The Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, DC
6–7 March 2015

The Human Right to Die

From Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp to Pelican Bay State Prison, in recent years a discourse of human rights has been mobilized to justify the forced feeding of hunger striking prisoners. Keeping alive at all costs, the biopolitical logics of forced feeding are counterposed to suicide, which is presented as an aberration of human life, a temporary deviance in need of correction. Taking solitary confinement as its scene of study, this paper considers suicide as thanatopolitical—that is, as a threat to, interruption of, and corporeal critique of neoliberal biopolitics. But it is not simply death, in opposition to bare life, that is at stake for the suicide: it is what Blanchot theorizes as “the Openness of a community.” This Openness is a condition for human rights, which must be founded in community, and not upon bare biological life. In other words, “the right to have rights,” to use Arendt’s phrase, depends upon the relevance of speech, which is radically undermined by solitary confinement, but which nevertheless emerges in flickering moments of solidarity across the solitary archipelago. Conceived in this manner, the Openness of community must be underwritten by suicide—the only death that actively contests the biopolitical state power “to make live and let die.”


Rhetoric Society of America Conference
San Antonio, TX
22–26 May 2014

Pronouncing Death: Biopolitical Affirmations

What, then, calls me into question most radically? Not my relation to myself as finite or as the consciousness of being before death or for death, but my presence for another who absents himself by dying.     —Blanchot, The Unavowable Community 

The suicide bomber is unimaginable: irreparably irrational, radicalized, Islamicized. However, few figures circulate more widely in the War on Terror, operating as its ultimate raison d’être. This paper argues that the suicide bomber is the “unimaginable” and generalized face of “the terrorist”—enemies of the state who will their own deaths, revoking their lives, such that killing is little more than passively “letting die” those who are figured as “already dead,” unsurvivable. To kill is little more than pronouncing death, a biopolitical pronouncement spoken anonymously in the name of life itself. The sovereign spectacle of the scaffold is displaced by a disappearing public sphere: “black sites” like Guantanamo, the vaporized victims of drone strikes, clandestine burial at sea. Producing the death it disavows, foreclosing on compassion and identification with the dead, what hope is left for an ethical intervention in the War on Terror? In whose voice would it speak?