Sunday, June 16, 2019

Esposito's Munus?

My anonymous critic directs me to read up on Roberto Esposito's ideas on munus, and here with Timothy Campbell is a good place to start, I guess:
In order to appreciate the originality of Esposito's understanding of biopolitics, I first want to rehearse the relation of community to immunity as [Roberto] Esposito sketches it, not only in Bíos but in his two earlier works, Communitas: Origine e destino della comunità and Immunitas: Protezione e negazione della vita. Reading the terms dialectically, Esposito asks if the relation between community and immunity is ultimately one of contrast and juxtaposition, or rather if the relation isn't part of a larger move in which each term is inscribed reciprocally in the logic of the other. The launching pad for his reflections concerns the principles on which communities are founded. Typically of course, when we think of community, we immediately think of the common, of that which is shared among the members of a group. So too for Esposito: community is inhabited by the communal, by that which is not my own, indeed that begins where 'my own' ends. It is what belongs to all or most and is therefore "public in juxtaposition to 'private,' or 'general' (but also 'collective') in contrast to particular." Yet Esposito notes three further meanings of communitas, all associated with the term from which it originates: the Latin munus. The first two meanings of munus -- onus and officium -- concern obligation and office, while the third centers paradoxically around the term donum, which Esposito glosses as a form of gift that combines the features of the previous two. Drawing on the classic linguistic studies of Benveniste and Mauss, Esposito marks the specific tonality of this communal donum, to signify not simply any gift, but a category of gift that requires, even demands, an exchange in return. "Once one has accepted the munus," Esposito writes, then "one is obliged to return the onus, either in the form of goods or services (officium)." Munus is, therefore, a much more intense form of donum since it requires a subsequent response from the receiver. Here Esposito distills the political connotations of munus. Unlike donum, munus subsequently marks "the gift that one gives, not the gift that one receives," "the contractual obligation one has vis-à-vis the other," and finally "the gratitude that demands new donations" on the part of the recipient (emphasis in original). Here Esposito's particular declension of community becomes clear: thinking community through communitas will name the gift that keeps on giving, a reciprocity in the giving of a gift that doesn't, indeed, cannot belong to oneself. At its (missing) origin, communitas is constructed around an absent gift, one that members of community cannot keep for themselves. According to Esposito, this debt or obligation of gift-giving operates as a kind of originary defect for all those belonging to a community. The defect revolves around the pernicious effects of reciprocal donation on individual identity. Accepting the munus directly undermines the capacity of the individual to identify himself or herself as such and not as part of the community.
This passage is from "Bíos, Immunity, Life: The Thought of Roberto Esposito," by Timothy Campbell. As for Esposito, he practices that strain of continental philosophy that is concerned with "the gift" and that draws on sociology, anthropology, and ethnography for its insights. I myself have made use of such insights in some of my published academic papers. Unfortunately, if this sample of Campbell's writing is typical of the writing on munus, then I anticipate some very opaque passages indeed.

I still don't see why this munus stuff was raised as something relevant to my remarks about the distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism.



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