the human rights of the last man

In the South Atlantic Review of last summer there is an interesting essay by Susan Maslan (The Anti-Human: Man and Citizen before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) that wrestles with the identity of “man” and “citizen” as it was forged in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Maslan’s idea is this: “man” was never a political entity in the same sense as “citizen” before the French revolution. Man could be many things – a creature with ties of blood to other creatures, a soul, a thinker – but as man, he was merely the substratum upon which the political selectively operated. This is a rather natural stance to take for a European society busy enslaving and conquering. Or perhaps I have the causal sequence wrong – it isn’t that the slaving and conquering produced the notion of man – substructure to superstructure – but that both the concept and the activity were held within one large framework, a political episteme.

Maslan finds it surprising that the French Revolutionaries were so quick to identify man and citizen. And she contrasts the result of this – the Declaration – with the American bill of rights:

“The authors of the Declaration understood that they were in the process of elaborating two distinct kinds of rights: rights proper to an individual outside of any constituted political body—that is, in the language
of the eighteenth century, natural rights—and rights proper to a member of an organized political body or state. It would appear, then, that natural rights are those that belong to man and political and civil rights are those at the disposal of the citizen. Asians and Africans, both favorite French examples of oppressed peoples, would be recognized by the Declaration not as citizens of France, of course, but rather in their capacity as men—a title which confers upon them a body of rights that must be acknowledged and recognized by all other human beings, and a title to which the slave, Target [one of the framers of the Declaration] suggests, does not even know he can lay claim. The simple fact of being born—regardless of to whom, where, in what circumstances—endowed the human being with rights. The inclusion of man, as opposed to, say, Frenchman, as a subject of rights within the Declaration is what distinguishes it so radically from the American Bill of Rights, a document that makes no claim to apply beyond the confines of its national authority. It is a wonderful sort of irony, one that demands serious reflection, that the invention of the Rights of Man played and continues to play such a predominant role in the creation and perpetuation of French national identity.”

Maslan’s tends to consider this problem in the light of its object – man – rather than in the light of its enonciation – by men. To track a point in the convergence of man and citizen, Maslan goes back to Horace, Corneille’s 1640 play. Horace is about the liberation of Rome – or its second founding. Horace has the choice of renouncing ties of blood symbolized by his sister’s marriage to Curiaci, of one of the families of Alba – the Curatii – or of loyalty to that blood, and the renunciation of his tie to Rome. The latter is a tie to something that doesn’t quite exist yet – its existence will ensue upon Horace’s action. If Horace defeats the Curatii, Rome will conquer Alba and be set on the road to becoming an empire – a conquest machine. Curiaci pronounces his choice not to duel Horace in a verse that LI wholeheartedly endorses:

“Et si Rome demande une vertu plus haute,/
Je rends grâces aux Dieux de n’être point Romain,/
Pour conserver encor quelque chose d’humain.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, the man modestly remarked. Really, this is our motto vis a vis the American kingdom.

Horace, the Roman, kills Cuiaci and his sister. Of Horace’s unyieldingness, Maslan writes:

“If, however, the criterion for membership in the political order of Rome is the willingness (or, as we shall see in Horace’s case, the eagerness) to exterminate all ties of affection and blood, then not everyone in Rome is fully Roman; indeed, the Roman soldiers described at the end of the first act resemble Curiacemore closely than they doHorace. Like Curiace, these soldiers are both human and citizens: unlike Horace, they persist in recognizing their kin relations and the affective bonds those relations create.”

Such acts of ad hoc resistance (think of the invisible strike against enlistment that is going on, at present, in the U.S.) are marks of the pre-political “man,” separating this entity from the citizen. For Maslan, this means that the pre-Revolutionary troping of “man” makes something about being a citizen “inhuman.” The ties to the state – the mark of the political – are ties of inhumanity.

However, we wonder whether the logic of Horace’s action can be simply projected on the divergence between “man” and “citizen” that, Maslan holds, characterizes those semantic fields in 1640. Notably, Maslan brackets the religious – which is surely a stress upon the use and dynamic of these terms in the seventeenth century. That Rome was pagan was a convenience – it offered a sort of ideal in which to test in dramatic terms the divergence between Maslan’s terms. However, those terms in the purely human world take on a different light in a world in which there is a God of love. Oddly, Maslan’s essay – which begins with a quote from Abbe Gregoire’s pamphlet on the liberation of the Jews – does not take into consideration the religious. We like her resounding final grafs:

“Horace’s project—the creation of citizenship through the destruction of humanity—is a failure because it entails the impossibility of law since law requires the recognition of others as, like oneself, subjects of law andHorace, by placing himself outside the order of humanity, consciously renders himself incapable of recognizing others as ‘‘other selves.’’ Horace is the founding text in what would be a 150-year-long literary-political undertaking to create and to comprehend the categories of and the relation between man and citizen. As in the case of Horace, these imaginings not always but often ended in visions of violence and destruction.When drafters and supporters of the 1789 Declaration announced that the ‘‘truths’’ of the rights of man and of the citizen were not only eternal and immutable but immediately recognizable
to all—‘‘ce que tout le monde sait, ce que tout le monde sent’’ (what everyone knows, what everyone feels)—they, like Rome, were dissimulating, hiding what was in fact an ongoing struggle to form the categories of man and citizen so perfectly that they could end forever not only les malheurs publics but
indeed all unhappiness.

If we tend to think that ‘‘human’’ and ‘‘citizen’’ are or should be corresponding and harmoniously continuous categories it is because we think in the wake of the 1789 Declaration. In the early modern political imagination to be a citizen meant to cease to be human. This is the legacy that the Declaration
tries to overcome and that it conceals. The Declaration sought to reconcile these two forms of existence that had been severed violently. Such an aim, of course, could not be fully realized and so the new Republic turned to—or, better put, invented—the language of universalism to repress and resolve the tensions it could neither dissipate nor acknowledge. It remains today the impossible burden of this language to adjudicate the claims of humanity and the claims of citizenship.”


Anonymous said…
Well, Mr. LI. I love your prose and the way you think as usual. But there is something rotten in this post. ANd I am not quite sure what. I did want to warn you though that my stink sensors have gone up. I'll be reading and rereading this post until I put my finger on it. And rest assured that I will, sooner or later. In the meanwhile, another word of praise for your excellent work from your old pal Mr. BP.
roger said…
Something rotten doesnt give me much to wrestle with, BP. But if I were to make a guess, I'd say: religion is much too broad a category, when we are really talking about the specific religious and political quarrels of the 17th century. The pagan Rome, after all, joins at a certain point the real Catholic Rome -- and I have underdetermined the overdetermination in Horace.