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  • Human Rights and Radical Social Transformation: Futurity, Alterity, Power by Kathryn McNeilly
  • Anna Grear (bio)
Kathryn McNeilly, Human Rights and Radical Social Transformation: Futurity, Alterity, Power (Routledge, 2018), ISBN 9781138690219, 166 pages.

Costas Douzinas once wrote that:

Human rights are the negative principle at the heart of the social imaginary. The end of human rights, like that of natural law, is the promise of the "not yet," of the indeterminacy of existential self-creation against the fear of uncertainty and the in-authentic certainties of the present. When the apologists of pragmatism pronounce the end of ideology, of history or utopia, they do not mark the triumph of human rights; on the contrary, they bring human rights to an end. The end of human rights comes when they lose their utopian end.1

Kathryn McNeilly's book, Human Rights and Radical Social Transformation: Futurity, Alterity, Power,2 offers extended reflection upon the "not yet" of human rights and its promise for radical politics—a promise, which like the utopian end explored by Douzinas, is a restless, impossible principle of hope.3 McNeilly constructs an account of human rights emphasizing the persistence and significance of their not yet—a performative, agonistic leaning-forwardness—in which human rights are to be understood as a ceaseless grappling with the political, expressed through ineradicable tensions between power, vulnerability, and alterity.

In making her argument, McNeilly draws upon established critical engagements with the multiple paradoxes of human rights. She is fully aware that human rights ascendancy is marked by their extensive violation, as well as by ambivalent dynamics between their emancipatory impulses and their dark complicities with hegemonic power. Mc-Neilly understands, therefore, the skepticism of activists and thinkers concerning human rights. Her central question is animated by a deep recognition of human rights failures in full cognizance of their uneasy role in relation to contemporary crises—including the contemporary crisis of human rights legitimacy. Can human rights, despite all this, "offer possibilities for contemporary radical politics?" This is a question that can only be answered adequately by examining the "relationship between human rights and radical social transformation" under present configurations of power.4 McNeilly's book reaches out to battle weary activists and thinkers to make the case that human rights can be a vehicle for radical politics in confrontation with the hegemony of contemporary power:

I advance that an alternative conception of rights compatible with the promotion of different regimes of class, gendered, racial, ablest and heteronormative power and meaningful social equality is made possible through the concept of "human rights to come."5 [End Page 710]

"Human rights to come," then, is in essence McNeilly's account of the not yet of human rights. She offers an extended engagement with the "futurity" that Douzinas sees human rights "inscribe [into] law"6 by focusing her attention on the inherent futurity of human rights themselves. There is a way, McNeilly insists, for human rights to offer hope of renewed critical engagement and to recover the vital energies of their inherently political nature. Indeed, it is the very "depoliticization" (following Jacques Ranciere)7 of rights as a result of their widespread codification and positivization, converging with radical politics having "[run] out of tools to meaningfully challenge hegemonic regimes of power,"8 that opens out the promise and urgency of human rights to come. The power of human rights as a language of claim, combined with reclamation of their political nature and the responsiveness of human rights to crisis, suggests that a futural conception of human rights can reinvigorate the power of the political for contemporary politics.9

McNeilly develops her thesis by beginning with the idea, well established in critical human rights thinking, that human rights always contain a movement of (re)articulation, that their meanings remain persistently open (Chapter 2). This dynamic of permanent excess means that human rights are always "inherently 'to come,' and … strive towards a futural conception of living and being that is free from alterity."10

McNeilly posits an interlocking set of four theoretical aspects of human rights to come: performativity (Chapter 3), universality as universalization (Chapter 4), agonistic pluralism (Chapter 5), and the paradoxical vulnerable subject (Chapter...


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pp. 710-716
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