Notes on Weil (From a 2009 Lecture). (Alberto Moreiras)

(Notes for lecture at University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, November 6, 2009)

[From Life’s Vertigo:]

  1. Against Subjectivation.  The thinker Esposito invokes as the first radical proponent of a philosophy of the impersonal is of course Simone Weil, whose work in the 1930’s already rose against the personalist ideology that many segments of the European liberal (and Catholic) intelligentsia were proposing as an alternative to fascism. For Weil the person depends on the collective and right depends on might. From this perspective, for Weil both the category of the person and the notion of rights are complementary factors in what Esposito calls an “immunitary drift” whose end is the protection of privilege against the excluded. Weil looks at the notion of person from the perspective of what it excludes, even as she also looks at rights from the perspective of what they steal. In other words, right is designed to protect the person against the non-person, which is always the non-person that has been defined as such from the very perspective of the right: this is the immunitarian drift.   There can be no “universal right” of the person, since right is the mark of a communitarian privilege which is always had against the community’s outside. The category of the person is for Weil, accordingly, a category of subordination and separation that must be fought through a radical appeal to the impersonal. “What is sacred, far from being the person, is that which, in a human being, is impersonal. All that is impersonal in the human is sacred, and only that” (Weil quoted by Esposito, Terza 124).

The passage to the impersonal: this is Weil’s political demand. It is a passage beyond the I and the we, and therefore a passage into the third person, into the nameless or anonymous. The radically republican question is indeed of a pronominal nature. Is political justice, and also political freedom, to be accomplished through the constitution of a we, or through the passage to the impersonal they? If my freedom is the freedom of all, is all to be encompassed by a first person plural or by a third person plural? Is political freedom a question of community or is political freedom a question of the multitude?  Or neither?

Right around the time that Weil was dealing with these ideas she spent a few months in civil-war Aragon, close to the front. Had she been able to look beyond the trenches, into the other or anti-Republican side, she might have seen a few women with Y’s patched onto their blue shirts. They would have been members of the Sección femenina, the Spanish Falangist organization for women, created and developed by Pilar Primo de Rivera. In Paul Preston’s words:

The symbol of the Sección Femenina was the letter Y, and its principal decoration was a medal forged in the form of a Y, in gold, silver, or red enamel according to the degree of heroism or sacrifice being rewarded. The Y was the first letter of the name of Isabel of Castille, as written in the fifteenth century, and also the first letter of the word yugo (yoke) which was part of the Falangist emblem of the yoke and arrows. With specific connotations of a glorious imperial past and more generalized ones of servitude, as well as of unity, it was a significant choice of symbol. (Preston 129)

So you are a woman, but have subjectivized yourself as a person in an affirmation of love to the Falange. Your choice for the Falange is your personal freedom, but that freedom is, first of all, imperial freedom, as it commits you to a path of domination of others, the non-Falangists; secondarily, it is also imperial freedom to the extent that you sign up for your own domination, for your own servitude.   You choose a collectivity that will not take its eyes away from you. As a member of the Sección Femenina, it was your duty to serve the man, the men of the Fatherland, those fascists that you loved. Is Pilar Primo de Rivera and, with her, all the colleagues who thought up the Y symbol to sum up the free presence of Spanish women in the National Movement giving us the conditions of possibility of all political subjectivation? How does one become a person, politically speaking?

The community of the we is always the Y on your shoulder. The passage to the impersonal is the refusal of the Y. The uncanny choice for the freedom of all, for the freedom of the third person plural, is a choice to be made outside and even against political subjectivation. It is adrift, as it refuses every orientation beyond itself, beyond its own gesture. It embodies no calculation, no teleology, no program. It is rare—rarer than the emergence of the subject itself, which happens every time there is a free choice for community. It stands outside every moralism (as it never seeks personal advantage). It is time to retun the impersonal to the heart of the political. Everywhere we hear definitions of politics that presuppose political subjectivation as the goal. There is no doubt that political subjectivation is ongoing in every political process. But political subjectivation is in every case a function of the history of domination. The passage to the impersonal is the attempt to produce politics as the countercommunitarian history of the neuter.


