ChapterPDF Available

The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging



Chapter 2 from Danielle Celermajer and Alexandre Lefebvre (eds.) The Subject of Human Rights, Stanford University Press (Stanford Studies in Human Rights).
The Subject of Human Rights
Edited by Danielle Celermajer and Alexandre Lefebvre
Stanford University Press
Stanford, California
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb iiiCelermajer-1st_pp.indb iii 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
Stanford University Press
Stanford, California
©  by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or in any
information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of
Stanford University Press.
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archival-quality paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Celermajer, Danielle, editor. | Lefebvre, Alexandre, – editor.
Title:  e subject of human rights / edited by Danielle Celermajer and Alexandre
Other titles: Stanford studies in human rights.
Description: Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, . | Series: Stanford
studies in human rights | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identi ers:   (print) |   (ebook) |  
(cloth) |   (paperback) |   (epub)
Subjects: : Human rights. | Human rights—Philosophy. | Subject (Philosophy)
Classi cation:   .  (print) |   (ebook) |  —dc
 record available at
 ebook record available at
Typeset by Motto Publishing Services in / Minion Pro
Cover design by {cover designer}
Cover credit {art caption/source/credit}
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb ivCelermajer-1st_pp.indb iv 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
Foreword vii
Introduction: Bringing the Subject of Human Rights into Focus
Danielle Celermajer and Alexandre Lefebvre
1 e Relational Self As the Subject of Human Rights 
Jennifer Nedelsky
2 e Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, HumanRights,
Belonging 
Mark Goodale
3 Are Women Animals?”:  e Rise and Rise of (Animal) Rights 
Joanna Bourke
4 Indigenous Peoples As the Subject of Human Rights 
Danielle Celermajer and Michael Dodson
5 “Escaped”: Gendered Precarity and Human Rights Recognition 
Wendy S. Hesford
6 Training Subjects for Human Rights 
Danielle Celermajer
7 Who Deserves Inalienable Rights?:  e Subjectivity
of Violent State O cials and the Implications for
Human Rights Protection 
Rachel Wahl
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb vCelermajer-1st_pp.indb v 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
vi Contents
8 Human Rights As  erapy: e Healing Paradigms
of Transitional Justice 
Ronald Niezen
9 Cinematic Aesthetics and the Subjects of Human Rights:
On Eliane Ca é’s Era o Hotel Cambridge 
Andrew C. Rajca
10 Human Rights As Spiritual Exercises 
Alexandre Lefebvre
11 e Child Subject of Human Rights 
Linde Lindkvist
12 e Secular Subject of Human Rights 
Jenna Reinbold
13 e Subject of Human Rights: An Interview with Samuel Moyn 
Samuel Moyn and Alexandre Lefebvre
Notes 
Bibliography 
Contributors 
Index 
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb viCelermajer-1st_pp.indb vi 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
MY FIRST REALIZATION that the subject of human rights represented a pro-
found problem for both theory and practice came at an unusual time in an
unusual place. I was conducting ethnographic  eldwork in a remote region of
the Bolivian altiplano during the late s, a period in which international
and transnational development was being recast as a form of human rights
promotion.  is historic shi carried with it a number of important con-
sequences, not the least of which was the fact that actually existing human
rights—in all of its discursive, ethical, and social complexity—was taking root
in far- ung places, well beyond the boundaries of legal and political institu-
tions, and in relation to coextensive processes of mobilization around partic-
ularly vulnerable populations.
It was this w ider context that a ltered my early resea rch. In vi llages through-
out rural Bolivia, local understandings of con ict resolution and social rela-
tions were being upended by the infusion of the new idea of “human rights,”
which was being di used by an alphabet soup of national, international, and
transnational actors as a sort of replacement worldview akin to a new religion,
a new and emancipatory way through which people in the region—mostly
Quechua and Aymara-speaking subsistence agro-pastoralists—could and
should view themselves, their communities, and their futures. Without hav-
ing planned to do so in advance, I was required to reorient my research on
this unstable landscape, on which Bolivian peasants were, I realized later, be-
ing taught—through seemingly innumerable capacity-building workshops of-
ten organized in dusty, open-air central plazas—to view themselves and their
fellow villagers as fundamentally di erent kinds of subjects, subjects of hu-
man rights.
