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Foucault and the Politics of Rights


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Table of Contents

Contents and AbstractsIntroduction chapter abstract

The Introduction lays out the central issues discussed in the book and summarizes its general thesis: that Foucault's late political thinking on rights represents neither a return, nor a capitulation, to liberalism, but a critical (yet ambivalent) engagement with it. It contextualizes the book's argument within previous interpretations of Foucault's late work and argues for the wider importance of the way in which these texts should be understood. It concludes with some methodological observations and by mapping the chapter structure of the book.

1Critical Counter-Conducts chapter abstract

This chapter details three things: first, it addresses Foucault's understanding of critique via a discussion of his methods of genealogy and archaeology; secondly, it provides a discussion of his critical analyses of subjectivity and sovereignty made in work of the 1970s; and, finally, it addresses his particular notion of the 'counter-conduct' introduced into his work in the late 1970s via his lectures at the College de France. This largely expository material is vital for an understanding of the arguments made in the following chapters, each of which develops a reading of a different dimension of Foucault's rights politics.

2Who Is the Subject of (Foucault's) Human Rights? chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the first dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, their contingent and ungrounded character. By this is meant that when Foucault makes rights claims in his late work he consciously disavows the conventional normative grounds of rights (reason, will, intention, and so forth) in favor of an undetermined conception of subjectivity. On this view, rights become a promising site where competing and contingent claims about the subject of rights are made but can never ultimately be resolved or determined. The chapter starts with an examination of the status of the subject in Foucault's late work on ethics, which is then related to his anti-essentialist advocacy of human rights (such as in Cold-War-era Poland and postrevolutionary Iran), as well as his advocacy of the 'rights of the governed' in the context of global politics and humanitarianism.

3The Ambivalence of Rights chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the second dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, his appreciation (and negotiation) of their ambivalence. Rights are ambivalent for Foucault in the sense that they are vehicles both of empowerment and regulation. Rights allow for claimants to expand and protect their sphere of action but they also subjectify and regulate those claimants even as they assert rights on their own behalf. The present chapter pursues this theme through a reading of the work of the political theorist Wendy Brown on rights to 'identity' as well as of Foucault's own advocacy of rights to sexual choice in his late work (and his related conceptions of friendship and of relational rights). It concludes with a reflection on the possible meaning of freedom in the context of Foucault's ambivalent account of rights.

4Rights Between Tactics and Strategy chapter abstract

This chapter develops an account of the third and final dimension of Foucault's politics of rights; namely, their tactical and strategic deployment. By 'tactical' is meant an instrumental appropriation of rights for political purposes beyond, or subversive of, the demands of a liberal democratic system. By 'strategic' is meant the use of rights to challenge wider structures and relations of power. The chapter assesses whether Foucault's rights claims can be called strategic in the sense just given (ultimately concluding that they can) by examining his deployment of rights in two different yet related contexts. These contexts are linked by the broader theme of the biopolitical management of life. The first context is Foucault's assertion of a right to die and the second is his opposition to the death penalty.

Conclusion chapter abstract

This concluding chapter performs two tasks. The first task is to situate the preceding interpretation of Foucault within an evolving historical debate about the origin of contemporary human rights discourse-a debate catalyzed by the work of Samuel Moyn. According to Moyn's revisionist understanding, the turn to human rights in the late 1970s reflects a general turning away from revolution in the Western political imaginary (and the embrace of liberal utopias instead). The chapter argues that Foucault's ambivalent deployment of rights cannot be reduced to this shift but is more critical of liberalism. The second task is to relate Foucault's engagement with rights in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the contemporary fascination with human rights and to pose (yet not ultimately resolve) the question of whether his approach counsels a continued engagement with human rights or a strategic withdrawal from them.

About the Author

Ben Golder is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, Australia.