[Comment on following quotations from On Human Personality—select.]

So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him. Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else. 54

the impersonal and the anonymous 55

Two errors: the idolatry of collectivity, and the deceit of personality. Germany and France. 56

the human being can only escape from the collective by raising himself above the personal and entering into the impersonal. The moment he does this, there is something in him, a small portion of his soul, upon which nothing of the collective can get a hold. 57

Every man who has once touched the level of the impersonal is charged with a responsibility towards all human beings; to safeguard, not their persons, but whatever frail potentialities are hidden within them for passing over to the impersonal. 57-58

Forceful critique of rights in 60-61.

Writing in the middle of the Second World War, and writing against Personalism, understood as the most that liberal democracy can provide (against nazism and sovietism, against americanism, etc.)

Against, therefore, the notion of Human Rights, or of the Rights of the Person, staples of liberal democracy.

There is something sacred in every man, but it is not the person. 50

Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, Why am I being hurt?, then there is certainly injustice. 52.

The cry is for the most part silent, inarticulate. Being able to hear it and act on it is the task of democracy. Nothing else. Usually what goes under the task of democracy is directly contrary to it. A politics of privilege, based upon the person, upon the subject, etc.

Affliction is by its nature inarticulate. 65

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being. 51

If politics were taken seriously, finding a remedy for this would be one of its more urgent problems. 64

[This is, simply, I think, an absolutely important, novel understanding of the function of democracy, against the liberal paradigm.]

Thought revolts from contemplating affliction. 65

[This is the problem. So a politics to remedy affliction is always already a politics of the impossible. Problem of political theology. Problem of the supernatural.]

There is no fear of its being impossible. 66

In all the crucial problems of human existence the only choice is between supernatural good on the one hand and evil on the other. 66

Subaltern politics. 67

Genius against talent. Two screens: the screen of talent, and the screen of the collective. 68

Neither a personality nor a party is ever responsive either to truth or to affliction. 68

References to Plato’s cave and also to Descartes’s capacity for the infinite, and Levinas. 69.

The only way into truth is through one’s own annhilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation. 70

Only then does one understand affliction. By letting oneself be shattered by it. Affliction as a way to freedom. 70

To be aware of this [the possibility of total loss] in the depth of one’s sould is to experience non-being. It is the state of extreme and total humiliation which is also the condition for passing over into truth. It is a death of the soul. 70-71.

Difficulties of listening to affliction, 71.

Need for grace, 71

Spirit of justice and spirit of truth are one. 72

Connection with beauty 72

Dangerous words, out of a providential arrangement. 76-77

there is no guarantee for democracy, or for the protection of the person against the collectivity, without a disposition of public life relating it to the higher good which is impersonal and unrelated to any political form. 77

Justice, truth and beauty are the image in our world of this impersonal and divine order of the universe. 78

[And then perhaps end with more from “Life’s Vertigo”–select, summarize]


The significance of Benveniste´s essay on the third person is crucial, to the extent that Benveniste, in Esposito’s interpretation, has given us the grammatical conditions of possibility for the development of a sustained thought of the non-subject as the (logically) only possible thought of alterity: “Notwithstanding all the rhetoric about the other’s excess, in the confrontation between two terms, [alterity] can be conceivable only and always in relationship to the I—its other side and its shadow” (Esposito, Terza 129). If the I, confronting it, depersonalizes the you, it only does so to the extent that it awaits its own depersonalization in the reversal of the positions: the you always responds. The third person breaks away from the relationship between a “subjective person” and a “non-subjective person” by creating the possibility of a non-person: “The ‘third person’ is not a person; it is rather the verbal form that has the function of expressing the non-person” (Benveniste, quoted by Esposito, Terza 131). The third person, beyond the I and the you, always refers to the absence of the subject, even if it can simultaneously refer to potential subjects. It is constitutively impersonal, and it is because of it that it can have a plural: “Only the ‘third person,’ as non-person, admits a true plural” (Benveniste, quoted by Esposito, Terza 132).

