Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy

Volume 16, Issue 1, Fall 2011

Giorgio Agamben

Peg Birmingham
Pages 139-156

The Subject of Rights
On the Declaration of the Human

It is often pointed out that Agamben’s most profound disagreement with Hannah Arendt is his rejection of anything like a “right to have rights” that would guarantee the belonging to a political space. I want to suggest, however, that the subject of rights in Agamben’s thought is more complicated, arguing in this essay that Agamben’s critique is not with the concept of human rights per se, but with the declaration of modern rights. In other words, this essay will explore how Agamben’s analysis of language, especially vis-à-vis the figure standing outside the gates of the city, allows for rethinking the subject of rights. This analysis suggests that when thinking the notion of right, we must move from the declaration of right rooted in logos to the material dimension of language that makes such a declaration possible. Calling into question Aristotle’s claim that the human being is political because the human being is zoon logon echon, Agamben’s analysis shows that there is no place where the “I” can transform itself into speech. There is always a “non-place” of articulation that is not something outside the polis, but at the very heart of the polis itself. This non-place marks the exposure of the human as such. Following Agamben, I argue that human rights are not declared, but are exposed in our very appearance, our very being-manifest. I argue that our being-manifest provides for a new notion of human rights, rooted in the ontological condition of appearance that carries with it the right of exposure, without identity, to appear. In conclusion, I consider the relation of language and law in Agamben’s thought, asking whether Agamben’s critique of the juridical and his call for a politics without law preclude any resurrection of human rights?