body from the state to the individual, but within the same biopolitical lexicon.” Campbell uses this to extrapolate from Esposito a response to Dworkin’s embrace of biotechnology, and challenges in particular the way that the individual subject / citizen becomes the only recognized life, excluding other forms of life.

In general, I found the introduction to be helpful and enjoyable, particularly the connections and conversations with contemporary Italian authors, the political context of biotechnology, and the war on terror.  I was doubtful of the quick glosses of certain authors, but don’t feel confident or well read enough in the different authors to assert another interpretation.  Though, generally speaking, it seemed that Campbell’s embrace of the paradigm of immunity, and the affirmative potential within biopolitics, led him to dismiss certain interpretations because they did not offer a similar potential of positive or life-affirming power within a biopolitical paradigm.  I’m quite doubtful of this internal potential, and consequently less inclined to write off authors who see the possibilities for resistance from outside rather than within.


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