‘The Third Person’ reviewed by Guy Lancaster

The Third Person

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012. 200pp., £15.99 pb
ISBN 9780745643984

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster

About the reviewer

Dr Guy Lancaster is the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture and…


The Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’ has long been wielded to explain the difference between ideal and reality, between best intentions and actual deeds, in how human beings relate to one another. A survey of the nightly news might reinforce for believers the apparent validity of such doctrine; however, scholars such as sociologist Christopher Powell have been seeking their own answers as to why groups sharing ‘civilized’ discourses that extol the value of human life so regularly perpetrate acts which radically undermine such ideals. Powell, for one, locates the problem in the civilization/barbarism dichotomy. In Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide (2011), he argues that the discourse of civilization, which has long been viewed as contrary to the genocidal impulse, actually increases a society’s capacity for genocide, given that the ‘civilized’ habitus allows for an easy ‘othering’ of those populations or individuals which do not share such performances of civilized behavior. The discourse of civilization can turn even the most radical act of violence into an act of love—saving the savages from their ignorance, bringing enlightenment, and so forth.

Concomitant with such studies is a growing awareness that increasing the rights of human beings has not decreased organized violence against them. After the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, human beings were supposed to be citizens of nations, but official citizenship bestowed no such protection for most. In the United States, for example, the conferral of legal rights upon African Americans after the Civil War actually led to a marked increase in lynching and other mob violence, while state forces and private industry regularly brutalized those citizens who dared join labor unions. International horror at the Nazi holocaust led to a new human rights regime whereby people’s rights were recognized as relating not to their citizenship but to their personhood, but neither has this expansion of the rights regime yielded the fruit expected, as demonstrated by a growing record of genocide, massacre, and political violence continuing here in the twenty-first century.

A number of philosophers who have confronted this problem have located the fault in the social contract itself. Charles W. Mills, in The Racial Contract (1997), argued that the classic social contract was originally conceived as a contact only among ‘those who matter’—i.e. those of white European origin—and that the political system of global white supremacy which arose resulted from a systematic denial of non-white personhood. However, Roberto Esposito, in Third Person, goes even further than Mills by laying the blame upon the notion of ‘person’ itself, arguing that ‘the essential failure of human rights, their inability to restore the broken connection between rights and life, does not take place in spite of the affirmation of the ideology of the person but rather because of it’ (5).

Esposito begins the tale of the person with the work of influential French anatomist Marie François Xavier Bichat, whose work produced (unintentionally) a secular counterpart to the old Catholic conception of personhood (the body/soul dichotomy) by dividing the human being into ‘vegetal’ and ‘animal’ components, the former being those physiological processes of which the individual is primarily unconscious (the functions of the liver, for example), while the latter are those processes that are the product of individual will (such as the movement of one’s arms). As Esposito notes, ‘From this moment on, the role of politics—now inevitably biopolitics—will no longer be to define the relationship between human beings as much as to identify the precise point at which the frontier is located between what is human and what, inside the human itself, is other than human’ (24). As biology begins to serve as a model for other disciplines, the political ideal of subjects possessing a rational will coming together freely to establish a particular political order becomes burdened by the growing belief that perhaps some subjects possess greater or lesser capacities for rational will. Concomitant with the growth of anthropology and comparative linguistics, the varying levels of vegetal and animal life (or, as later termed by some, animal and organic life) within the individual acquired a collective attribution based upon emerging racial or ethnic groupings, for, ‘[f]ar from presupposing the unity of the human species, comparative anthropology is the rigorous science of its internal differences, which, as such, because they are rooted in the deepest stratum of nature, are insuperable.’ (34)

Especially from the field of linguistics emerged the idea of degeneration, typified by the loss of unique linguistic forms present in such ‘superior’ source languages as Sanskrit and Latin due to ‘contamination’ from other linguistic sources. Language was increasingly held to be a marker of racial/ethnic differences (representative more of the non-conscious component of the human being), especially as socio- and political anthropologists began denying any environmental influence on the formation of individual character in favor of unbroken continuity of blood grouping people together. From this arose the belief that the original form was always the superior—the only evolution a culture might undergo is the degenerative one, and so a culture seeking to regenerate itself need first expel any foreign contaminants; or, as Esposito puts it, ‘Death is no longer the unavoidable background, or continuous challenge, out of which life emerges and against which it exerts resistance, but the primary instrument of its preservation and enhancement’ (56). Thus is born thanatopolitics, the most infamous incarnation of which was the Nazi eliminationist program—the complete reduction of a human being to race or species (many humans being held as more animal), combined with the abolition of that rational component with which modern political philosophy had invested it.

