La vita sensibile (2011) is Emanuele Coccia’s first book to be translated into English. Rendered as Sensible Life: a micro-ontology of the image (Fordham U Press, 2016), it comes with an insightful prologue by Kevin Attell, and it belongs to the excellent “Commonalities” series edited by Timothy Campbell. We hope that this is not the last of the translations of what already is Coccia’s prominent production that includes, although it is not limited to La trasparenza delle immagini: Averroè e l’averroismo (Mondadori, 2005), Angeli: ebraismo, cristianesitimo, Islam (co-ed with G. Agamben, 2011), and most recently Il bene nelle cose: la pubblicità come discorso morale (2014). One should take note that in Latin America – particularly in Chile and Argentina – Coccia’s books have been translated for quite a while, and have been part of a lively debate on contemporary thought. We hope that a similar fate is destined in the United States. For some of some of us working within the confines of the Latinamericanist reflection, an encounter with Coccia has grown out of our continuous exchange with friends like Rodrigo Karmy, Gonzalo Diaz Letelier, and Manuel Moyano. It would be superfluous to say that Coccia’s work is nested in the so called contemporary ‘Italian Philosophy’ (pensiero vivente, in Roberto Esposito’s jargon), although one would be committing a certain violence to reduce it to another ‘theory wave’ so rapidly instrumentalized in the so called ‘critical management’ within the North American university.
Coccia’s tropology (not entirely a set of fixed “categories” or “concepts” for a philosophical program), such as imagination, the sensible, and the averroist intellect are signatory relays for a potential history of thought against the grain of grand conventional histories and historiographies of Western philosophy, or even more so, against the reaffirmation of a principle of philosophy of history in the wake of nihilism and biopolitics. It is most certainty true that Coccia’s investigations share a horizon that we can call the “form of life” – some of us also call it “infrapolitical existence”, which for Coccia himself has translated as the vita sensibile – although both his approach and condensation of thought always presuppose an efficient interrogation of the singular indifferent to “influences” or “schools of thought” (even when Coccia moves deep into scholastic and medieval philosophy). Perhaps no less important of a metacritical index is the unreserved service for a reconsideration of the philosophical tradition – and more importantly, the transmission and disposition of a thinking that remains unwritten – beyond the history of metaphysics and political theology.
Sensible Life is not a book about the ontology of the image in the pictorial or phenomenological sense, but an investigation into the metaxy of existence and being in the world. As Coccia argues early on in the book, ‘the sensible life is a world given to us, and only as sensible life are we in the world’ (2). Against biopolitical or vitalist (neo-positivist) remnants of understanding as fated in the subject (or the persona), Coccia prepares the ground for a physics of the sensible that affects, without really transforming, the human as subject, although it does seek to exhaust itself in subjectivity. Coccia argues, as if implicitly taking up Simone Weil’s suggestion, that the form of sensation is always a modal relation with the outside, an improper distance (metaxu) of the ‘in between’, necessary for any schematization of concrete existence . Hence, perception or sensing is only possible because there is metaxy, and not because there is a subject as the producer and commander of capacities and substances. Against distributive ontologies that design complex arrangement and division of ‘life’, Coccia’s sensibly maps out a region that has always already been there, and that turns to another relation with ontology and language.
In a large part, Sensible Life is vastly informed by his prior study on Averroes and the averroist tradition Averroè e l’averroismo (Mondadori, 2005), where Coccia studied the ways in which conventional Christian history of philosophy convicted the twelve century Iberian philosopher for the madness of positing a common and universal unity of the intellect. What Coccia thematizes in that study, but also in Sensible life with greater speculative freedom, is the extent to which reason depends on the potentiality of the intellect understood as the capacity for imagination. What is common and at the same time ‘improper’ to all beings is the potentiality of imagination that remains outside of life, never constituting a principle of sufficient reason nor the ground for dogmatic belief. The ‘scandal of averroism’, as Rodrigo Karmy has called it, was followed by the Scholastic ban on teaching averroism and removing averroists from the university. It is no surprise that this coincided with the development of the category of the person as a secondary reserve of Christian political theology and Roman Catholic ratio .
This is what lays bare in Coccia’s explicit condemnation of the Cartesian cogito, and his affirmation of the sensible as a de-metaphorized image without proper location, since it only dwells ‘where one no longer lives and where one no longer thinks’ (17). This impersonal drift of the sensible is what allows for an extreme de-localization in multiplicity of reproduction of images that serve to dislocate the very inside and outside of the constitution of the subject, but also of any constitution of life itself (31-32). Indeed, the first part of the book is said to write a physics of the impersonal and immaterial ‘third space’ (sic) – what in Aristotle’s vocabulary is the relation with the ‘externals’ [tōn exōthen], and in medieval scholasticism is the esse extraneum – that like marrano existence, it dwells on a dual exteriority. In a key moment of the development of Sensible life, Coccia writes:
“How, then, can we define an image? In his work on perspective John Peckham held that an image is “merely the appearance of an object outside its place (extra locum suum) because the being appears not only in its own place but also outside its own place”…Our image is nothing but the existence of our form beyond what makes up, the substance that permits this form to exist in an entirely extraneous matter to that in which one exists and mixes with. Every form is born from this separation of the form of a thing from the place of its existence: where the form is out of place, an image will have a place [ha luogo]. […] Thus, an image is defined by a dual exteriority: the exteriority from bodies and the exteriority from souls – because images exist prior to meeting the eye of the subject who observes a mirror” (19).
