Between the Human and the Person
A Critical Inquiry into the Subject of Rights
Historically, various categories of human beings (e.g. slaves, women) were denied full personhood; not every member of human species was considered to be a rights-bearing subject. We have come to see these exclusions as unacceptable prejudices of a bygone era particularly with the rise of a human rights framework that establishes each human being as a person entitled to a set of fundamental, inalienable rights. The peculiar formula of “the human person,” inscribed in many human rights documents, suggests that personhood has finally become coextensive with humanity.
This paper takes issue with contemporary assumptions about personhood by engaging with the work of Roberto Esposito. Esposito’s critical analysis is valuable for resisting the metaphysical views that take personhood as an inherent human attribute and understanding it instead as an artifact that can be made and unmade by legal and social practices. This attentiveness to the possibilities of de-personalization alerts us to how certain subjects (e.g. migrants in an irregular status) can continue to be relegated to a precarious condition even in an age of human rights. Despite these strengths, Esposito’s critique ultimately results in a truncated understanding of personhood, concluding that it is nothing but a violent, exclusionary mechanism. This problematic conclusion and the vaguely conceived alternative of “the impersonal” (or “the third person”) result from Esposito’s affirmation of a politics of immediacy that renounces representation in law and language.
Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, a political theorist whose work has significantly shaped Esposito’s thinking, I offer a phenomenological account that aims to articulate the political significance of personhood (especially its representational dimensions) without resuscitating the metaphysics of the person. I propose understanding personhood as an artificial mask (persona) that opens up possibilities of equalization among human beings. Accordingly, the gap between “the human” and “the person” can be understood in terms of not only the practices of unmaking personhood, as Esposito suggests, but also the practices of reinventing the meanings of personhood, humanity, and equality.
Ayten Gündoğdu is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College-Columbia University. Her research draws on the resources of modern and contemporary political theory for the purposes of addressing problems related to human rights, migration, citizenship, and sovereignty. She has recently published Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2015; ISA Theory Honorable Mention; Choice Outstanding Academic Title). The book offers a critical inquiry of human rights by rethinking Arendt’s key concepts and arguments in light of contemporary phenomena such as immigration detention, deportation, refugee encampment, and struggles for regularization. She is currently working on a new project that examines how the concept of “the human person” figures in the human rights discourse, attending to its violent exclusions as well as inventive reappropriations.