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Review of: Pheng Cheah, Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006). 336 pages. $24.95 (paper). ISBN 0674023943

Globalization, cosmopolitanism, human rights. It’s hard to imagine three more hotly contested terms that have of late come to preoccupy theoretical conversations. Indeed, we have become so engrossed with these concepts that it’s almost impossible to think of a major theorist who hasn’t felt the need to weigh in on them. A hasty catalogue of such commentators might begin with Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, K. A. Appiah, Gayatri Spivak, Jacques Rancière, Simon Gikandi, Wendy Brown, and it would continue on and on. Pheng Cheah’s Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights takes these increasingly popular explanatory terms and exposes their interrelations, arguing that they collectively emerge from similar expectations about human freedom and, consequently, suffer from similar shortcomings. With a demandingly rigorous philosophical analysis, Inhuman Conditions is an important and timely contribution to these ongoing debates about our contemporary global predicament. Overall, Cheah’s argument presents something of a corrective to the majority of theorizations about globalization, which are either overly celebratory or wholly despairing, in that he seeks to embrace and to work within the limits posed by the “inhuman conditions” that he argues contaminate all social and political relations, and by extension all available approaches to social justice, in our increasingly interconnected world.

Cheah begins his argument by examining our reigning definitions of the “human.” These definitions, which stipulate the qualities of human flourishing and success, centrally motivate most arguments about whether the effects of globalization should be seen as enabling or inhibitory. While globalization discourse has commonly been theorized within the social sciences, Cheah asserts that we derive our attitudes toward globalization from the humanities. The humanities have historically posited the essence of human nature, which almost always involves questions of self-determination, dignity, and freedom. We typically believe that these qualities manifest themselves and are realized through human sociability and participation in cultural and political life. Á la Foucault, Cheah instead works with the assumption that these dominant ideas about human nature, particularly as they become normative, carry the potential to be disciplinary and constraining, despite the fact that they are ostensibly oriented toward the aim of freedom. In this sense, Cheah self-consciously interrogates the idealism of thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, who have prioritized culture as innately oriented toward human emancipation.

Most positive assessments of globalization, particularly those arising from the social sciences, imagine globalization as gradual progress toward the advancement of freedom. According to Cheah, the two primary and most visible expressions of this understanding are cosmopolitanism and human rights. These two terms have gained contemporary relevance because they each independently promise avenues for transcending the force field of global capitalism. One of Cheah’s core undertakings in the book is to show that we have become insufficiently attentive to the ways that global capital permeates all human relations. Increasingly stratifying the global economy and, more importantly, instrumentalizing human relations, global capitalism makes up the “inhuman conditions” that Cheah seeks to call our attention to, and that represent the dark side of globalization. In opposition to the ways capitalism produces human deprivation, he heralds both cosmopolitanism and human rights as positive expressions of globalization which combat its negative tendencies. For example, human rights serve as a check on instrumentality, in that they safeguard the dignity of the individual. Moreover, according to Cheah, both human rights and cosmopolitanism derive from common philosophical precepts. They both gesture toward forms of international solidarity as the means of overcoming the exclusions of citizenship and the nation-state, categories seen increasingly to compromise human freedom. And they also both embrace “culture” as the primary vehicle for human transcendence of the objectifying conditions of capital, promising the progressive independence of the individual.

However, the expectations embedded in appeals to human rights and cosmopolitanism remain disingenuous. For Cheah, there is no outside to the force field of global capital. Culture, too, is predetermined by and implicated within its circuits of exchange, and thus the instrumentalization of human life can never be wholly overcome through the mere experience of cultural self-realization. In other words, culture itself is inescapably created through and by “inhuman conditions.” Any appearance of pure transcendence is merely artificial; beneath the surface, culture is always both generated and infected by the compromised economic energies from which it emerges.

