Themes! What Are They?

by John Holbo on March 6, 2018

I’m writing something introductory (intended for a general audience) about ‘themes’ in literature. Obviously my theme must be that the term is a bit hopeless until you say what you mean by ‘theme’. I’m thinking of introducing it with reference to memories of writing book reports in 6th grade (I think it was.) Mr. Lofton’s (?) class at McCornick Elementary. (Or was he my 5th grade teacher? Can’t remember.)

Anyhoo: it was requisite, on pain of getting no credit for your report, that you correctly check one or more box(es) for ‘theme’. There were exactly four options:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!

(Sorry, ladies! It was the 70’s, and Ms. was a magazine, but you got no love when it came time for themes.) [click to continue…]

The Right To Have Rights

by Astra Taylor on March 6, 2018

Last month The Right To Have Rights, an edited collection I contributed the afterword to, came out with Verso. Crooked Timber’s own Corey Robin was kind enough to provide an endorsement for the book, which he called “a marvelous deconstruction of a vexing concept, and a wonderful new way of doing theory.” Not bad!

The book’s form is indeed unique – each of the collaborators takes on a portion of Hannah Arent’s now famous phrase from The Origins of Totalitarianism “the right to have rights” (interestingly, the provocative formulation was initially overlooked by readers and not something Arendt lingered on or made much of). Stephanie DeGooyer tackles “The Right,” Lida Maxwell examines “To Have,” Samuel Moyn reflects on “Rights,” and Alastair Hunt addresses the implicit question, “of Whom?”

I’ll just say that writing the afterward was a real treat, mainly because I had never had the chance to deeply engage with Arendt before (I had read a few chapters, essays, and excerpts here and there and seen both of the recent movies about her released by Zeitgeist Films, but that was about it). Though I was glad to have an excuse to dig in, my contribution is a rather unorthodox (and not very Arendtian) reading informed by my reporting on the refugee crisis in 2015 and my ongoing economic justice work.

Building on the main contributions, I look at the way people’s citizenship rights are being undercut in an age of globalized capitalism and how neoliberalism and ethno-nationalism are dangerously entwined. As an activist, invoking rights can become a kind of reflex or habit, and sometimes (if I’m honest) a substitute for other kinds of argumentation and imagination, so it was also good to have an occasion to step back and ponder what we’re really talking about when we talk about rights or make entitlement claims. I’m not about to dismiss rights as nonsense upon stilts or bourgeois individualism run amok, but I emerged from this project more critical than when I began. I will certainly be more deliberate (and hopefully more forward-looking or even out there) in any rights demanding effort I’m part of as a result.

In honor of the book’s publication, I asked each of the contributors to share some thoughts in response to the same prompt. I asked them to reflect on what, if anything, grounds rights and whether we might need to start thinking about rights in new ways. Their replies are below.

I’d be curious to hear others reflect on the same prompt in the comments should inspiration strike.

The question of how rights might be recognized and fulfilled is a far more interesting and difficult question than what rights are in themselves. We tend to think of rights as the sacrosanct property of certain subjects: the right of individuals to bear arms, the right of citizens to vote, or the right of human beings to life itself. But rights are not inborn properties. If they were, we would never have to exercise a demand or make a claim for them. As much as we can assert a right, there must be a larger communal body that feels obliged or compelled to assume the burden of making sure we can enjoy this right. The question of how we might compel individuals, corporations and states to take up a responsibility for the rights of others is the question we should be asking. – Stephanie DeGooyer

We tend to think of rights as self-evident, as grounded in our equality as human beings. But that ground, historically, has been shaky: claims about who is _truly_ human have served to exclude, disenfranchise, and license mass violence against marginalized peoples. Arendt alerts us to the shakiness of the ground of rights, and shows us that the way we can stabilize it is not through appeals to morality, but rather through political action and staging of rights. We “have” rights like we “have” a party or a conference: we have to collectively stage, enact, and demand that we all be treated as individuals capable of claiming our rights. We – as collective political actors – are the constantly changing, yet crucial, figures that give rights-claimers a ground to stand on. – Lida Maxwell

Arendt’s reflections remind us how little has been done to guarantee rights, especially for outsiders to existing states — as well as insiders whose protections are increasingly precarious, and risk becoming outcasts in their own lands. It remains true today that too many people, as Arendt observed, are driven to assert their “humanity” — or have others assert it for them — in the absence of any grounds for rights. – Samuel Moyn

Human beings, we say, are born with rights. But rights are not really a function of anyone’s biological make-up: they are things we can enjoy only as members of a political community made when individuals act together in concert. Historically when individuals have joined communities, it often came as a big surprise to existing members. A telling mark of the quality of our political communities is whether we reject or welcome those who, because they are rightless, need to become members. – Alastair Hunt