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The self, the other and human rights: Lacan, Levinas and the ethics of alterity

Indaimo, Joseph, Law, Faculty of Law, UNSW


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  • Title:
    The self, the other and human rights: Lacan, Levinas and the ethics of alterity
  • Author/Creator/Curator: Indaimo, Joseph, Law, Faculty of Law, UNSW
  • Subjects: Lacan and Levinas; The self and the other; Lacan and Levinas; Human Rights and Postmodernism; Alterity and Ethics
  • Resource type: Thesis
  • Type of thesis: Ph.D.
  • Date: 2011
  • Supervisor: Shelly, Robert, Law, Faculty of Law, UNSW; Golder, Ben, Law, Faculty of Law, UNSW
  • Language: English
  • Print availability: T/2011/358 (Please speak to a staff member at the Library Help Zone)
  • Permissions: This work can be used in accordance with the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.
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  • Description: This thesis explores the impact of the conceptualisation of human identity upon our understanding and animation of human rights and how the notion of human identity informs the ethical goals of human justice in such rights. Beginning from the position that our contemporary human rights’ discourse emerges from the epistemological shift in Western history from pre-modernity to modernity, our contemporary understanding and articulations of modern rights stem from the liberal philosophy of Western humanism and the rights of man thesis. With these influences there is the philosophical and political focus in modern human rights on the individual subject and the ontological signification of its (potential) presence of being and autonomous powers of being, expressed and exercised through the so-called universal traits of human identity — the individual’s independent conscious capacities of reasoned intentionality and self-will.Yet since the mid-twentieth century, post discourses (such a poststructuralism, postmodernism and more generally, post-humanism) have challenged such liberal notions of human identity, with its prioritisation of the presence-of-self in a commune of the Same. Such post discourses focus on the radical quality of alterity within human identity — the very trait of distinction and otherness. In this thesis I argue that with alterity, rather than promote the atomised individual of autonomous powers of being and its ontological presence of self, postmodern ethics brings human identity under the subjugation of the “beyondness of the other.” It is the distinction of the other, rather than its reduced Sameness to the self, which animates a potential post-humanist ethical inter-subjectivity.Two such post-humanist thinkers of ethical alterity which I explore in this thesis are Jacques Lacan and Emmanuel Levinas. Lacan focuses on the other of unconscious desire and the loss of human fulfilment, while Levinas explores the face of the other human subject. In both cases, it is the alterity of the other which institutionalises a pre-foundational, prevenient inter-subjectivity between self and other, which always already marks human identity with an openness towards otherness which is beyond being. In this way, I argue that such ethics of alterity contains the transformative potential of re-orientating the conceptualisation of human identity and the architectural aspect of our contemporary human rights. Rather than a right of the individual self and the hegemonic processes of social homogeneity, alterity animates a human rights of otherness, in which the ethical integrity of human identity and human rights rests upon a responsibility for-the-other and a critical vigilance towards alterity and its affective impact upon the subject and society.

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