240G-002 | CCN: 40962

Rhetorical Theory

Biopolitics Reconsidered: The Politics and Rights of Life

Instructor: Pheng Cheah,

4 Units

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt provocatively criticized natural law accounts of human rights for reducing humanity to an animal biological species. Because modern human rights discourse derives universal rights from the natural fact of being human, it determines humanity as “the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human”. Ironically, the gesture that endows us with naturally given, inalienable human rights simultaneously violates us by depriving us of our humanity. Arendt’s subsequent distinction between the bios of human existence, life in its non-biological and political sense, and the “mere zōē” or natural biological life suggests that the latter cannot be the site of politics and the source of rights. In contrast, Foucault’s concept of biopower is part of a radical questioning of human life as a privileged ground of freedom. Forces of resistance since the nineteenth century, he noted, have “relied for support…on life and man as a living being” when such life is precisely the product of biopolitical technologies. This course explores how the radical questioning of anthropocentric conceptions of political life can lead to an alternative politics of life and a new conception of the rights of life as distinguished from the traditional right to life.

The first part of the course will focus on Arendt and Marx as representative theorists of anthropocentric conceptions of political and economic life and their respective accounts of human rights. We will then focus on Michel Foucault’s account of bio-power as an alternative philosophical understanding of life that is based on a radical critique of anthropologism. We will examine some intellectual sources of this new vitalism, especially the writings of Spinoza and Georges Canguilhem, and assess the socio-political aims and implications of new vitalistic concepts and analytical categories. The final part of the course will examine the implications of this alternative philosophy of life and the living for understanding different regimes of human rights in contemporary globalization, especially “second and third generation” human rights (economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development) that are associated with socialist countries and countries of the postcolonial South and environmental rights as an extension of human rights. Readings will include the theory of human capital by the Chicago School economists, Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, theories of biodiversity and ecological damage such as the work of Vandana Shiva and recent critiques of the anthropocene (Anna Tsing and Elizabeth Povinelli). Issues to be explored in the course include: the limits of understanding life in terms of the form of the subject; the relation between the human and the non-human, the critique of juridical rights and the philosophy of recognition; the connection between human capital and human rights; and the implications of a biopolitical analysis for environmental issues.


Required Texts:
Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992)
Benedictus de Spinoza, Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley (Hackett, 2005).
Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone, 1991)
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New
York: Vintage, 1990)
------ Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976 (New
York: Picador, 2003)
------ Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978
(New York: Picador, 2007)
------ The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)