Glosses on Philippe Theophanidis on community and obligation. by Gerardo Muñoz

These are further notes on the mini-series of conversations within the framework of the course that I am teaching at 17 instituto on contemporary Italian political thought. This second installment we had the opportunity of discussing a few ideas with Philippe Theophanidis on Roberto Esposito’s notion of community and its general horizon of inscription within contemporary discussions on immunity, the commons, and communication (a topic already explored with Philippe a couple of months back a propos of the publication of Dionys Mascolo’s La Révolution par l’amitiè, in which he participated). Although Philippe recommended reading and focusing on the first chapter of Roberto Esposito’s Communitas, his presentation intentionally exceeded the mere philological and description exposition. He suggested, perhaps too prudently, that the vocabulary of Italian theory or contemporary political thought is expressively ambivalent. This is already food for thought, as it puts pressure (at least in my reading) to the ‘conceptual’ register of Italian theory, while reminding us of the necessity of thinking against every moral or ideological political analysis. This also seems to traverse all of contemporary Italian theory regardless of what P.P. Portinaro claims on this ground. But I would like to register a few movements of Philippe’s talk in order to provide continuation in the upcoming discussions.

1. Theophanidis began insisting on the relationship between community and language. Because we are speaking beings, capable of saying, we are in the common of language regarding what or how we speak. Beyond and prior to any substance of community and its predication, there is a koine of language as sayability. This of course connects to the vulgar language or the poetics that marks the Italian tradition and that it enters into crisis with the acceleration process of modernization in Italy the postwar scenario, and to which names such as Pasolini, Zanzotto, Morante, or Levi will respond to. The crisis of community is, first and foremost, the crisis of the commonality of language in its rich materiality of the living community of beings. Here I am reminded that in the same way that there is no “theory” of language – as it remains purely inconceptual before grammar – there is no theory of substantive community, nor can there be one. To posit the community in the economy of predication is already to instrumentalize the very need to liberate it from whatever is done in its name.

2. For Theophanidis the conversation about community emerges in the wake of the collapse of 20th century communism and the absolutization of individualism due to the rise of economic management. But this does not imply restitution; it rather points to an ambivalent sense by which the very separation of the modern installment of individual and collective, community and substance, the person and the law, collapses. The unity of ‘munus’ in Esposito is a way to think the irreducibility of what is common between more than one without a securing a principle of mediation. Now, this unbridgeable gap is the negative foundation of the community in Esposito after Bataille, and the French tradition of the 50s.

3. However, Theophanidis assesses Esposito’s insistence in notions such as debt and obligation as an attempt to escape the nihilism of equivalence and the modern delegation of state sovereignty to fully become individuals capable of accumulating the spiritualization of freedom. However, what to make of Esposito’s dependence on categories of the Christian metaphysical tradition such as obligation? I mentioned to Philippe that this registered could be contrasted to the position of natural law, which also emphasis on foundational obligations as to delimit a set of normatively public goods (this typology is most clearly expressed in John Finnis classic Natural Law and Natural Rights). From this it follows not only that Esposito would be close (even if residually) to natural law principles but inscribe his conceptual grid in tension with the mediation of obligations on the one hand, and the reality of a concrete community on the other. In other words, it seems to me that if Esposito cannot guarantee a mediation for the notion of “obligation”, then this notion insofar as it is freestanding concept cannot do the job for any community. It could only stand as such: that is, a merely conceptual. This is something that has reemerged somehow in Esposito’s most recent work in institutions, human rights, and political anthropology in his Pensiero istituente (2020) where mediation does play a role, suggesting that he does not want to be taken as merely conceptual. Of course, I agree with Theophanidis that munus is void, a schism that Esposito does not want to suture, and so in this sense (also as a critic of personalism and the persona) he differs fundamentally from the general ends of iusnaturalism. However, it seems to me that the difficulty regarding the operativity of obligation in Esposito’s renewal of community does not disappear, quite the contrary.

4. A question emerged as to whether community can transform the crisis of political form, or whether any talk about community had to be done ex politico or infrapolitically. Theophanidis defended separating community and politics, if by politics we mean a return to the classical principles of sovereignty and representation; but also, if by politics we imply a general morality that would inseminate direct consensus and legislation across the members of the community. Any reworking of the political has to be done from a counter-communitarian perspective insofar as what is ruined is precisely the community of salvation guaranteed by those that confess or by those that assent to a principle of representation that marks our crisis. Perhaps the negative community (the community of a poetics of language and use) is what remains the fiction of socialization that drags the collapse of political representation. Otherwise, community is a sort of aggregate form of administration that exist comfortably well within the regime of biopolitics (another ambivalent term for Esposito).

5. Finally, Theophanidis expressed, rightly so, some skepticism at the famous Thomas Müntzer’s motto Omnia sunt communia, which on the surface established a totalization of the commons, but in actuality it rendered a moral legislation of what is understood as commons on behalf of a consent of total ownership of property. In this sense, the communitarian claim of Müntzer was a precursor to Carl Schmitt attack against humanitarianism: whoever says Human wants to fool us, since the outermost limit becomes the inhuman or the uncommon that must be obligated, erased, and destroyed whether it is in the name of the Human or the Commons. This is ideology at its finest, and it explains why the itinerary of both humanity and community have experienced such a happy voyage well into our present: it has consolidated a dominating morality veiled under the guise of a contingent good of and for the community. Of course, the price to be paid, just like Thomas Müntzer had to pay, is that the price of one’s head: the figure of acephaly now funds the differential structure of equivalence. Any reworking of community must be thought from and against collective equivalent execution, which is the real truth latent underneath every consensus and every morality.