Because the inhuman of global capital directly colors all pursuits of human transcendence, Cheah argues that we need to rethink our understandings, first, of political and social change and, perhaps most importantly, of freedom itself. This “radical reconceptualization of freedom” (112) must account for the fact that all practices of resistance are enmeshed within the play of global capital. Yet at the same time, any given arrangement of power is impacted by a dynamic circuit of (ex)change that Cheah explains in terms of both Saussurian and Derridean linguistics. Cheah describes the “inscription” of norms “within a global field of forces, their repeated generation from an infinite textile back into which they are repeatedly woven” (8). Here linguistic development, too, exemplifies an “inhuman freedom” that is neither reasoned nor wholly accidental, but instead continually destabilized and renegotiated. And precisely because of this fluidity, opportunities for freedom arise, although never as a matter of pure or unqualified emancipation. As with culture, freedom will always be predetermined and governed by circumstances of instrumentality. Because such forces cannot be overcome, it becomes our normative “responsibility” to investigate and disclose their impact on a situational basis (79). Only after examining how the inhuman conditions of capital simultaneously constrain and engender instances of emancipation can we begin to intercede within them.

Much of Inhuman Conditions engages directly with philosophy and political theory. In particular, the first half of the book, titled “Critique of Cosmopolitan Reason,” is a sustained parlay with some of the most influential theorists of cosmopolitanism. It is worth noting up front that Cheah seems far more critical of what cosmpolitanism obscures than of human rights. The book’s second and third chapters contain lengthy interrogations of the work first of Jürgen Habermas and then of Homi Bhabha and James Clifford. While Cheah analyzes these very different thinkers separately, he nonetheless levies comparable critiques against them. First, all three philosophers erroneously maintain that political and social change (which for Habermas arises through deliberation and for Bhabha and Clifford culture) operates on a plane that is autonomous, disconnected from the economic. This assumption conceals the fact that economic disparity and exploitation permeate and sully all spheres of social existence. Cheah is in this vein recurrently wary of approaches to freedom that emphasize “cultural” self-realization at the expense of economic resistance.

Additionally, Cheah is highly skeptical of models for explaining either culture or political solidarity that take the experience of the migrant in the North Atlantic metropolis as their starting points. This prioritization of transnational mobility fails to countenance the wide divergences between contemporary postcolonial realities (Habermas’s thought is especially marred by a deep Eurocentrism). For Bhabha and Clifford, this model of the cosmopolitan consciousness masquerades under the idea of “cultural hybridity.” Cheah helpfully deciphers the conceptual origins of this embrace of the hybrid as a response to the imperializing and ethnographic gaze, which views culture as a coherent entity and thus a marker for the measurement of civilizational progress. This historical tendency of course utilizes “culture” to legitimate forms of oppression. In response, hybridity theory demystifies the disciplinary biases that inform colonial accounts of culture and at the same time proposes a template for agentive defiance of such hegemonic, Eurocentric assumptions.

Cheah questions the foundational premise of hybridity theory, namely, that it offers a viable model for personal or collective agency. He argues that Clifford and Bhabha remain invested in the canonical definitions of culture that they purport to refute. In doing so, they celebrate linguistic and symbolic contestation – the realm of culture – and consequently neglect economic exploitation. To state things differently, the fixation on hybridity blinds theorists to the structural inequities of global capital. In effect, the romance of hybridity validates cultural realities that are fully premised upon the increased global stratification of wealth while at the same time its theorists are insufficiently attentive to the problem of uneven development. By privileging migrancy, a marker of upward mobility, Clifford and Bhabha falsely assume it to be a widespread phenomenon and thereby disregard the vast majority of peoples in the postcolonial world.

Another component of Cheah’s critique of Habermas, Clifford, and Bhabha concerns how cosmopolitanism tends to denigrate nationalism as regressive, inherently ethnocentric, and something to be discarded and overcome. This bias assumes that a rigid antithesis exists between the nation and the cosmopolitical. Viewing national culture as outmoded, proponents of cosmpolitanism perceive transnational networks and solidarities as the only paths to the increased realization of human freedom. Such approaches typically herald the era of a truly post-national world and at the same time celebrate the superior normative value of transnational connectivities. Arjun Appadurai’s faith in the global “imagination” and its capacity to materialize conditions of liberation and transcendence “from below” is here one target of Cheah’s. Cheah rather dismissively comments that we can never know whether such visions are anything more than mere “hopeful ideals of the imagination” (40). Because globalization does not impact the regions or peoples of the world either equally or equitably, the idea that such grassroots imaginative solidarities will naturally arise resembles a form of wishful thinking. In sum, the reality of an increasingly interconnected world does not translate into more effective mass-based political alliances.

