Rhetorical Theory and Critcism
240G-002 | CCN: 34253
Biopolitics Reconsidered: The Politics and Rights of Life
Instructor: Pheng Cheah
Date / Time: Thursday 10am-1pm
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. The second part of the course examines the alternative philosophical understanding of life offered by Michel Foucault’s account of bio-power and its radical critique of anthropologism. Before turning to Foucault, we will examine some intellectual sources of Foucault’s new vitalism, especially the writings of Spinoza and Georges Canguilhem so that we can assess the socio-political aims and implications of some of Foucault’s vitalistic concepts and analytical categories. Foucault explicitly addressed, although to different degrees, issues of racial oppression and sexual oppression. The final part of the course will examine the implications of his alternative philosophy of life and the living for understanding different regimes of human rights in contemporary globalization. We will focus on “second and third generation” human rights (economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development), which are associated with socialist countries and countries of the postcolonial South, the human rights dimension of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Time permitting, we will also consider 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, critical analyses of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, and theories of ecological damage such as recent critiques of the anthropocene. 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 movements for women’s rights, racial justice, sexual diversity rights and environmental issues.
Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992)
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)
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)
*A xerox of other readings by will be made available via bcourses. These are indicated by [x] in the syllabus.