"Ben Golder offers an invigorating new political defense of rights grounded in the works of Michel Foucault...this book offers a revitalized reading of Foucault's work in relation to rights and secondary Foucauldian scholars more generally. Foucault and the Politics of Rights is a meaningful contribution for both advocates and critics of Foucault alike due to its resistance to resort to a normative (liberal) definition of rights while still advocating that rights do something, and, accordingly, should not be overlooked by anyone in conversation with rights, politics and power. " -- Garrett Lecoq * Social & Legal Studies *
"I really enjoyed this book. To the Foucault scholar, it presents a series of close readings of late texts that are generous, penetrating, and persuasive. To the critical lawyer, it offers a thoughtful Foucauldian appraisal of Verges' strategy of rupture in legal practice as theorized by Emilios Christodoulidis and others. To the scholar with an interest in human rights, it puts forward an important and thorough analysis of Foucault's practice and thinking on rights, and through discussion with Foucault and other thinkers it proposes some ideas and cautions for making use of rights in political practice. Written in clear, engaging English, with a rhythm and an excitement that draws you through to the end, it is an accessible and fascinating book on subjects of wide interest to us all." -- David Thomas * Law, Culture and the Humanities *
"Michel Foucault, a political actor and rights advocate? Making claims for the right to die, the rights of the governed, and rights to sexuality? This is a most unfamiliar Foucault for many, but it is the focus of Ben Golder's Foucault and the Politics of Rights. Breathing new life into somewhat stale debates about the political character of Foucault's work, Golder reveals a thinker and activist deeply committed to rights politics as well as to critiques of power and subjectivity. ... With this provocative account, Golder's work certainly deepens our understanding of Foucault's ideas in important ways. But so too does it shed light on the ongoing value of rights for contemporary politics, shaking up both the liberal faith in and the postmodern skepticism of rights in the process." -- Karen Zivi * Contemporary Political Theory *
"This is a book which is not only beautifully conceived but gracefully written and through which Golder has made a remarkable intervention into the field of Foucault studies, human rights and political theory. I can see it being of immense value to researchers and students of Foucault on rights and on Foucauldian critique alike." -- Bal Sokhi-Bulley
"This crucial project makes an impact at once scholarly and political with respect to the fraught status of contemporary rights discourse. By traversing political theory, critical legal theory, continental philosophy, and the voluminous literature on Michel Foucault, Ben Golder stakes out a novel account of how we should go about defending rights in a post-foundational era." -- Colin Koopman
"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michel Foucault appealed to a truly astounding, if not dizzying, array of rights: the rights of prisoners, the right to asylum, human rights, the right to suicide, the rights of the governed, and relational rights. How are we to make sense of his appeals to these rights? What do they tell us about Foucault's commitments? How can they illuminate rights talk more generally? One of the many merits of Ben Golder's Foucault and the Politics of Rights is that it pursues these questions with an unparalleled depth, rigor, and eloquence... Golder not only masterfully distances Foucault's late rights talk from his putative embrace of liberalism, but also convincingly demonstrates that Foucault heralded a whole new praxis of rights." -- Marcelo Hoffman * New Political Science *
"Golder is one of the most original and innovative legal theorists working in Australia. His books and numerous essays demonstrate a consistent commitment to scholarly rigour and reflection on contemporary political problems. His work encapsulates Edward Said's idea of the intellectual as someone who accepts the responsibility to raise difficult questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to reproduce them) and who is prepared to challenge conventional wisdom...Golder's book is a major intervention in Foucauldian studies and research into the legalphilosophical dimensions of rights. It deserves to be read and to be taken seriously by legal scholars, including those unfamiliar with Foucault." -- Peter D. Burdon * Adelaide Law Review *
"Golder clearly and convincingly responds to critics who would find in this late work a relinquishing of critique or collaboration with a quiescent liberalism. Very carefully drawing on Foucault's writings and lectures, Golder lucidly articulates Foucault's view of critique and shows how even when Foucault endorses a 'right to suicide' or argues against the death penalty, he considers rights discourse to be a tactic, deployed (or not) within a broader strategy of political aims... Golder's readings are scholarly, painstaking, and correct. His argument is an invaluable contribution to discussions that seek Foucault's legacy in theory (rather than looking, as some might, in the directions that Foucault's students havetaken)." -- Marianne Constable * Canadian Journal of Law and Society *
"Foucault and the Politics of Rights is an excellent piece of scholarship that deserves the consideration of everyone interested in Foucault's work and in human rights." -- Ladelle McWhorter * Journal of Political Power *
"Foucault and the Politics of Rights offers a methodical and close reading of Foucault's critical appropriation of rights thinking. It provides a persuasive exegesis, deftly showing how his specific critiques of political conditions evoked indeterminate rights to help resist particular forms of conduct. ... This book will appeal to students and scholars seeking an in-depth discussion of Foucault's broader framings of critique and power, as well as his later elicitations of ethics, subjects and rights. It also provides political activists with a reflexive, critical view of how human rights might be tactically or strategically envisaged within particular political struggles. For those tempted to yawn at the prospect of yet another tome on Foucault, I would recommend suppressing the urge: read the book and become submerged in a gathering of texts not often interpreted together. Its insightful probes will reward readers with absorbing ways to think differently about human rights that are now the lingua franca of dominant liberal political horizons." -- George Pavlich * Law and Society Review *
"Golder's argument unfolds over four chapters, framed by substantive introductory and concluding chapters[His] interpretative method offers us a strong model for Foucauldian analytics, beyond Foucault's own immediate concerns. This is Foucault studies at its best: using Foucault to go beyond Foucault." * Andrew Dilts Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews *
"Ben Golder's new book on Foucault and the Politics of Rights is a landmark text that engages with one of the most intriguing questions regarding Foucault's later work: did his turn to human rights represent a capitulation to the liberal project? Golder's answer is a resounding 'No' Golder's book is an innovative book and an exemplary contribution to Foucault studies, critical legal theory and human rights scholarship. It is a beautifully crafted and powerfully argued text that brings an important, original dimension to Foucault's work and his approach to human rights." -- Ratna Kapur * UNSW Law Journal *
"Foucault and the Politics of Rights is an important book addressing important topics. Golder provides clear interpretations of central Foucauldian concerns and timely refutations of prominent misinterpretations of Foucault on rights. More importantly, Golder compellingly argues for the continuing relevance of Foucault's approach to rights, aside from any historical interest. For all of this, Foucault and the Politics of Rights is to be highly recommended." * Jack Blaiklock Marx and Philosophy Review of Books________________________________________ *
"Even though I've now seen him do it, I'm still amazed that Golder has been able to pull off such a powerful and fresh rereading of Foucault, one so relevant for contemporary debates in theory and politics. I haven't been this excited about a new work on Foucault since I read David Halperin's tour de force, Saint Foucault, and that was almost twenty years ago. This is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Foucault or in rights, and that is a huge swath of people." -- Samuel Chambers * The Johns Hopkins University *

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