Foucault’s Critical (Yet Ambivalent) Affirmation: Three Figures of Rights
30 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 21 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2011
Michel Foucault is not often read as a theorist of human rights. On the one hand, there is a tendency to read his works of the mid-1970s – his celebrated poststructrualist genealogies of subjectivity, of discipline, of bio-politics, and so forth – as proposing a critique of rights discourse which definitively rules out any political appeal to rights. On the other hand, somewhat curiously it has to be said, there is a tendency to read his works of the late-1970s and early-1980s – his perhaps less celebrated concern with ethics and with technologies of the self – as tacitly re-introducing a liberal humanist notion of subjectivity and, with that, an embrace of orthodox rights discourse. Beginning from this curious disjunction between the critical and the liberal Foucault, this paper attempts to articulate a Foucaultian politics of human rights along the lines of a critical affirmation of human rights. Neither a full embrace nor a total rejection of human rights, the Foucaultian politics of human rights developed here elaborates (and attempts to connect) several disparate figures in his thought: rights as ungrounded and illimitable, rights as the strategic instrument-effect of political struggle, and rights as a performative mechanism of community.
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