As may have become evident to the reader by now, one of Cheah’s central projects throughout Inhuman Conditions is to stake a claim for the continued salience of the nation-state as a political category. Cheah understands national self-determination as essential to a politics of liberation in the postcolonial world. Along with his critiques of cosmopolitanism, Cheah is highly skeptical of what transnational alliances can realistically accomplish. In his assessment, NGOs almost automatically become complicit in perpetuating cycles of exploitation. And beyond lacking material and economic backing or consequence, theories of global alliance wrongfully evade, and thus perpetuate, the continued disenfranchisement of most of the Third World. Cheah understands national solidarity as the only meaningful level on which economically marginalized peoples can feasibly attempt to intervene within the force field of global capital. In other words, Cheah perceives the nation-state as the only unit with effective bargaining power.

Cheah thus frames his project as a return to the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, although he refuses to idealize postcolonial national culture as uniformly benign. Instead, he asserts that nationalisms should be regarded as “both medicine and poison” (106): necessary for the surmounting of entrenched patterns of exploitation, yet by no means free of their own tyrannies. The tenuous status of feminisms in many postcolonial nations discloses this dual nature of nationalism. For example, many fundamentalisms are self-conscious reactions to perceived threats to national autonomy, and they frequently enact this anxiety upon women and thereby become internally predatory. Yet despite these perils, popular nationalisms do bear the capacity to be a normative force, particularly when they are engaged in responsible forms of self-scrutiny that expose the ways their efforts at resistance are nonetheless imbricated in the production of inhuman conditions. Indeed, it is paradoxically (and somewhat problematically) the beleaguered status of feminism in the world today that, for Cheah, speaks to the need to rethink our philosophical conceptions of freedom.

The first half of Inhuman Conditions, in which Cheah discusses the oversights of cosmopolitanism, is rather heavy on the theory and short on the examples. In the fourth chapter of the book, Cheah does offer an example of a diasporic identity that refuses to gratify models of hybridity: the experience of migrant Chinese communities in South East Asia. Cheah charts how the Chinese were historically employed by colonialists to advance imperial agendas; however, at the same time, the Europeans circulated ethnic stereotypes about the Chinese in order to keep them faithful servants of empire. Both of these inextricable conditions have prevented Chinese assimilation and created hostility with the foreign populations among whom they reside. With this instance, Cheah illustrates how cosmopolitanism in South East Asia is both allied with capitalism and, most importantly, inimical to the forging of transnational solidarities.

But while Cheah provides us with at least some concrete examples of transnational alliances, some more and some less salutary, he doesn’t really offer any that support his appeal to the continued salience of the nation-state. We are offered no illustrations that display how individual postcolonial states have diplomatically intervened within international trade relations to achieve more equitable economic treatment for their citizens. This absence of specific evidence supporting such a central pillar of his argument makes his claim for the efficacy of the nation-state feel somewhat unmoored and insubstantial. Indeed, one might readily counter Cheah’s optimism with a spate of instances of atrophy from around the globe. I will merely cite the ongoing predicament of the Caribbean and the deepening incursion of the tourist industry into local cultures and economies. The case of the Caribbean demonstrates not a success story but one instead of recurrent failure on the popular nationalist level. Two readily accessible accounts of such failure come to mind: Jamaica Kincaid’s polemical essay A Small Place and the documentary Life and Debt respectively deal with the islands of Antigua and Jamaica, providing excellent insights into the structural realities that undermine any nationalist effort to resist the sway of global capital. Particularly in Jamaica, with its history of grassroots activism, such efforts have been tragically inadequate, often defeated by what the film Life and Debt labels usurious lending practices. To counter Cheah in bluntly reductive terms: their enormous amount of foreign debt to the World Back and World Trade Organization suggests that most postcolonial nations simply have no bargaining power. Thus while Cheah’s critiques of cosmopolitanism are persuasive and even compelling, he fails to make us confident about the viability of his solution.

