Negotiating vulnerability through ‘animal’ and ‘child’: Agamben and Rancière at the limit of being human

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While ethics and justice are domains that concern the human, this paper argues that these spheres are organized and given meaning in terms of what lies at the limits of the human subject: children (excluded from political and economic life) and non-human animals. In this respect, the orientation to ethical life takes the form of a disavowal: in the attempt to negotiate human vulnerability, a subjectivity that defines itself in terms of the control of nature displaces its fragility onto children and animals. In the face of environmental catastrophe – and the threats to human security that accompany it – there is a shared sense of the tenuousness of life. An opportunity to comprehend this tenuousness is missed, however, to the extent that both children and animals are romanticized as “innocent”: ethically pure because morally and politically incapable. Because of their exclusion from the sphere of moral action, children and non-human animals have come to represent human vulnerability in general: a vulnerability associated with passivity, and a lack of precisely the control that has produced the problems we now face. This paper argues for a reconsideration of the passivity and vulnerability that lies at the “limits of being human” as the site of ethical and political change. The philosophy of Giorgio Agamben is deployed to think through the caesura between human and non-human animality, and the “passivity” or impotentiality that enables the ethical. Jacques Rancière is also drawn upon to consider the failure to recognize children and animals as political actors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-85
JournalAngelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


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