What's Left of Rights? Arendt and political ontology in the anthropocene


  • Margaret Werry University of Minnesota




My project in this paper is to make a perverse, post-human, and even queer return to Arendt’s thinking on the ontological foundation of rights, to ask: What is left of rights? Could the challenge of encompassing and representing non-human entities re-energize the political pursuits that have hinged on rights thinking? Post-humanist proponents of critical race theory, indigenous studies, disability and queer studies have thoroughly problematized the givenness of the liberal rights-bearing subject, and the attributes of sovereignty, autonomy, motility, reason, self-possession, intention, speech, and efficacy that have qualified it, defining the parameters of the human in the process by disqualifying bodies (the woman, the slave, the refugee, the disabled) deemed different. But they have, largely, stopped short of inquiring into a concept of rights that embraces a radically non-human subject, limiting themselves instead to arguing either for a continual expansion of the domain of the human beyond its foundational exclusions, or for an abandonment of rights altogether. But how might conceptualizing rights away from inherited presumptions about how a rights-bearing subject acts, manifests, or appears help us reclaim what was politically generative about the project of rights in the first place? Ultimately, do rights retain any validity if they do not also embrace the non-human? How might performance help us imagine non-human rights—help us figure, speak with and for, non-humans in the domain of the political? And what insight might we gain from revisiting Arendt in the light of post-humanist thought?

Author Biography

Margaret Werry, University of Minnesota

Margaret Werry is an Associate Professor in Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota.  She is the author of The Tourist State: Performing Leisure, Liberalism, and Race in New Zealand (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and articles on pedagogy, multimedia and immersive performance, indigenous and intercultural theatre, and indigenous performance activism against climate change in the island Pacific.  She is currently working on a short book entitled Theatre & Tourism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and another major project (The Performing Dead: Public Culture at the Borders of the Human) concerning the way we treat, trade, and display human remains in museums and popular culture.


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How to Cite

Werry, M. (2019). What’s Left of Rights? Arendt and political ontology in the anthropocene. Performance Philosophy, 5(1), 8-24. https://doi.org/10.21476/PP.2019.51275