In many ways, Cheah’s treatment of human rights is the most illuminating part of the book, although (and perhaps because) it is significantly less extensively theorized and more grounded in real world evidence. Cheah explores in great depth the market in female domestic workers centralized in South East Asia. In this extended case study, Cheah shows how accelerated developing economies – countries actively realizing the right to development, of which Singapore is the paradigmatic example – have been forced to rely upon imported labor markets for their economic successes. However, after a widely publicized murder case, in which the Singapore government hanged a Filipina maid named Flor Contemplacion, and numerous reports of abuse of domestic workers, public sentiment internationally as well as within both Singapore and the Philippines has shifted to supporting these workers’ human rights. We see once again how transnational migration does not automatically enhance human freedom. Yet at the same time, these incidents illustrate how human rights norms are inscribed within a population.

In the second half of his book, Cheah moves to broad questions concerning the validity of human rights in general – not by dissecting isolated rights but by interrogating the basic view that rights are a human entitlement. Working from his premise that no sphere of life is exempt from the influence of global capital, Cheah argues that any assertion of human rights, too, is inevitably contaminated by inhuman conditions.

One of the most common postcolonial reservations about human rights revolves around “cultural relativism”: whether rights are singularly Western constructs and thus merely a facade for cultural neo-imperialism. However, Cheah argues that these questions about cultural relativism are more accurately “coded” ways for talking about global capital (148). In other words, most debates about universality are beneath the surface economic turf wars, about financial dominance and patterns of accumulation. In keeping with other theorists, Cheah identifies “dignity” as the fundamental value that underpins human rights. This is a nexus that Cheah locates in Kantian moral law, which posits dignity as a quality that cannot be reduced to instrumental measures of human worth, such as market price. Cheah argues that all theories of rights share this philosophical ground in the principle of human dignity, even apparently antithetical ones, such as reflected in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, the official Asian position on rights, or advocated by NGOs in the Asia-Pacific region. While these two competing visions dispute specific rights as well as common prioritizations of rights, they do not question this axiomatic emphasis on human dignity. In effect, Cheah asserts that these ostensibly opposed definitions at base all endorse the same normative framework. And for this reason, arguments about the cultural relativity of particular rights miss the mark. They are mere distractions in that they fail to address the problems of how all human rights are derived from and impacted by global capital.

With this recognition in mind, Cheah subsequently proceeds to explore how and why we can still go about thinking of human rights as having normative value. Our “responsibility” in conversations about human rights is once again to delve below the surface and disentangle the competing economic interests that are motivating and skewing any given appeal to rights. Cheah argues that none of our paradigms for approaching human rights currently do this work of analysis, and the apparently intractable distinctions between them thus become somewhat irrelevant. Cheah provides a range of striking examples of the ways in which human rights appeals arise out of inhuman conditions. Intellectual property rights, for example, often enable Western monopolization of the resources of the Third World. Similarly, Cheah indicts the Asian “alternative” conception of rights for its emphasis upon the right to development. And finally, Cheah cites to the many ways that NGOs inevitably become compromised in their negotiations with states for both funding and recognition.

This unavoidable contamination of human rights by global capital brings us back to Cheah’s claim that we need to reevaluate our presumptions about human freedom, in this case by cleansing human rights of the idealism they typically reflect. The most basic constitutive condition for the assertion of rights is their ubiquitous violation, and there is no privileged site where human rights are realized outside of their simultaneous infringement (166). We might say that any “success” for human rights is premised upon systemic realities of failure. Such a tension similarly besets human rights advocacy and education; a society’s awareness of human rights is at once inscribed by global capital and also a redress for that violation. Cheah in this manner explains rights as “violent gifts, the necessary nexuses within immanent global force relations that produce the identities of their claimants. Yet they are the only way for the disenfranchised to mobilize” (172). Capitalism itself is thus something of an “enabling violation” for human rights, to adopt Gayatri Spivak’s terminology. Consequently, we must recognize that our conceptions of human rights and dignity are historical, contingent, and context-specific. They are always pre-determined according to the “positionality,” in Cheah’s words, of any particular speaker.

