Human Rights, (Badiou + Rancière)

“Human Rights are axioms. They can co-exist on the market with many other axioms, notably those concerning security or property, which are unaware of or suspend them even more than they contradict them: “the impure mixture or the impure side by side,” said Nietzsche. Who but the police and armed forces that co-exist with democracies can control and manage poverty and the deterritorialization-reterritorialization of shanty towns? What social democracy has not given the order to fire when the poor come out of their territory or ghetto? Rights save neither men nor a philosophy that is reterritorialized on the democratic State. Human rights will not make us bless capitalism. A great deal of innocence or cunning is needed by a philosophy of communication that claims to restore the society of “consensus” to moralize nations, States, and the market. Humans rights say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights.” 

— Deleuze and Guattari (1996, 107)

The quote from Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘What is Philosophy?’ nicely sums up the abstraction, pure, empty abstraction that Deleuze calls the party line for odious intellectuals. Deleuze does not pay much heed to the notion of human rights, but, instead broods over life rights.

My intention is not to delve into the Deleuzean version of Human/Life Rights, but to look at the conception of human rights from the point of view of two French philosophers who have made an impact in the English speaking world. The thinkers in question here are  Badiou and Rancière who with their delivery of political agencies are not only complexly similar on many grounds, but provide many insights into the differences between one another. Their writings  delve into human rights as a base for their versions of political agencies.

The time was February, 2008, when a group of the so called new philosophers signed a petition in Le Monde calling the practices of the United Nations as diametrically opposed to the ideals of human rights. It was further commented that there was a cause of concern with the institution becoming a caricature. Although we are ensconced in a multicultural world, the level of tolerance could be said to be reaching a nadir of sorts as was substantially proved in the petition detailing religious criticism as a form of racism, thus highlighting the tide against the basic ideas of Human Rights. The petition then called for the return to the Universal Ideals on Human Rights.

It would be far fetched, but still appropriate to call the new philosophers as sandwiched between viewing the ideals of 1948 as problematic with their emphasis on a return to ideals. That the new philosophers are sandwiched between the two poles is attributable to one pole being that of Arendt and Agamben with their insistence on Human Rights as infringing of the political into the private sphere and the other of Badiou and Rancière calling for a political agency critiquing both the view points. Arendt dismisses the idea of Human rights by calling it necessity based as action by the nation state to impose its control over the huge mass of refugees created in the aftermath of the second world war, when the refugees that had been rendered stateless had nothing left but their humanity. This way, for Arendt, the nation state gets to determining who gets the rights and who doesn’t or who is part of humanity and who is not, thus quashing the ideals meant to protecting rights. Despite the good intentions behind the formulation of the Universal Ideals, it is nothing but an apparatus through which, the state exercises its total power over the stateless by making the latter submissive to it and other allied organs of power. This indeed proves the thesis that an interventionist approach is taken up by the nation state into the private sphere.

Arendt’s thesis is pressed upon by Agamben, when he calls the peril of our present time as lying alongside an intercourse of the political power into the bare public life as omnipresent. Agamben links the notional intercourse as no different from what the refugees had to face in concentration camps. For him, the human rights act in a totalizing manner as now the most basic human existence is intricately surrendered to power structures thus making existence politicized. To quote Agamben,

“…until a completely new politics – that is, a politics no longer founded on the exception of bare life – is at hand, every theory and every praxis will remain imprisoned and immobile, and the “beautiful day” of life will be given citizenship only either through blood and death or in the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.”

Ernst Hemel reads the following quote in a dual way, viz. the seizure of private bare life by the structures of power and the deprivations of the individual in engaging with true emancipatory politics. The institutionalization of human rights is therefore seen as a part of the imprisoned and immobile life that somehow fails in its approach to reach the blunt political situation we are all faced up with. This reaches its aporetic limit in a way to invent a new political situation after criticizing the entire idea underlining human rights. So for both Arendt and Agamben, the codification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is fraught with a critique that runs counter to new philosopher’s insistence on attaining the ideal.

Badiou and Rancière both show their aversion to these readings and in their own ways of constructing the political agency exhibit displeasure in treating human rights as an ideal on the one hand and refusing to believe in the all encompassing political dominion on the other. Rancière brilliantly unearths the tautology in Arendt’s version of human rights by noting that the rights of man are the rights of the unpoliticized person, or they are the rights of those who have no rights, thus amounting to nothing and rights of man are the rights of the citizen, that is, they are being attached to the fact of being a citizen, thus connoting rights of man as rights of citizens. This in conflation amounts to a tautology. In effect, there is abandonment of human rights in Arendt according to Rancière since it is based on state power who has the discretion of providing rights to those who are excluded. This argument is taken forward to deal with Agamben, wherein it is noted that any kind of emancipatory political action is in retreat. Rancière quotes from his ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’,

“There was at least one point where ‘bare life’ proved to be ‘political’: there were women sentenced to death as enemies of the revolution. If they could lose their ‘bare life’ out of the public judgment based on political reasons, this meant that even their bare life – their life doomed to death – was political. If, under the guillotine, they were as equal, so to speak, as men, they had the right to the whole of equality, including equal participation to political life.”

