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Human Rights



Human rights introduce transcendence into political thought and practice. This creates a universal and abstract human subject that inhibits movement and becoming while disregarding the immanent modes of existence of individuals. As a result, we systematically overlook the way human rights sustain quotidian violence in the status quo.


Lefebvre 12 (Alexandre, Lecturer in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, “Human Rights in Deleuze and Bergson’s Later Philosophy,” in Deleuze and Law Edinburgh University Press)

What fault does Deleuze identify in human rights discourses? Transcendence. He repeats this criticism time and again: Human rights introduce transcendence into political thought and practice.

1. ‘If you’re talking about reconstituting transcendence or univer- sals, restoring a reflective subject as the bearer of rights, or setting up a communicative intersubjectivity, then it’s not much of a philosophical advance (invention philosophique).’ (Deleuze 1995: 152, translation modified)

2. ‘These days it’s human rights (droits de l’homme) that provide our eternal values. It’s the constitutional state and other notions everyone recognizes as very abstract. And it’s in the name of all this that think- ing’s fettered, that any analysis in terms of movement is blocked. But if we’re so oppressed, it’s because our movement is being restricted, not because our eternal values are being violated.’ (Deleuze 1995: 122, translation modified)

3. ‘Human rights say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights.’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 107)

4. ‘A concern for human rights shouldn’t lead us to extol the “joys” of liberal capitalism of which they’re an integral part. There’s no democratic state that’s not compromised to the very core by its part in generating human misery.’ (Deleuze 1995: 173)

Deleuze’s definition of transcendence is negative and uncompromising. Transcendence is the immanence of one term to another (Deleuze 2006: 385). Or, expanding the formula, when one term is immanent to another, the latter transcends the former. The definition is negative because transcendence is a function of immanence that negates or ‘denatures’ itself. In other words, transcendence is essentially deriva- tive: ‘transcendence is always a product of immanence’ (Deleuze 2006: 388). And the definition is uncompromising because it applies to any situation where we say that something is immanent to something else. This ranges from major cases of transcendence, such as ‘the world is my representation’ (idealism) or ‘the world is in God’ (religion), to turns of phrase that introduce its trace, such as ‘it’s raining today’ (if we mean some ‘it’ that is the subject of the action), or ‘freedom of speech is in the Constitution’ (if we mean that an eminent document contains our freedom). Transcendence, for Deleuze, is everywhere.

What about human rights? As the quotations below show, Deleuze attacks different aspects of transcendence. We can take them one-by-one. 1. Deleuze’s baseline criticism of human rights is that they ‘suppose a universal and abstract subject of rights, identified with no one in par- ticular and irreducible to singular, existent figures’ (Patton 2005: 58, emphasis added). This characterisation informs his three substantive

criticisms.
2. Human rights inhibit movement and becoming. On Deleuze’s account, human rights represent a closed set of enumerated qualities. He calls them ‘eternal values’ because they mark the human being as a stable, given essence. To understand this criticism, it is important to remember that Deleuze is not only concerned with capital C catastro- phes, i.e., the kind of major outrage associated with human rights, but also with everyday violence, or rather, the violence of the everyday: ads, magazine quizzes, psychiatric tests, heteronormativity, i.e., anything that works with a fixed concept of the subject. It is this second kind of violence that human rights sustain. Because they reinforce a closed concept of the human, Deleuze implicates human rights within a much broader criticism of representational thought as a limitation on possibil- ity and experimentation.1 In this respect, his assessment coincides with that of Alain Badiou: ‘Let us note that a certain twenty-first century, under the sign of human rights as the rights of the natural living being, of finitude, or resignation to what there is, tries to return to man as a given’ (Badiou 2007: 169).

3. Human rights disregard the modes of existence of people provided with rights. For Deleuze, the criterion for effective political philoso- phy and practice is that concepts must connect to the ‘present milieu’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 100). In other words, they must respond to the case at hand, such that both concept and situation are recre- ated from within the context of their encounter. Because human rights operate as axioms and remain unmodified by intervention, Deleuze calls them abstract and ineffective. Hence his polemic: ‘You invoke human rights, what does that mean? It means, “Ah, [you] Turks have no right to massacre Armenians”’ (Deleuze 2004: ‘G pour Gauche’). In short, by designating human rights as axioms that transcend concrete situations, Deleuze argues they are unresponsive to the problem at hand.2

4. Human rights [obscure] blind us to harm of our own making. By positing a transcendent universal humanity, human rights threaten to introduce a spurious sympathy or sentimentality into crises that are (inadvertently) of our own design. As Susan Sontag writes, ‘So far as we feel sympa- thy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not an inappropriate – response’ (Sontag 2002: 102).

Human rights are part of a philosophy of transcendence that reinforces a universal and ahistorical model of human nature. These rights are unrelated to the immanent conditions of real individuals in specific political contexts and can always be suspended to preserve the interests of global capitalism. Reject transcendent human rights in favor of immanent practice of jurisprudence.


Patton 12 (Paul, professor of philosophy at the university of new south wales, “Immanence, Transcendence, and the Creation of Rights,” in Deleuze and Law, Edinburgh University Press)

The refusal of transcendence is one of the constant motifs of Deleuze’s philosophy. His thought renounces all forms of appeal to transcend- ent values, concepts of history, or human nature in favour of a radical immanentism. At the same time, it purports to be an untimely philoso- phy in Nietzsche’s sense of the term, opposed to the present in the name of a time and a people to come. This raises a problem: if Deleuzian political philosophy is denied recourse to any kind of transcendence, how does it attain the necessary distance that enables it to be critical of the present? The answer relies on the distinction between virtuality and actuality that runs throughout Deleuze and Guattari’s political philosophy. In A Thousand Plateaus, they contrast the plane of organi- sation or actuality, on which we encounter real things, real people and various kinds of becoming (becoming-woman, becoming-animal, and so on), with the plane of immanence or virtuality, on which we encounter abstract machines, pure events and becomings-imperceptible. The plane of organisation is where history unfolds through processes of relative deterritorialisation and transformation or metamorphosis of existing institutions, forms of life and subjectivity, along with processes of reter- ritorialisation, capture, or blockage of such transformative processes. Deleuzian philosophy is properly described as a philosophy of imma- nence because the planes of immanence and organisation are mutually implicated in one another and because the plane of immanence is the more profound inner realm of reality.