In Cheah’s mind, this does not prohibit us from thinking about human rights as normative. It simply requires that we reorient our understandings of the normative “from the ground up” (162). Cheah urges us to conceive of normativity in a way that does not insist upon the use of reason to overcome historical contingency, but that instead is capable of embracing accident’s inescapability. Here Cheah invokes Derrida’s idea of justice as something that is infinitely deferred – both emergent in the present yet structurally foreclosed. Like the category of justice, human rights hold out something of a messianic promise, although, at the same time, they are constitutively mired within the force field of capital. Our normative task regarding human rights is thus to assess how and why they are limited by their specific context while also recognizing their “mutability.” Like Cheah’s conception of the texture of language, it is because human rights are fundamentally contingent that they lend themselves to transformation.

But we must ask: is such a construct then still “normative” in the conventional sense of the term? When does something become so relative and fortuitous that it can no longer be in good faith labeled normative? One leaves Cheah’s argument feeling somewhat perplexed about this insistence that we define human rights themselves as fully normative. It might make sense to say that our approach to human rights is yet within the realm of the normative. But then we are talking about something else, something more akin to an adjudicative faculty or evaluative register, and not really about human rights as a philosophical construct or a practical standard.

This reader’s confusion surrounding the idea of the “normative” is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Cheah’s often slippery and esoteric language makes the book an at times frustrating read. It also leads Inhuman Conditions to feel rather disjointed. For example, Cheah is interested in identifying how all freedoms are always already contaminated by the “inhuman conditions” of global capital. Yet Cheah makes this notion more enigmatic than needed, simply through a fluctuating and overly specialized vocabulary. He at times refers to this phenomenon as “the force field of global capital,” at other times as “the instrumentalization of human life,” and at others as “technè.” In the fourth chapter of the book, Cheah eventually labels it “spectralization” (a term taken from Derrida’s Specters of Marx). In addition to these coinages, Cheah incorporates other unusual terms from his pre-existing scholarship, such as “given culture” and “humanity-effects.” While these formulations do lend critical precision to Cheah’s ideas, taken together their sheer volume risks eclipsing the points that are most integral to the important theoretical work that Inhuman Conditions does accomplish.

One of these central achievements of Cheah’s book is to offer us a much needed and more finely calibrated vocabulary for talking about human rights. The far-too-common temptation these days is to invoke human rights in highly polarizing, dichotomous, and reductive ways. On the one hand, it has become en vogue to dismiss sweepingly human rights as merely the latest panacea for liberal guilt. This is a move that Alain Badiou makes in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, when he acrimoniously conflates human rights discourse with a failure of politics. Yet on the other, many theorists historically committed to poststructuralist suspicion – among others, Spivak and Judith Butler – have been all too hasty to embrace human rights. Indeed, we might say that human rights have become something of a cause célèbre for continental philosophers and literary theorists alike. We need look no further than the 2004 Special Issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, titled “And Justice for All? The Claims of Human Rights,” or the October 2006 issue of PMLA for examples of scholarship preoccupied with human rights. While this is neither the time nor place to psychologize this particular academic fad, Cheah’s approach to human rights is noteworthy in its ability to circumvent the reactionary impulses that have informed too much of this recent scholarship.

Cheah’s study is in this way profound in its ability to tease out the ambivalences and indeterminacies surrounding the contemporary practice of human rights. It encourages us to inhabit those tensions, to become comfortable with the experience of uncertainty as we delve into intractable questions of social justice. And just as Cheah asserts that our reigning theories of human rights and cosmopolitanism are at once constricting and empowering, it is fair to say that such dualities afflict almost all approaches to global politics and culture. Cheah implicitly cautions us that any liberatory agenda will become caught up in the existing force fields of power and capital. And thus politics will never be a matter of neatly discarding one paradigm and simply replacing it with another. It instead must become a task of cultivating a healthy skepticism toward the available discourses and regimes with which we are faced, while at the same time deploying them strategically to rejuvenate and maximize their ethical capacities. In sum, Cheah urges precisely the type of cautious, demystificatory self-scrutiny that is direly lacking in so much political debate today.

Elizabeth S. Anker

Elizabeth S. Anker is an assistant professor in the English Department at Cornell University. She has also published in Modern Fiction Studies and the James Joyce Quarterly and is currently completing a book on human rights and the postcolonial novel. She can be reached at

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