It is only in these situations that the totality is fissured in that there is a sense of inclusion but not belonging that is governed by exclusion that is only brought to light through acts of dissensions. This Rancièrean point is closely linked up with what Badiou has been maintaining with his ‘Event’. ‘Event’ is the coming into being of what was never thought of (accidental) in the conceptual structuring of the present scenario. To explicate on the coming into existence of the ‘Event’, one needs to change the conceptuality and his idea behind this is borrowed from Cantorian set theory of placing the element inside the set, but at the same time not belonging to the set. This is philosophically pertinent to the distinction between the political inclusion but non-belonging, in that, inclusion shares the possibilities in the world, whereas belonging-ness presents a systemic snapshot congruent with the given world view. In the moment of the ‘Event’, a person is faced with an ethical choice, by either denying what happened as new and trying to fit it in the existing template or by accepting it and building upon new consequences. To draw on these consequences is brought about by the act of naming. For Badiou, the notion of human rights is incapable of accommodating truth and is an attempt on the part of the dominant structure to be be able to account for all elements of the set. As he writes,

“The refrain of “human rights” is nothing other than the ideology of modern liberal capitalism: We won’t massacre you, we won’t torture you in caves, so keep quiet and worship the golden calf. As for those, who don’t want to worship it, or who don’t believe in our superiority, there’s always the American army and its European minions to make them be quiet.”

For Badiou, the only universality is that which resists structuring and becomes tangible in the notion of an ‘Event’. If Universality be equated with Truth, then according to his thesis in Manifesto of Philosophy, ‘Truth makes a hole in knowledge‘ and therefore it could now be inferred why for Badiou human rights as a kind of universality in equality, in freedom is anything but a form of dominant western ideology. To quote him again,

“The latest violence, the presumptuous arrogance inherent in the currently prevalent conception of human rights derives from the fact that these are actually the rights of the finitude […]. By way of contrast, the eventual conception of universal singularities requires that human rights be thought of as the rights of the infinite.”

So for Badiou, codification of the situations along the prefixed lines of universality results in redundancy alone and little wonder why he admonishes the case for human rights to be thought of as that which is included but not belonging. He takes a similar viewpoint towards justice by claiming the irrelevance of justice in the creation of anything new and thereby is more concerned with the conditions of possibilities of new politics rather than improving the sphere of juridicalness. In a way, what Badiou is looking for is very similar to what Rancière aims at and that being looking at human rights as an affirmative action. For both the thinkers, it is the exclusive situation where the insight into the human rights is to be taken up, to be formulated in a reconstructive manner. The exclusive situation is normed as disruption by the thinkers and this disruption is then the affirmation for the coming into being of affirmative changes in the socio-political aspect. Since, this aspect of coming into existence is missing in the universal declaration, it becomes non-political in its conception as far as gauging the totality of the situation is concerned. Rancière sees this as the inability of the logic that dictates who is part of the situation, who has the right to voice claims and who forms the basis of political agency. For Badiou, it is the false totality altogether as it is impossible to envisage anything new or radical getting to the surface concretely. Since, there is absence of anything radically new, it is doomed to repeat the dominant power based ideology.

Although there are similarities in the ways the thinkers look at human rights, there are some differences that are stark in nature. For Rancière, it is the un-belongingness that counts cardinally despite the fact of the subject being inclusive in the system under consideration, whereas for Badiou, it is the subject getting called onto witnessing the ‘Event’ and thereby faced up with the radical choice that is ethical in nature. Badiou’s invoking of mathematics to first name the ‘Event’ and thereafter follow it up to rewrite the radicality of the situation differs from reinterpreting human rights as suggested by Rancière. Most importantly, Rancière uses disruption as a singular revelation in that he is constrained in the expansionary vision/force of the dissensus. Badiou on the other hand emphasizes on the extensibility of the ‘Event’. Rancière works within the existing system and is not concerned much with restructuring and vacillates between dissensus and consensus thereby giving it a more democratic feel of basing itself on negotiation, where Badiou aims at a revolutionary agency that he calls militant in nature.

The only universal human right that Badiou and Rancière envision is the right to intervene in the name of infinite universality, and they remain far from any institutionalization of universal human rights. Instead their theories  are geared towards a critical evaluation of the underlying presuppositions  of doing politics, and providing rights. This critical evaluation is done in  preparation of ‘truthful’ politics,   which entails for both Rancière and  Badiou a radical break with notions of politics that are defined in terms  such as citizenship, freedom of speech or a return to ideal enlightenment values. Politics aim at a constant possibility.

Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, H. (1973) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc.

Badiou, A. (2004) ‘Huit Thèses sur l’Universel’.

    – (2001/2002) ‘On Evil : An Interview with Alain Badiou’. Cabinet Magizine Online, 5,

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F (1996) ‘What is Philosophy?’. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hemel, Ernst van den. (2008) Krisis:  Journal for Contemporary Philosophy.

Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics. New York: Continuum.


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