We are used to thinking that human rights are rights that belong to every person because of their intrinsic value. But is this the only, or at least, the best way of thinking about human rights? In his recent book, Third Person, Roberto Esposito has radically challenged this view. According to him, the triumph of the category of “the person” that, since the end of World War II has accompanied the discourse on human rights, is not the source of its success, but rather of its failure. This is because, in his view, the notion of the person, which has, since the days of Roman law and even more pointedly in its Christian elaboration, indicated the transcendent value of a human being, is incapable of bridging the gap between humanity and the logic of citizenship, precisely because it is what creates such a gap.

By opposing the person, as something artificial and endowed with moral and political significance, to mere humanity in its naturalness, Roman law gave rise to a powerful “dispositif” (p. 9), that is, to a notion that has, throughout its various Western morphologies, always been able to produce very real and tangible effects. In Roman law, such an opposition clearly emerges in the condition of the slave, which shows

the perpetual oscillatory movement between the extremes of the person and thing that makes each of them at the same time the opposite and the horizon of the other — not in the general sense that the definition of the human-as-person emerges negatively out of that of the human-as-thing, but in the more meaningful sense that to experience personhood fully means to keep, or push, other living individuals to the edge of thingness. (p.10)

Through a fascinating exploration into the vicissitudes of the person, Esposito traces its Western genealogy (Chapters 1 and 2) in order to dismantle its dispositif and lead us thus to a philosophy of the impersonal (Chapter 3).

Chapter 1, “The Double Life: The Machine of the Human Sciences,” reconstructs how, since the early 1800s, the concept of the person understood as a subject capable of self-determination was rocked by a crisis originating in biology. Moving from biology to political theory while engaging such authors as Xavier Bichat, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Victor Courtet de l’Isle, August Schleier, Joseph Honoré Chavée, Arthur de Gobineau, and Ernst Haeckel, Esposito shows how Nazism’s attack on the person actually presupposes the concept itself. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Charles Richet, “a mass of human flesh without human intelligence is nothing. It is living material that is unworthy of any respect or compassion” (p.58). Hence, we come to understand the success of Nazism’s attack via a deconstruction that used language as one of its most effective tools:

The language conveyed and at the same time determined this reification through Akkusativierung, reduction of the nominative to the accusative case. Instead of talking about men and women, they referred to pieces (Stücke), replacement parts (Häftlinge), human material (Menschenmaterial), to be loaned (ausleihen), unloaded (abladen), shipped (verschiffen), and eventually, of course, destroyed, after the recovery of the recyclable parts. (p. 61)

It is as a reaction to this attack that we have to understand the triumph of the language of the person that accompanied the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that Esposito reconstructs in Chapter 2 (“Person, Human, Thing”). Indeed, if we compare the 1789 Declaration with the 1948 Declaration, what emerges is a clear shift from the revolutionary emphasis on citizenship to the “unconditional demand for the dignity and worth of the human person” (p. 70). Yet, as Esposito acutely observes, this revival has largely failed to produce its expected results. Have human rights actually been extended to all human beings since then?

If we look at the 60 years that separate us from the Declaration of 1948, we certainly cannot argue that fundamental rights have been extended to all human beings, or even that there has been a significant reduction in the number of people who remain uncertain that their vital needs will be satisfied. Despite the rising rhetoric of humanitarian commitment, human life remains largely outside the protection of the law; so much so that one could easily argue that, even in the context of an increasing juridification of society, no right is more disregarded than the right to life for millions of human beings who are condemned to certain death from starvation, disease and war. (p. 73)

How is this possible despite the triumph of the notion of the person? Such a situation persists precisely because of that triumph: the notion of the person, although transformed, is still exercising its performative power of creating a split, a separation between rights (and law) and life (and nature). The first great merit of this book is to show us that it is as a result of such performative power that some people can still be perceived as ultimately more “human” than others.