I subsequently followed several of these nascent subjects of human rights
over many months and was able to observe the ways in which they grappled—
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb viiCelermajer-1st_pp.indb vii 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
viii Foreword
in subtle and previously theoretically unaccountable ways—with the growing
challenge (and social pressure) to make human rights an important new part
of the region’s legal, political, and social realities. Yet as the s gave way to
the s, and the s gave way to later periods of crisis, questioning, and
now reappraisal, what was (and remains) clear to me is that the kinds of mi-
cropractices of subject-making and subjecti cation revealed through the di-
verse project of human rights were never fully confronted, their far-reaching
implications never adequately conceptualized, despite a number of tantaliz-
ing e orts in the literature.
is is why Danielle Celermajer and Alexandre Lefebvre’s edited collec-
tion e Subject of Human Rights comes as such an immense revelation. At
just the moment in which global debates over the future of human rights
have become increasingly, and unfortunately, divided between approaches
that would jettison the entire framework of human rights on the basis of one
structural defect or another, and those that mount a spirited and (on my read-
ing, at least) quixotic defense of black-letter and orthodox human rights as the
best hope for global justice, the collective chapters of e Subject of Human
Rights force open a radically di erent orientation to the question.
Instead of treating the problems and possibilities of human rights as a le-
gal or political or even sociolegal framework, one whose relation to subjects—
individual, collective, relational—is both analytically and practically ancil-
lary, e Subject of Human Rights compels something like a decisive reversal.
What the volume’s chapters convincingly and liberatingly demand is that hu-
man rights be formally reimagined and accepted for what they have been, in
practice, all along: a powerful, if fraught, means through which subjects-as-
social-beings are forged, become agentive, and take their place among exist-
ing social, moral, class, and gender assemblages.
By reconceptualizing the grounds of human rights in this way, the chap-
ters in e Subject of Human Rights point to a wholly di erent way of think-
ing about the future of human rights, one that is keenly attuned to what the
editors describe as the “material and discursive conditions of intelligibility”
through which the three pillars—the who, how, and what—of human rights
subject-making are revealed.  e result is a landmark for interdisciplinary
human rights studies that is also something arguably more important and po-
tentially transformative: a textual blueprint that carries with it the promise of
“redeem[ing] rights in a di erent mode.”
Mark Goodale, Series Editor
Stanford Studies in Human Rights
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb viiiCelermajer-1st_pp.indb viii 3/31/20 12:52 PM3/31/20 12:52 PM
The Misbegotten Monad
Anthropology, HumanRights, Belonging
Mark Goodale
IN AUGUST 2015, I conducted a series of ethnographic interviews with Efrén
Choque Capuma, an elected magistrate on Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitu-
tional Tribunal (TCP). e TCP was an innovative new legal institution that
had been created by Bolivia’s  Constitution as part of the wider process
of radical transformation that had begun with the unprecedented  elec-
tion of Evo Morales and the ascendance to power of his Movement for Social-
ism (MAS) party.  e TCP was neither a conventional court of last resort with
appellate functions nor a simple “constitutional court” with a responsibility
to ensure t hat government provisions complied with constitutiona l mandates.
Rather, the TCP had been envisioned as an institution that would serve as
a sort of juridical incubator in which the normative principles for the new
plurinational state would be proposed, debated, re ned, and ultimately im-
plemented through legal and political policies.
Among the group of TCP magistrates, a mix of lawyers, social activists,
and political functionaries chosen directly by the people, Choque was an ex-
traordinary  gure. At the time, he was a  y-nine-year-old former peasant
who had grown up in an isolated corner of Oruro Department and eventually
earned his law degree from one of the oldest law faculties in Latin America—
that of Sucre’s Universidad Mayor, Real y Ponti cia de San Francisco Xavier
de Chuquisaca, founded in . His o ce at the TCP was decorated with an
astonishing collection of cultural artifacts that expressed his pride in hav-
ing traveled the path—like the president—from the windswept altiplano to
the centers of power of what Nancy Postero has called an “indigenous state.”
During a more general discussion about the relationship between law and
revolutionary change in Bolivia, I asked Choque speci cally about the role of
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 48Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 48 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 49
human rights. One of the more intriguing developments in the post- pe-
riod in Bolivia had been the extent to which the country’s human rights in-
stitutions—most notably the Defensoría del Pueblo, Bolivia’s national human
rights institution, or NHRI—had been marginalized and even suppressed by
the MAS government, despite the fact that the widespread di usion of human
rights discourse had played a signi cant role in the emergence of and support
for Morales as a new type of political leader during the mid-s. Choque’s
response was revealing:
e fact is that human rights is the law of the elites, like the positive law more
generally, as Ive been saying. e problem with human rights is that they
don’t open spaces for generating intercultural justice [or law].  e other prob-
lem with human rights and positive law is that they treat indigenous people
like objects, not subjects. But we are our own subjects of law and jurispru-
dence. It’s better to build law from the bottom to the top, not from the top to
the bottom, as it’s always been.
