Right & Rights: Notes on the Thought of Jean-Luc Nancy

by | 5 Mar 2013



Nancy repeatedly rejects the banal politico-legal insistence on human rights as the solution to every answer, suggesting that such a move is intimately bound to the ‘withdrawal of the political’ (See Politics/ The Political). However, he does not reject rights out of hand. In a recent text entitled ‘From the Imperative to Law’, he explains that:

The force of the form called ‘right’ resides in an act that is in the process of enacting a freedom of all and of each as a universal sharing, which is at work in such a sharing — and not just occupied with delimiting the spheres of free wills to protect one from the others. In other words, rights enact an active freedom, creative not only of community but also, more radically, of freedom. Right is freedom creating itself indefinitely. That is to say, creating a world, that is the same thing. (Nancy 2012, 17)

For Nancy, freedom is not a thing, it cannot be given or granted by governments.

“[F]reedoms” do not grasp the stakes of “freedom”. They delimit necessary conditions of contemporary human life without considering existence as such. (Nancy 1993, 2)

Freedom can only be performed. Thus, his sense of right has to be distinguished from the juridico-political form that is so often insisted upon. These would play out around a state, which bears the right (to govern) and which grants its subjects certain rights or freedoms. In this traditional sense, rights generate possessive individual subjects who may appeal to the sovereign through their legally recognised rights. However, in Nancy’s understanding, right ‘loses… any character of a law or a rule imposed by a power, as well as that of a property given and available for instincts or any other spontaneity of a living being.’ (Nancy 2012, 17–18) It can give no warranty for its correct use: there is no juridically given demand, nor a pre-determined sense of the human, that would allow us to know the correct model. Rather, rights are a demand which, when shared, become an act of rupturing the already given sense of the world. Today, Nancy tells us, the

“rights of man” are… not given, [they are] neither acquired nor natural; “right” is not defined, and “man” has no essence. Both, individually, are in act, in the process of making themselves. (Nancy 2012, 18)

In demanding rights we create a world of freedom. However, this freedom is only given in the act of creating. The right is not the mode of this creation that would remain untouched, but rather that which is itself created in the creation.


—Nancy, J-L (1993) The Experience of Freedom (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
Nancy, J-L (2012)From the imperative to law’ in Hutchens, B, Jean Luc Nancy, Justice, Legality and World (London: Continuum)


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