In response to the Nazi atrocities, the Allied victors worked to develop a concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ that would best describe the result of such thanatopolitics. However, a number of problems arise in attempting to develop a full regime of human rights, most notably the fact that ‘the law allows entrance only to those who fall into some sort of category—citizens, subjects, even slaves—hence, insofar as they are part of a political community’ (69). One cannot use the concept of personhood to bridge the gap between human being and a bearer of rights because, Esposito argues, personhood is what creates that gap in the first place, given that ‘the rights claimed for the legal personality have as their object its selfsame subject, and … are consequently the most contradictory expression of the logical dispositif that assigns to the subject the property—and therefore the objectification—of itself’ (83). Given the conception of the person as a rational core implanted into an animal form, the human being can easily become converted into a thing based upon an assessment of that rational core, a reality reinforced by a legal structure that judges formally just how much personhood (and, consequently, how many rights) one possesses based upon age, mental ability, etc. (while also judging informally based upon race, ethnicity, and class background, as so many studies of the American judicial system, for example, demonstrate).

Rather than uniting people, rights, founded upon the idea personhood, instead establish yet another division, one between the possessors and non-possessors of said rights. To undo the failings of the person, Esposito, following Simone Weil, calls for a defusing of the dispositif of the personal and a shift into the mode of the impersonal, establishing the primacy of obligations over rights: ‘Only the community—conceived of in its most radical signification—can rebuild the connection between rights and human beings that was severed by the ancient blade of the person’ (103). In the third and final section, Esposito surveys a number of philosophical attempts to move beyond the traditional I/Thou dyad and into the impersonal, finding greatest satisfaction with the work of Gilles Deleuze, who rotates ‘the entire philosophical horizon toward a theory of the pre-individual, impersonal event’ (142). In this view, life is constituted by an ongoing oscillation ‘between actual and virtual—between order and chaos, between identity and transformation, between form and force—which, by keeping that being in perpetual tension with itself, translates it into becoming’ (148). Rather than humanity being defined in opposition to the animal—a definition privileging purity over homogeneity—humanity is defined by a ‘becoming-animal’ process that acknowledges an evolving multiplicity within and without, pointing ‘to a way of being human that is not coextensive with the person or the thing, or with the perpetual transfer between one and the other to which we appear to have been fated until now. It is the living person—not separate from or implanted into life, but coextensive with it’ (150-1).

This shift into the impersonal mode has immense implications for how human beings relate to one another. After all, the evolving definition of ‘person’ has been employed largely as a means of determining what particular acts counted as acts of evil, since only acts against fellow human beings have classically been labeled such. Colonial empires or Herrenvolk regimes have classically reduced the personhood of select subjects to a base biological substrate and therefore justified attacks against the sovereignty of targeted individuals or groups; likewise, the Roman Catholic Church elevates the zygote beyond its biological substrate into full personhood in order to justify attacks against the sovereignty of women. So personhood cuts both ways, serving to limit rights both in its denial and in its affirmation.

In her book 2010 book Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide, philosopher Claudia Card, one of the foremost theorists of evil, poses the question as to whether ecosystems and species can be the object of evil—her secular definition of evil being ‘reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced (maintained, supported, tolerated, and so on) by inexcusable wrongdoing.’ In tackling this question, she asks her reader to envision species and ecosystems not as individual instances ‘but as giant particulars spread out in time and space … as (particular, historical) embodied processes’ (Card 2010, 110). That is, species and ecosystems are defined by heterogeneity, especially as conceived through time and the workings of evolution, which rather parallels Esposito’s human-as-event. Such a broad conception of life may, at first blush, threaten to reduce the individual into insignificance and thus provide a poor means of defending the dignity of the individual, but, in fact, the impersonal mode is the only means of defending the value of human life, for it makes us co-productions of the universe—each one of us a nexus wherein diverse and singular stories, experiences, and thoughts are codified into narratives of meaning—as well as co-producers of the universe—our own words and actions becoming the raw stuff wherein is fashioned meaning for countless others.

Only in such an impersonal mode, wherein obligation replaces the old discourse of rights, is human life endowed with any dignity, for only in the impersonal mode can evil be acknowledged when done against anyone, anywhere. As Esposito so expertly recounts in Third Person, personhood offers no such protection; for personhood, by separating the individual from himself, separates the individual from community, rendering him not as a co-producer of our reality but rather a potentially expendable isolate—and what can be done to one can be done to many such ‘ones.’ This has been the logic of empires, the logic of the capitalist system, the logic of thanatopolitical regimes—placing whole peoples outside the project of ‘civilization,’ beyond the pale of life, through negation of their personhood. In this slim and powerful volume, Roberto Esposito not only diagnoses how this dispositif undermines attempts to secure human rights, but he also provides humankind a means of moving forward, past the person, into the life-validating realm of the impersonal.

2 December 2012


  • Card, Claudia 2010 Confronting evils: terrorism, torture, genocide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

One comment

  1. Esposito seems to be expressing the notions of Vaccana Poet’s theory regarding priesthood and personhood along with Aurobindo’s theory of Oversoul.

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