It is from this position that a reading of Levinas opens up, not as a thinker of the third person, but rather as the thinker who could not bring himself to the exposition of his own radicality. We are used to thinking of the Levinasian face-to-face as the epitome of Levinas’s philosophical or antiphilosophical position. What Esposito’s reading brings out, accurately, is the fundamental impossibility of the second-person suture in Levinasian thought—something that Levinas himself recognized, of course, and at the same time left undeveloped.   Esposito says that the question of the third person is for Levinas both “the theoretical vortex and the point of internal crisis” of his thought (146).   But, far from neutralizing it into the I-you encounter, Levinas recognizes the very originarity of the face as the trace of a field of signification that breaks every binary relationship: “the beyond from which the face comes is the third person” (Levinas quoted by Esposito, Terza 146). The beyond, which for Levinas means beyond being, also therefore means beyond transcendence, or beside transcendence. But this is the key problem. In the recognition of the third person as the beyond of the face Levinas’s thought opens itself to an unthinkability whose key position at the limit of twentieth-century thought makes it all the more urgent for us.

It is the problem, not of the impersonal, but of the impersonal’s political import: the point or limit at which politics should no longer be thought of as contained in a dialogical structure is also the point at which politics abandons its all-too-human face in favor of a dimension able to affect, beyond and beside the third person and their infinite plurality, what Blanchot came to call the neuter for lack of a better term. Just like language “is spoken where a community between the terms of the relationship is missing” (Levinas quoted by Esposito, Terza 147), a countercommunitarian politics is a politics no longer structured in terms of friendship or enmity, no longer structured in terms of the interhuman relation.   Biopolitics finds its limit in the fallen dialogics of the subject/object relationship: it is the tendential application of technique to life (it is hence a technopolitics, but not the only possible one), for the purposes of an administration of life where life occupies the place of the object.   Biopolitical practice, always modelled on the person’s dispositif, is a practice of the master subject over against an object that constitutes it, and that by constituting it occupies the position of internal interlocutor. If the purpose of biopolitics is to make life, both organic and animal, sing to the tune of the subject, then it should be clear that no positive or affirmative biopolitics—all biopolitics is affirmative, even the Nazi kind: thanatopolitics is never but the dark side of an essential affirmation—will suffice (and this is something that Esposito may not be willing to concede). A radical politics of the third person, hence beyond or beside the person, hence anti-biopolitical, finds its point of departure in Levinas’s problem, his theoretical vortex and his point of crisis, which we can here only gloss following Esposito’s indications. If the other is to command radical priority, there can be no common ground between the I and the you—the face comes up from a region of radical separation, or the you would become just another aspect of the I. The other is not just a fold in a communitarian continuum, but the signal mark of an essential lack of community, and therefore the opening of and to a radical disymmetry. If the subject suffers expropriation in Levinasian thought, it is because the demand of the other presses upon it from a region incommensurate to community.   The experience of the you, when the you is not to be handled according to everyday linguistic convention but comes to us in the form of the face, radically, is then precisely at the same time the experience of that which can never be reduced to a you: an experience of the “third person,” or of what Levinas calls “illeity.”   Sensing the beyond of the face of the other is at the same time encountering the third person. But the third person recedes, and only seems to come in the form of its absence. It marks, in the first Levinas, a negative experience that might be referred to God as the Unreachable. But Levinas will later say: “Proximity is troubled and becomes a problem with the entry of the third” (Levinas quoted by Esposito, Terza 149).   The third is a problem: recession breaks proximity, and proximity can no longer suffice.   What is often ignored by Levinas’s critics is that troubled proximity, and not the ethical relation, is the site of politics, which means that politics is the region that opens up in and through the very impossibility of community, in the rupture of the immediate ethical relation.   It is through the very tension between proximity and its rupture (which is also at the very same time the rapture of proximity), or through the resistance to that tension (as the subject remains hostage to the other), that justice appears as the horizon of the political in the wake of the failure of the ethical relation to constitute itself as closed or unique horizon.   This is what organizes the political as an insurmountable contradiction between the infinite ethical responsibility for the unique other, which introduces a radical limitation in the universality of law, and the equally infinite demand for justice, which is a limitation of ethical responsibility.   Politics is for Levinas, to start with, this unstable field of relation created in virtue of the theoretical vortex that makes justice, as a demand that originates in the troubles of proximity, and ethics, as a demand imposed by the face of the other, equally unconditional. Esposito calls it a conflict between “partiality and equality,” which, he says, reverses “the language of the person . . . into the form of the impersonal” (152). The entry of the impersonal remains a problem because, with it, the subject is liquidated: not even as a hostage can it remain the source of agency. And this is something about which Levinas left but few indications.

