Recently published in Social Philosophy Today, my paper, “Humanity and the Refugee: Another Stab at Universal Human Rights,” takes up the questions of (1) how the refugee crisis exhibits the fault lines in what might otherwise seem to be a robust human rights regime and (2) what kinds of ways of seeing and thinking might better attune us to solving these problems. There is surprising agreement internationally on the content of human rights, although there is a huge gulf between international agreements on human rights and the protection of those most vital. The subtitle of the paper, “another stab at universal rights,” has a double entendre: in the midst of a crisis that is stabbing international agreements on human rights to its core, I will take a stab at using the crisis situation to point a way forward toward a cosmopolitan social imaginary that uses human imagination, not just as an ability to represent in one’s mind what one has seen elsewhere, but also as an ability to imagine something radically new. This social imaginary points to the necessity of according everyone, refugees included, as having a right to politics and thus a hand in shaping their own world, including their new, host communities.
I’ll be giving a talk in May 2016 in Prague on the following themes.
There are many languages of reason, but perhaps the most powerful and insidious one is the unconscious logic that emerges during political, ethnic, and religious conflict. What may at first seem madness, is, if looked at with the right lens, a very cool calculus of justice aimed at righting past wrongs — no matter how out of scale the “solution.” The unconscious is not mad. It keeps careful tally. It never forgets insults, injuries, traumas, or wrongs. It waits for its moment to set matters straight. And the unconscious of a people traumatized and bereft will bide its time for centuries, if need be, waiting for an opportunity to set matters right. Consider what lay behind the shot that set off World War I: six hundred years of grievance and political melancholia. Psychoanalytic hermeneutics can help make sense of the effects of political traumas. Might it also help people work through them? With his all-too-vague notion of “working through,” which shows up in dream work and the work of mourning, Freud thought he found an antidote to traumatic remembering and repetition, a process that could calm and bind the psychical excitations that trouble the organism. Considering a political body of restless people haunted by past traumas and injustice, what kind of Arbeit can help political communities deal with buried traumas and insults before they explode in vengeance? Without some kind of work, politics becomes an enactment of fantasied, unrealistic expectations; demonic projections; and persecutory anxieties. In this paper I draw on and move beyond Freud’s model toward a post-Kleinian one that can be tethered to the political process of public deliberation. In my account, political deliberation is not just a process of reason giving and consideration, which many political philosophers think it is, but an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting. and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.
In my new article just published in the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, I ask: What is at stake when political revolt depends upon radical inner experience? Is the only route to cultural and political change, as Kristeva seems to argue, through personal introspection and revolt? If we want more from life than the freedom to channel surf, as she says, need the direction of inquiry be primarily inward? Need there be an either/or of psychical versus public life? Is the only answer to social and political dead ends really found by turning inward? Is the micropolitics of the couch the path to freedom? “Today,” Kristeva writes, “psychical life knows that it will only be saved if it gives itself the time and space of revolt: to break off, remember, re-form. From prayer to dialogue, through art and analysis, the crucial event is always the great infinitesimal emancipation: to be endlessly recommenced.” In this essay I ask whether we might move Kristeva’s “New Forms of Revolt” from the couch to the polis with the help of one of her major interlocutors, Hannah Arendt, who reminds us that thinking is always a plural affair. I develop a link between Arendt’s thinking and Kristeva’s revolt to show how thinking-as-revolt puts subjects in relation to each other and to the political. Such a political culture of revolt can engage in the work needed to move beyond adolescent fixations in melancholic times. And with it we might in fact create more meaning for our lives.
Julia Kristeva skyped in to the Kristeva Circle meeting at Vanderbilt this past Sunday to give a brief talk and take questions for over an hour. For a Skype session, it was amazingly intimate and personal, a great way to end an amazing meeting organized by Kelly Oliver and Rebecca Tuvel. I had the pleasure of being part of a panel on Saturday on Concepts of Women, Visions of Feminism. I talked about Kristeva’s recent article published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
My newly revised entry on feminist political philosophy has just been published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This version has more on the history of feminism and a new taxonomy that expands on difference feminisms, diversity and postcolonial feminism (though it could still use much more on the latter), and a much expanded section on what I am calling performative feminism. Many thanks to Mary G. Dietz, Ann Garry, Bonnie Honig, Eva Kittay, Carole Pateman, R. Claire Snyder-Hall, Shay Welch, and Ewa Ziarek for their suggestions for this revision.
Tomorrow I’m heading to Dayton, Ohio, to take part in its monthly research meeting and talk about one of my latest papers-in-progress, “Neoliberalism, the Street, and the Forum.” (This if for a chapter of a book under review with Routledge edited by Albena Azmanova and Mihaela Mihai titled Reclaiming Democracy.) The issue is this: in a neoliberal age that eschews political choice in favor of the TINA (there is no alternative) logic of the market (no matter that this logic is seriously flawed), how can the public sphere respond? I argue that the often seemingly dueling elements of the public sphere — social movements and deliberative forums — have a complementary relationship and together can counter neoliberalism’s anti-politics. Social movements help us think what we are doing. This is an Arendtian way of putting something Arendt never herself wanted to think: that social movements have a crucial role in the political, that is the political public sphere of deciding what kind of people and communities we want to become.
This afternoon I moderated a panel for Emory philosophy’s colloquium series. The panel’s theme was this: Foundations for Human Rights: philosophical, legal, political, or superfluous?
Our fabulous panelists:
- Karin Ryan, director of the human rights program at the Carter Center http://www.cartercenter.org/news/experts/karin_ryan.html
- Michael Perry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory Law School http://www.law.emory.edu/faculty/faculty-profiles/michael-j-perry.html
- And Andrew Altman, distinguished university professor of philosophy at Georgia State University http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwphi/9560.html
The panelists each gave a short presentation and then there was a lively Q & A.
No one on the panel argued for any kind of metaphysical foundation for human rights and all pointed to the importance of a human rights culture and discourse. Andrew Altman’s main point was that we don’t need a logical proof for the existence of human rights; we can simply refer to the stories, sentiments, and reasons we share with each other for why a human rights culture makes the world less horrible than it might otherwise be. Michael Perry pointed to the major premise of the UN ‘s declaration of human rights that “all human beings … should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” as the compelling (but not metaphysical) foundation for human rights, and only foundational because actual human beings are largely motivated by this imperative. Karin Ryan of the Carter Center spoke about the actual communities that have used the language of human rights to change their communities. Her many examples buttressed my own thinking about the performative character of human rights and other political claims — e.g., how human rights claims are made in situations when such rights are being denied but how the claims themselves actually instantiate the rights. For a woman to speak out publicly in a culture that says she can’t — and when she does so because a human rights discourse says she can — actually instantiates her right to speak in the face of those who say she can’t.
The audience of, primarily, philosophy professors and graduate students seemed unsatisfied by any of this, and I found this a bit perplexing. The questions seemed to be looking for logical loopholes. Actually, I can’t even really figure out what the questioners were questioning. Maybe some could clarify in comments here.
One interesting question noted that the panelists all seemed to be suggesting that “human rights” were created in 1945. That is, human rights are a cultural construct and they were actually constructed with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This questioner wondered then what about reparation claims for wrongs conducted prior to 1945. Well, that’s an interesting question! My reply to that would be that it is not rights that were created in 1945 but a way of talking about rights that was created. So we can be agnostic about the existence of such rights pre- and post 1945.
Anyway, this was a really interesting session and another example of why I love to do this work.