The reproductive machine of the sensible image does not ground itself unto the subject or the purely sensorial; a movement which would have produced yet another schism between mind and body, senses and reason, the visible and the invisible. Against the categorial arrangement of the persona (and its attributes, genus, and divisions), Coccia pushes forth a general theory of productions of forms that could account for the natural life of images (31). What is really at stake here is a medial process (provided by the medieval intentio) of multiplicity beyond being and substance, property and the proper of ontological assertion. Instead, Coccia affirms a cosmological understanding of the One. In fact, one could stress this a little bit further and argue that the averroist potential intellect is a singularization of the henological neo-platonic substance into one of pure externality beyond metaphysical structuration. But the question of henology and the overcoming of metaphysics is one that we cannot raise in the space of this commentary.
For Coccia the medial extension of the image (and the imagination) leads to a metaxy of coming together (simpatizzano, which is Italian ‘third person’ indicative for sharing, is the word he choses) that conspire to form a sort of clinamen effect of singularities. Not long ago Fabián Ludueña thematized this negative community in his important La comunidad de los espectros (Miño & Dávila, 2010) as a ghostly disfiguration that, vis-à-vis the nature of mediality, enters into relation with what is always unhomely and foreign (extraneum). That is the only possible form of the communitas in the sensible life.
The second part of the book made up of seventeen scholion unveil the way in which the sensible immaterial metaxy also provide for the man’s body that accounts for a mundane relation that exceeds and subceeds the psychological and the culturalist materialisms. By reassessing vita activa and mediality, dreams and the ‘intra-body’ (Ortega y Gasset), clothing and cosmetics, Coccia situates the sensible incarnation on the very surface of the body as momentary dwelling (52). As a general anthropology of the sensible, Coccia recoils back to the ‘subject’ and even ‘identity’, but only insofar as one recognizes in this an intention that he calls an ‘ontological indifference’ that allows for an outside projection of an “infra- or hypersychic consistency – a consistency that is almost hyperobjective. Here, “the intentional sphere does not coincide with the sphere of the mind even it includes the mind; it is, rather, the state of existence of all forms when they keep themselves beyond objects and on this side of subjects, or vice versa” (55). This “infra-subjective” solicits a concrete intentional relation of dwelling in the world.
Although the space of the political is not elaborated explicitly – and perhaps for Coccia there is no need for embarking on such a task – one could say that this region is consistent with the infrapolitical relation of the non-subject vis-à-vis the ontological difference. In fact, the marrano whose existence is necessarily infrapolitical in nature is consistent with the multiplied imposture that clothes every identity and every oikos an un-homely as being-in-the-world (91). In fact, Coccia is correct in taking this cue to the limit: “only those can make up and disguise themselves can truly say “I” (86). Marrano life is also the life of the outside, a borrowed life. It is in fashion understood as a tropological site of existence, where according to Coccia a style of the multiple is given its proper place, precisely because it lack costumes, essence, or meaning. On the contrary, fashion brings to bear that only modal relations can constitute forms of life (habits). Fashion has freed life to the sensible, through a suspension of all meditation with the metaphor as its end. Indeed, it is style and not metaphorization what provides for the sensible life.
The dwelling of the sensible is also incarnated multiplicity: it is the improper relation between man and animal, between living and dying. The sensible life as pure immersion, as Coccia has argued in another place, is a flow where movement and detention, action and contemplation become inseparable . It comes as no surprise that Sensible life closes with a meditation on images for life and with a general economy of natality. Here perhaps one could raise the question about averroism as philosophical transmission, but also regarding its staging of ‘living with images’. Coccia argues that life is, above all, ‘what can be transmitted, the very being of tradition” (98). But to transmit is to re-enact a style that never took place: it is a becoming of singularity. In this sense, continues Coccia, ‘Life never stops producing and reproducing, and multiplying’. However, can there be ‘inheritance’ or even ‘legacy’ of that which lacks proper place, and that is always alocational? Is not the becoming of the reproduction of the sensible the very end of transmission, the very form of dis-inheritance from any nomic determination?
It is in this aporia where Coccia’s account of the sensible life (perhaps as a flight from the form of life) touches on the question of natality as a central problem for thought, which is fundamentally a question for the history of thinking. This is also the problem that Reiner Schürmann contemplated in his posthumous Des hégémonies brisées (1996) without really unrevealing its major consequences (except in the problem of finitude posed by the tragic denial). Coccia’s invitation is for us to reimagine imagination (la vita sensibile) outside of its proactive and transcendental saturation into a region that co-belongs with thought. To this end, the vita sensible cannot amount to another anthropology, since its taskless work is to render a life that is no longer one for labor and action, but affected by the immanence of what can be imagined.
- Simone Weil. “Metaxu”. Grace and Gravity. New York: Rutledge, 1999.
- Rodrigo Karmy. “La potencia de Averroes: para una genealogía del pensamiento de lo común en la Modernidad”. Revista Plèyade, N.12, 2013.
- Emanuele Coccia. “Speaking Breathing”. New Observation, N.130, 2015.