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Etienne Balibar (De)Constructing the Human as Human Institution: A Reflection on the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Practical Philosophy WORKS HAVE THEIR HISTORY, WHICH IS BOTH INTERNAL, MIRRORING AN intellectual development that sometimes can involve great shifts and rectifications, and external, responding to events and addressing ques­ tions that were not fully anticipated. This seems to be particularly the case for someone who, claiming to look for an understanding of the changes that the historical present has produced, and wanting to remain open to the unpredictable element of politics, has given a crucial mean­ ing to the category of the event. More than any great thinker, perhaps we might suggest that Arendt is one who never wrote twice the same book, and more than that, never wrote two successive books from the same point of view. She would allow herself to become transformed by the writing itself, and by the correspondence between the writing and the event, although this correspondence probably is neither straightfor­ ward nor completely visible. It also does not mean that this historicity, this character of the work as a continuous, unfinished experiment of thought, will abolish the permanence of certain crucial questions that social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 727 remain the horizon of the philosophical quest, and even account for its apparent variations. Without further justifications I will ask permis­ sion to borrow elements from texts that belong to different periods and different genres, even looking for extremely heterogeneous formula­ tions, in order to give the problem its maximum saliency. A PARADOXICAL “CRITIQUE OF HUMAN RIGHTS” Why is there a persisting difficulty at the core of Arendt’s discourse on human rights, at least from a philosophical point of view? It is—to put it first in schematic terms—because Arendt has developed one of the most radical critiques of the idea of an anthropological foundation of rights, and the classic doctrine of “human rights” as a foundation of the political, while pushing to the extreme the vindication of some of these rights as unconditional, and assimilating their neglect to a virtual or actual destruction of the human. So there is a first level of the diffi­ culty that we might describe by asking the following question: How is it possible to reconcile a critique of the idea of basic human rights while at the same time locating a typical politics ofhuman rights at the core of politics in general, especially democratic politics? The difficulty seems to be not solved but, on the contrary, rein­ forced and aggravated, when we look at the kind of “anthropology” that was presented by Arendt in what arguably is her most systematic theoretical treatise, namely The Human Condition, published in 1958. We know that the term “condition” here carries a critique of speculative or metaphysical theories of “human nature” in a double sense: it refers to the fact that there is no such thing as a universal essence of the human inhabiting each individual person, to parody a famous Marxian formula that seems to be perfectly compatible here, but “only” (and in fact this is more, not less) a plurality of singular humans, and the “world” they form by relating to each other in a more or less conflictual manner. It also refers to the great problem addressed in the book, this time against the Marxian tradition, namely the “alienating” character of the rela­ tionship between two kinds of conditions: those that concern the repro­ duction of life, or the “natural” conditions, and those that concern the 728 social research construction of the public realm, or the “political” conditions. What seems to Arendt to have become typical of modernity is a specific form of alienation (not only self-alienation, but, as she insists, world-alienation ), whereby the reproduction of life has become increasingly technicized , making it possible for humans not only to view themselves as self-producing beings, but also to substitute this technical reproduction of life for the construction of the “good life,” or the world of politi­ cal interactions. The paradoxical result is that the political becomes reduced to its “natural” basis in the inverted form of an absolute artifi­ ciality. This is a...


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