In Philosophy in Review Alexander D. Barder reviewed Roberto Esposito's Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community.
Esposito advances an etymological argument to show that
community—in essence, cum (with) munus (obligation)—represents the possibility of an
obligation to an other that binds in an important way. This obligation, however, is not one
that is reducible to a form of property or limited by predefined ideological specifications;
rather, it constitutes itself through a lack in fulfilling this original obligation as such and
through the continuous need of the receiver to respond to such an obligation. In other
words, Esposito’s etymology of the Latin munus shows that an original community is
one where its subjects ‘are united by an “obligation,” in the sense that we say “I owe you
something,” but not “you owe me something”’. The implication
is that this intrinsic lack or debt that percolates between individuals can never fully be
met; it always demands a perpetual reciprocity and exchange that in fact problematizes a
notion of subjectivity as a self-contained essence removed from the ‘other’. Community,
as Esposito theorizes it with respect to its intrinsic munus or obligation, thus involves a
fundamental loss of boundaries among its members: ‘That which everyone fear in the
munus, which is both “hospitable” and “hostile,” according to the troubling lexical
proximity of hospes-hostis, is the violent loss of borders, which awarding identity to him,
ensures his subsistence’. But it is this substantial lack, this gravitational effect without
an object as such, the very Janus-faced possibility of hostility and hospitality, that
constitutes the ‘unreachable’ origin of what binds a community. As Esposito writes,
All of the stories that tell of the founding crime, the collective crime, the
ritual assassination, the sacrificial victim featured in the history of
civilization don’t do anything else except evoke metaphorically the
delinquere that keeps us together, in the technical sense of ‘to lack’ and ‘to
be wanting’; the breach, the trauma, the lacuna out of which we originate.
Not the origin but its absence, its withdrawal. It is the original munus that
constitutes us and makes us destitute in our moral finiteness.
Esposito then proceeds with a ‘communitarian genealogy’ of the modern Western
philosophical tradition by subtly demonstrating how this origin and its lack are grappled
with. Each chapter deals with a specific philosopher, starting with Hobbes, then
Rousseau, Kant, Heidegger and Bataille.