With reference to this dual-aspect ontology, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that every process or event simultaneously inhabits both the historical world of actuality and the ahistorical world of the virtual events or processes. Pure events or becomings are never exhausted by the historical events in which they are actualised. Rather, they constitute ‘a shadowy or secret part that is continually subtracted from or added to its actualization’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1991: 147; 1994: 156). Deleuzian criticism of the present then takes the form of identifying those social, intellectual and artistic or other movements in which pure eventness or becoming is expressed. These are the lines of flight along which change happens. They are the processes of relative deterritorialisation by means of which existing assemblages are transformed into something else. Such criticism is always situational or site-specific. There is no master plan and no general recipe for effecting change in a particular direction. That is why Deleuze prefers the multiple forms of becoming-revolutionary over any unitarian concept of the revolution, or the varieties of becom- ing-minority over the position of the majority. The majoritarian subject of modern Western political societies is always an abstract figure that corresponds to no particular individual or to nobody, whereas minori- ties understood as expressions of becoming-minor are ‘seeds, crystals of becoming whose value is to trigger uncontrollable movements and deter- ritorializations of the mean or majority’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1980: 134; 1987: 106).

This preference for particular and local forms of resistance to the present explains why, towards the end of his life, Deleuze criticised the increasingly popular recourse to human rights as a basis for criticism. In conversation with Antoine Dulaure and Claire Parnet in 1985, he complained of the recourse to abstraction and reluctance to embrace movement in contemporary thought and politics:

In philosophy we’re coming back to eternal values, to the idea of the intel- lectual as custodian of eternal values. We’re back to Benda complaining that Bergson was a traitor to his own class, the clerical class, in trying to think motion. These days it’s the rights of man that provide our eternal values. It’s the constitutional state (état de droit) and other notions that everyone recognizes as very abstract. And it’s in the name of all this that thinking is fettered and that any analysis in terms of movements is blocked. (Deleuze and Guattari 1990: 166; 1995: 121–2)



What is Philosophy? is equally critical of the uses made of rights talk in the contemporary world. Deleuze and Guattari argue that human rights have come to function as axioms within the immanent axiomatic of global capital. As such, the basic civil and political rights regarded as human rights coexist alongside other axioms, such as those designed to ensure the security of property. The result is that when economic condi- tions demand the tightening of credit or the withdrawal of employment, the rights of the poor to basic social goods are effectively suspended. Human rights are widely proclaimed but, in the absence of any effective institutional mechanism for their enforcement, it is left to individual states and non-state organisations to decide when and where their infringement is so serious as to require action. In addition to these famil- iar criticisms of the operation of human rights, Deleuze and Guattari are critical of the very concept of human rights in so far as these are supposed to be grounded in universal features of human nature such as human freedom, rationality, or the capacity to communicate. Such universal rights ‘say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1991: 103; 1994: 107). Since they presuppose a universal and abstract subject of rights, irreducible to any singular, existent figures, they are eternal, abstract and transcendent rights belonging to everyone and no one in particular. This may well appear from the perspective of contemporary concep- tions of human rights to be an outdated understanding. Nevertheless, it goes some way towards explaining Deleuze’s response, when asked by Raymond Bellour and Francois Ewald in 1988 why, unlike Foucault, he took no part in the human rights movement or debates about the constitutional state: ‘If you are talking about establishing new forms of transcendence, new universals, restoring a reflective subject as the bearer of rights, or setting up a communicative intersubjectivity, then it’s not much of a philosophical advance’ (Deleuze 1990: 208; 1995: 152).1

Deleuze elaborates on the emptiness of abstract human rights in his Abécédaire interviews with Claire Parnet, with reference to the problems facing an Armenian population that had been subjected to a massacre by Turks and, after having fled to the then Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, to a massive earthquake.2 He objects that, when people make declarations about human rights in such situations,



these declarations are never made as a function of the people who are directly concerned, the Armenian society, the Armenian communities, etc. Their problem is not ‘the rights of man’ . . . I would say that it’s not a question of ‘the rights of man’, it’s not a question of justice, rather it’s a question of territory, of jurisprudence. (Deleuze 1996: ‘G comme Gauche’)

In this passage, Deleuze contrasts the outdated, abstract and empty concept of human rights with the rights required in order for this Armenian enclave within the former USSR to survive. These rights, he suggests, must be considered in the context of a quite specific territorial and political assemblage, just as he had earlier explained in relation to desire: desire is never simply desire for someone or something but always desire for and from within a particular aggregate or assemblage (Deleuze 1996: ‘D comme Désir’). The specific needs and context of the Armenian people concerned call for the creation of new rights, or the modification of existing rights, rather than the simple application of universal principles to this particular case. Human rights grounded in a particular rights-bearing feature of human nature are useless because they are fixed and ahistorical, unable to evolve in accordance with the requirements of a particular case. Situations such as this call for a crea- tive response that Deleuze calls jurisprudence: ‘This Armenian problem is typically what can be called an extraordinarily complex problem of jurisprudence’ (Deleuze 1996: ‘G comme Gauche’).





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