Esposito claims that it was Blanchot who made it his business to develop the Levinasian point of crisis into the insight of the neuter, “against the hostility, or at least the incomprehension, of the entire philosophical tradition” (156-57).   Blanchot mentions a “relationship of the third kind” which is precisely the disaster of every dialectics, of every dialogics, as the relationship that interrupts reciprocity and that therefore opens the non-relationship. The neuter is a non-personal alterity for which Blanchot rejects the name of “impersonal” as still insufficient (since “impersonal” is grammatically still dependend on a notion of person). Blanchot is looking for a break of the semantic field that will not allow it to reconfigure itself around the usual categories: being and nothing, presence and absence, internal and external.   The third kind is the kind that enters no kind: and the neuter a word too much, which Esposito will link to the Levinasian notion of the il y a as it was developed in De l’evasion and De l’existence a l’existant. But for Blanchot the neuter is not primarily a site of existential horror; as the inevitable and destined site of existence, it is rather the “extreme possibility” of thought (159). What would be its political manifestation? A politics of the neuter is a politics of the third person in the sense already specified: an impersonal politics of the singular plural, a countercommunitarian politics of the they. Esposito’s contention is that only Foucault and Deleuze were able to advance Blanchot’s project. This is something that Giorgio Agamben has also sustained. As explained above, for Agamben the active category in the program for a philosophy of the future is the category of “life.” Esposito connects the development of the category of life in the later thought of Foucault and Deleuze to a basic Nietzscheanism in both thinkers—to their emphasis on the notion of “force,” which will be linked to an irreducible and untamable outside that is, however, and in virtue of its radical univocity, also our most intimate inside. “What is it that we are—beyond or before our persons—without ever taking possession of? What crosses and works us to the point of turning itself inside out if not life itself?” (168). Power, also constituted by life, and to the extent that it turns itself against the human, never has enough with the person as subject of rights, but must go beyond the person and its end, beyond death therefore, towards the capture of life itself. Life captures itself as power, but at the same time life exceeds itself as force beyond power. This is for Esposito the very possibility of an “affirmative biopolitics” (170) that he identifies with a new possibility of community, beyond the person, “singular and impersonal” (171).   “Life itself . . . constitutes the term on which the totality of the theory of the impersonal seems to be summed up and projected towards a still undetermined configuration, but because of that loaded with unexpressed potentiality” (179). A politics of the neuter is expressed in Esposito through his notion of a politics of impersonal life, even a biopolitics of impersonal life, that must lead, through the tapping of its unexpressed potentiality, not just beyond “the entire conceptual apparatus of modern political philosophy” (179), but towards a new community, impersonal and singular: a community of beatitude which is, finally, the beatitude of the animal, the goal of the Deleuzian “animal belonging” that receives full recognition in the last pages of Esposito’s book.   While fully endorsing Esposito’s deconstructive analysis of the person’s dispositif, I have already expressed my objection in the form of a reserve regarding the possibility of an “affirmative” biopolitics that would finally render the metaphysical separation between homo and persona, which also means, between person and animal, null.   Agamben’s The Open unquestioningly shares many of Esposito’s insights and advances the argument towards a more nuanced understanding of the political task at least at the theoretical level.


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