by Koen De Feyter and George Pavlakos (eds). Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2008. 318pp. Hardback. £45.00/$95.00. ISBN: 9781841138299.

Reviewed by Upendra Baxi, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick. Email: U.Baxi [at]


This book is a product of 2006 Utrecht Network Summer School on human rights, initiated by Matilde Callari Galli, Professor Emerita of Cultural Anthropology at Bologna. The network comprises as many as 33 European Universities ‘co-operating on the internationalization of higher education.’ (The reader is well advised to retain the loose leaf preface, which was surprisingly, for so scrupulous a publisher as Hart, ‘omitted in printing.’) Conversion of a summer school set of lectures into a serious academic publication is always a hazardous task, even when as the Preface to this book says that the ‘educational venture’ now develops ‘into a research enterprise.’ Truth to say, this book would have indeed benenfitted a great deal by some ruthless excisions. However, even the cognoscenti may find stimulating some contributions. This review article seeks to explain why.

The problem of group rights is rather well-worn, and so, in a manner of speaking, is the claim to multidisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity has for long been an object of mimetic theoretic desire and perhaps nowhere the desire becomes as acute as in the sphere of ‘human rights.’ What may constitute the distinctively human is a question surely as important as what rights humans may have. The production of the human may be, as Giorgio Agamben educates us, the function of the modern ‘anthropological machine’ which operates ‘through the opposition man/animal, human/inhuman.’ The machine ‘necessarily functions by means of an exclusion (which is also always already a capturing) and an inclusion (which is also always already an exclusion).’ And indeed ‘precisely because the human is already presupposed every time, the machine actually produces a kind of state of exception, a zone of indeterminacy in which the outside is nothing but the exclusion of an inside and the inside is in turn only the inclusion of an outside’ (Agamben 2004, 37).

Agamben may well have been describing the notion of group/minority rights, and indeed the critical conception of ‘inclusive exclusion’ does help us grasp better the history of the ‘modern,’ and the making/unmaking of the ‘contemporary’ human rights. Certainly as to the former, postcolonial and post-enlightenment ways of reading suggest that, since the inception of the ‘modern’ human rights, the practices of violent epistemic and social exclusion remained rampant: certain classes of people and specified individuals were designated as either non-human (akin to objects in nature) or sub-/inferior humans (lacking the faculties of free will and powers of [*476] reason) and were therefore placed always outside the pale of human rights. In contrast, the contemporary theory and practice of human rights tends towards an expansive normative inclusiveness. Those born as human possess thus an inherent right to dignified life, and what counts as such life remains exponentially inclusive (See, for a further analysis, Baxi 2009). Even so, troublesome exclusions remain in place for many claimants of new rights (for example, those claiming a human right to sexual orientation and conduct, the asylum seekers, internally displaced peoples, and undocumented aliens). Further, the normative triumphalism of contemporary human rights values, standards, and norms – precious as this is in terms of the growth of collective moral sentiment – remains elusive in terms of actual exercise, enjoyment, and ‘realization’ of human rights. Overall, this work specifically illustrates this new dialectic in terms of group or collective rights. Any readerly weariness, orders of a dull familiarity marked by ‘we-have-been-there-before’ may thus miss out on the embarrassment de riches here fully offered.

At the outset, it may not be uncharitable to suggest that this work does not directly address the issue of authorship of contemporary human rights norms and standards by communities of resistance and peoples in struggles. What matter here primarily are acts of manifold engagement with the normative histories of group/collective/minority rights; I would be sincerely delighted for readings that suggest otherwise.

Multidisciplinarity here registers dynamic tensions, even contractions. Danilo Turk, in his introduction to this work, describes a series of manifest tension articulated by the ‘process of human rights realization . . . expressed in relationships between individuals and the community and between the individual and a variety of social groups in which the individual exists,’ a site of complexity and contradiction between ‘a firm status of the individual’ and ‘his or her right . . . to belong’ (p.2). This insistence on ‘firm status’ names a part of the problem because it must always elevate the non-reducible individual self beyond the bounds of ascribed and even achieved identities. This work, moreover, does not contemplate the ‘firm status’ of firms – multinational and other corporations and related business entities – which at the selfsame moment appropriate the languages and logics of human rights (as Michel Foucault once descried this) for the ends of ‘hyperprofit’ and ‘infrapower,’ while repudiating all forms of accountability for human rights violations and human abuse. Clearly, then, the narratives of multidisciplinary grasp of human rights invite several points of departure from the liberal theory and history of contemporary human rights, even when these remain rather indeterminate concerning some points of arrival.

Multidisciplinarity remains far from an easy virtue. This volume suggests many ways in which it stands annexed to our specific burdens and responsibilities within our singular professional traditions. Thus, even Galli, while excitingly accentuating aspects of ‘cultural dynamics of contemporariness,’ primarily cautious us against the ‘anthropological method of the previous century’ and reminds us of the desperate need to grasp ‘the potential destiny of local identities, of local cultures,’ and [*477] the ‘infinite localisms that will be assumed’ by the continual ‘interface with the dizzying processes of globalisation’ (p.78). A ‘different logic’ demands a ‘universalization of difference’ pitted ‘in opposition to the principle of identity’ (p.79). Yet the ‘grammar of human rights’ that now encourages ‘automatic translation of expectations into rights’ that are very difficult to uphold in the absence of adequate tools of governance’ (p.79). Galli thus foregrounds the enormous and enabling pertinence of the discourse of ethnography of human rights and philosophic anthropology; from this we learn of ‘multiple diversities that ‘characterize institutions, [human rights oriented], customs, and practices’ (p.86; see generally, pp.76-86). This provocation finds a variety of responses from other contributions to the volume.

For Koen de Feyter, multidisciplinary approach remains important primarily because it allows viewing ‘human rights law’ from the standpoints provided by ‘other disciplines.’ But these latter refer in the main to anthropological or sociological approaches. There is little narrative space here for a conception of multidisciplinarity that more fully acknowledges hybrid movements of thought represented by law and literature, law and economics (e.g., Baxi 2003), the craft of doing jural and juridical histories, and further law and technoscience traditions (e.g., Baxi 2007).

To say this is not to diminish de Feyter’s important contribution (pp.20-34). His essay focusing upon the ways in which recourse to ‘other disciplines’ may assist the ‘realization’ of contemporary human rights may best be described as instrumental multidisciplinarity. I do not sense its other in this volume – that is the pertinence of what I may crudely name here as intrinsic multidisciplinarity. Even so, it is not clear why contributions from the sociology of law may not assist the development of a comparative social theory of human rights. The contrast between the law-in-the books and the law-in-action, the notions of the limits of effective legal action, the promise and the peril of such ‘legalization’ (e.g., Meckled-Garcia and Cali 2006), and the problem of studying impact of legal norms on political and and social conduct do not just affect our understandings of human rights but all forms of modern law ( see, generally, Stone 1966).

Equally crucial, multidisciplinary approaches surely ought to revisit the potential contribution that human rights theory and practice may make to the doing of social theory. I remain rather diffident concerning the achievement of this volume in this sphere consistent with a sincere respect for the many worthwhile contributions of this volume..

The broadly empirical contributions offered by Part IV remain diversely instructive. Rebecca Pates situates poignantly in the contexts of ‘prostitution’ the ‘search for the right rights,’ juxtaposing ‘local epistemologies’ with ‘creative hybridity’ (Chapter 8). The cameo study, by Giovanna Guerzoni and Daniela Soci, focuses on a Italian research-action project, ‘Adopt A Right,’ in the context of school education and child rights (pp.198-204) and speaks further to the imponderables of the so-called human [*478] rights education/leaning at micro-level. So does the rather rich programmatic suggested by Bruno Ricco and Giuspee Scandurra, in the troubled contexts of migrations and social exclusion, constructing some dire forms of ‘citizenship’ (Chapter 10). Lisanne Wliken offers good insights concerning recent histories of specific EC narratives of the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FEUN) and specifically of the little known European Bureau For Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL) (respectively at 97-98 and 100-101). The messages so richly offered transcend the terms of the EC discourse for global South societies, ravished by violent disorders of human rights passions and struggles for linguistic and cultural autonomy. I invite ‘readerly’ attention as well to other contributions, especially Anca Minscu (addressing inter-group determinants: Chapter 11) and the essays in Part V, even when traversing the all too familiar ground. Overall, the authors direct attention to what Galli refers to as ‘infinite localisms,’ though with vastly varied contextual messages.

Respecting all along other contributions to this volume, perhaps it may be justly said that the discursive piece de resistance is offered by George Pavlakos concerning ‘non-individualism and rights (Chapter 7). Pavlkaos offers a justified critical move away from what he calls ‘shallow communitarianism’ (pp.156-159), followed by a remarkable set of reflections concerning the ‘practice theory’ (pp.159-164), and supplemented further by some exemplary formulations about ‘persons and communities’ (pp.163-170). Various communitarian thinkers may well contest the point that their work, after all, does not always ‘rise above the set of polemical remarks’ (p.155). Even granting Pavlakos’ critique of human rights praxes in which the activist performativities remain not ‘readily fathomable by the subjects that partake of them’(p.161), the jury may well remain out concerning what is described here as ‘a better means for formulating what distinguishes normative from non-normative . . . conceptions of practice’(p.163).

While few may call into question the claim that ‘personhood is a normative concept which is linked with a non-individualist conception of reason’ and the accompanying notion of human rights agency as a ‘capacity to handle reasons’ (p.165), this neo-Kantian narrative runs the risk of ignoring the sentimental ‘unreason’ of many practices of non-normative human rights and social movement folks. The otherwise persuasive discussion concerning ‘universalization’ and autonomy’ pp. 167-170) suggesting that personhood . . . is intertwined with the idea of universalization’ (p.170) after all seems to provide little, or no, deliberative attention to the forms of politics of desire that so insistently contributes to the contemporary human rights implosion. A ‘practice theory’ may not be complete without a full account of sentimental and passional practices of reason. As critical race and feminist theorists would altogether too readily ( and rightly) remind us all neither ‘universalization’ nor ‘autonomy’ talk may any longer afford to ignore or discount struggles as an aspect of practice theory. This work offers grist to the mill of that which Pierre Bourdieu (1997) critically named as ‘theory of practice.’Put another way, the suffering [*479] humanity’s praxes ought to remain central to any ‘practice theory.’

Agamben, Giorgio. 2004. THE OPEN: MAN AND ANIMAL (trans. Kevin Attell). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Baxi, Upendra. 2009. THE FUTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS (3rd ed). Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Baxi, Upendra. 2007. HUMAN RIGHTS IN A POSTHUMAN WORLD. Delhi/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baxi, Upendra. 2003. ‘The Colonial Inheritance,’ in Pierre Legrand and Roderick Munday (ed.). COMPARATIVE LEGAL STUDIES: TRADITIONS AND TRANSITIONS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 46-75.

Bourdieu, Pieere. 1997. OUTLINE OF A THEORY OF PRATICE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Trans, Richard Nice).

Meckled-García, Saladin, and Basak Çali (ed.). 2006. THE LEGALIZATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS: MULTIDISCIPLINARY APPROACHES. London: Routledge.

Stone, Julius. 1966. SOCIAL DIMENSIONS OF LAW AND JUSTICE. Sydney: Maitland Publication.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Upendra Baxi.