Text of Art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN, New York City ©2013 | UCLA Asia Institute (cropped)
Text of Art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN, New York City ©2013 | UCLA Asia Institute (cropped)

As a remedy to this failure, Esposito invites us to pursue a shift towards the perspective of the impersonal (Chapter 3, “Third Person”). The provision of such an alternative is the second intellectual merit of this book. Starting with Emile Benveniste’s well-known article on the distinction between the first two personal pronouns (I and you) and the third-person pronoun (she/he/it), Esposito argues that the philosophies of the “second person” remain trapped within the same logic of those of the first person: “Just as the I always, directly or indirectly, implies a you whom it addresses, similarly there is no you without an I who, by separating the you from itself, designates it as such” (p. 105).

The third person, however, escapes the dialectic between the “subjective person” (the I) and the “non-subjective person” (the you) by disclosing the possibility of a non-personal person or even of a non-person. In a close reading and original discussion of works by such authors as Alexandre Kojève, Vladimir Jankélévitch, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, and Michel Foucault, Esposito develops a philosophy of the third person that culminates in his reading of Gilles Deleuze — whose work he has previously referenced to disclose the possibility of an affirmative version of biopolitics. Indeed, in Deleuze’s systematic deconstruction of the category of the person, all the preceding figures (Kojève’s animal, Blanchot’s neuter, and Foucault’s outside) find their culminating point. This is because, in Esposito’s view, Deleuze’s entire philosophical horizon rotates towards a theory of the pre-individual event (p. 142), something that the Western philosophical tradition has proved incapable of theorizing, by always translating it into either the subjective or the objective form. Even psychoanalysis has been unable to accept the event in its efforts to neutralize the production of desire as an event through the figural forms of the Oedipal triangularisation (p. 144). On the contrary, says Esposito, by quoting Deleuze,

But literature takes the opposite path, and exists only when it discovers beneath apparent persons the power of the impersonal — which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child . . . it is not the first two persons that function as the condition for literary enunciation; literature begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say ‘I’ (Blanchot’s ‘neuter’). (p. 145)

Thus, a systematic deconstruction of the notion of the person permeates Deleuze’s philosophy, culminating in the three-pronged attack of A Thousand Plateaus and centered, respectively, on the three notions of the virtual, haecceity, and the experience of “becoming animal.”

This chapter, and the last section on Deleuze in particular, represents the pars construens of Esposito’s philosophy, a continuation of his attempt to construct an affirmative version of biopolitics, wherein life is not reduced to either a subject or an object, but rather is accepted in its immanence. Besides the fascinating analysis of work by authors who are not yet well-known to the English-speaking world but without which it is impossible to understand fully the implication of the biopolitical turn of modernity, the strongest reason for recommending a reading of Third Person is its lucid diagnosis of one of the most striking paradoxes of our epoch: the praise of the notion of the person, which unifies such disparate philosophical outlooks as those of the most zealous Catholics with those of the most militant atheists, is the source of the rhetorical triumph of the discourse of human rights but also, possibly, of their practical failure. The concept of the person does not unite the rights and the human, but rather separates them. By contrast, the category of the impersonal, with its deluezian call for “becoming animal,” is where we can perhaps potentially find the conceptual resources for finally coming to terms with the fact that we are all equally human (or inhuman). Does it mean that we should start thinking about human rights without persons? This is a provocative thesis, but one that we should consider.

This could indeed be a way, for instance, to revive the notion of human rights in a new and fresh perspective. Maybe this is not sufficient to rescue that project- but it is too early to say. The social movements that have arisen in the past few years seem to have indeed to have abandoned the language of rights in favor of alternative ones: from the “Arab Revolts”, which began with the so-called “Day of Rage,” to the Spanish indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement, radical political claims seem to be increasingly cast in the form of immanent determinations to act. Perhaps any attempt to rescue the emancipative potential of the language of human rights from the deadly rhetoric of the humanitarian intervention that has hijacked it is bound to fail. But maybe not. In any case, the stakes are high, so it is certainly worth trying.

This post draws extensively from a review of  Roberto Esposito’s recent book Third Person that appeared in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews