Monday, November 5, 2007

Keenan, Foucault, Sovereignty

I was quite struck by Keenan's discussion of the Ansar al-Sunna communique's ambiguous attitude towards human rights. In discussing Foucault's conception of human rights, Keenan has an interesting line: "The politics of human rights is, in this sense, largely a 'politics of the governed'--not a project that aims to govern, precisely not that." (67) So in Foucault's imagination human rights politics are by definition a sort of resistance, a sort of politics that cannot be easily instituted within the state.

Keenan notes, "Although the discourse of human rights got its modern start with the revolutions that overthrew the French monarchy and British rule in the American colonies, today an assault on the state in the interest of seizing power is far from the norm for political action undertaken in the name of human rights." (67) I think Keenan misses something important in this conflation of French and American conceptions of human rights. If you accept Arendt's argument that the American revolution was effected largely for negative rights, then Foucault's argument for a politics of the governed does not seem particularly new. And, further, it doesn't seem as absurd to think that a human rights of the governed might necessitate violence or that even a government's constitution might include allowance for a non-governmental conception of rights. Consider the 2nd Amendment: its words enshrine a right to keep and bear arms for the sake of securing a free state.

Foucault's suggestion for a "ship to protect those drifting refugees" looks like no government we've ever seen. (It does look more than a little like the Sea Shepherd vigilante fleet). But what will this ship do? How will it protect those drifting refugees? If it is forced to resort to violence, is it not just another contender for the monopoly on violence? That's what I assume when I read Foucault suggesting that we will need to oppose "a [state] monopoly that we have to uproot little by little every day." That seems like a rather direct call to make "an assault on the state in the interest of seizing power." The difference between French revolutionaries and Foucault, however, is that the latter seems to suggest a conception of non-governmental power: an oligopoly or anarchy of power. Keenan himself grants this: "'human rights' can easily become another form of political administration, of governmentality, and sometimes even an excuse for worse." Am I wrong in suggesting that this is not a new phenomenon? That this problem this conundrum is not radically different from the top-down (by the drafters of the Bill of Rights) and from the bottom-up (Foucault, etc.)?

I would like to cite another interesting jihadist critique from October 2006: the Mujahideen Shura Council's announcement of a new Islamic Iraqi state. The Shura Council is an organization of Sunni militants that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq. Gulfnews called the state "an illusion born in cyberspace" and asked "how can a state be born out of a video clip, in the depths of cyberspace?" I wonder if Keenan suggests an answer: "The language changes when the plebeians, copying, speak it." (66) The language of sovereignty changes when the Sunni militants speak it. No more should it be taken as a literal claim for an organized state--state sovereignty contradicts the idea of a caliphate anyways--but instead for a "non-governmental" government, one with borderless sovereignty. I think the Shura Council's announcement was yet another acknowledgment that the Sunni jihadists see human rights and sovereignty as everywhere and nowhere.

1 comment:

narcissus said...

interesting, it's a shame people don't discuss Foucault's letter on human rights more, I think there are a lot of fresh things which can be drawn from it.

if you want...mostly rubish...need to post more, but eh