For purposes of the current chapter (and the volume), two aspects of Choque’s
critique of human rights are salient. First, he points to an alternative epis-
temology, one in which the conceptual grounding of human rights is built
“from the bottom to the top.” Second, and even more apropos of the volume’s
concerns, Choque’s critique of human rights centers precisely on the prob-
lem of subjectivity, yet in a double sense—who is the subject of human rights,
and who gets to decide? For Choque, as with many organic intellectuals, par-
ticularly in the Global South at the “capillary ends,” human rights promotion
expresses itself as a particular form of global power. In this sense, the an-
swers to these questions—who is the subject of human rights, and who gets
to decide?—come with practical consequences that can alternately circum-
scribe or empower people like Choque but which are nevertheless anything
but abstract.
My chapter is inspired by Choque’s critique of human rights and its dual
call to interrogate the limitations of existing conceptions and to work col-
lectively toward alternatives that are grounded in cultural and political con-
text, historical contingency, and the possibility for a thoroughgoing cross-
cultural hermeneutics informed by a critical anthropology of human rights.
To these ends, I begin the chapter by brie y describing its epistemological
orientation in relation to the anthropological study of the practice of human
rights.  e chapter then turns to the question of human rights subjectivity
and explores what I argue is a paradox—both conceptual and phenomenolog-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 49Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 49 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
50 Chapter 2
ical—at the heart of postwar and post–Cold War human rights projects. To
explain this paradox, I draw metaphoricallyand somewhat playfullyon
the curious category of the “monad” developed by the late-seventeenth-cen-
tury, early-eighteenth-century polymath intellectual Gottfried Wilhelm Leib-
niz. As I suggest, the human rights subject at the center of dominant accounts
of human rights—the kind that Choque would have us overcome—has, like
Leibniz’s monad, likewise su ered from the impossibility of encapsulating a
closed and totalizing (normative) universe while at the same time re ecting
the whole (human rights) system.  e chapter then surveys work from the
contemporary anthropology of human rights by way of gesturing toward—
rather than formally developing—an alternative conception in which human
rights subjectivity is no longer seen as centered in rights bearers (individua l or
collective) but rather in networks of relationships and the speci c values that
they embody.  e chapter concludes with a brief section that provocatively re-
imagines human rights as a system of rights that does not center on a concep-
tion of the subject formulated in the abstract.
Paranormativity and the Practice of Human Rights
Before I examine a problematic paradox at the center of orthodox accounts of
human rights—that is, those derived, even indirectly and a er many decades,
from the founding postwar instruments—something should be said about the
epistemological orientation that informs the chapter. First, it is an approach
to knowledge about human rights that is anchored in the practice of human
rights. So what is meant by “the practice of human rights”?
In the introduction to our volume e Practice of Human Rights (),
Sally Engle Merry and I de ned it as “all the many ways in which social ac-
tors ... talk about, advocate for, criticize, study, legally enact, [and] vernacu-
larize ... the idea of human rights in its di erent forms.” By “social actors,”
we meant “the di erent individuals, institutions, states, international agen-
cies ... without privileging any one type of human rights actor: the peasant
intellectual in Bolivia who agitates on behalf of derechos humanos is analyti-
cally equal to the executive director of Human Rights Watch.” And as we ar-
gued, this way of understanding the practice of human rights has implica-
tions for how the relationship between practice and theory is conceptualized:
[N]on-elites—peasant intellectuals, village activists, government workers, ru-
ral politicians, neighborhood council members—[can act as] important hu-
man rights theorists, so that the idea of human rights is perhaps most con-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 50Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 50 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 51
sequentially [being] shaped and conceptualized outside the centers of elite
discourse, even if what can be understood as the organic philosophy of hu-
man rights is o en mistakenly described as “practice (i.e., in false opposi-
tion to “theory”).
irteen years on, this is still, with some modi cations, how the practice of
human rights would be understood from an anthropological perspective. Yet
what was not clear at the time was how conventional this approach was when
viewed within the longer history of human rights. Recent research on an im-
portant process undertaken by UNESCO in  and  that was intended
to shape the form and content of what became the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR) reveals the extent to which leading political  gures,
intellectuals, theologians, labor activists, and social reformers, among others,
argued for a cross-cultural and pluralistic approach to human rights in these
early postwar years.  is plural vision was promoted as a critical alternative
to the o cial process that was taking place at the heart of the UN system in
the United States, a process that the  rst leaders of UNESCO believed to be
overly political, exclusionary, and dominated by powerful national interests.
e second epistemological point is also an ethical one. In the same way as
the UNESCO committee attempted to produce a statement of human rights
principles that was pluralistic, re ective of global normative diversity, and
sensitive to the so power of international institutions, the approach here is
likewise animated by a particular understanding of legitimacy.  e argument
is that normative assertions that aspire to cross-cultural and historical ap-
plicability must be derived from the everyday realities and diversity of what
Webb Keane describes as “ethical life.”  is is not to say that normative prop-
ositions and their critical alternatives must be derived empirically from big
global data sets on questions about, for example, human rights universality,
since this would be based on several false assumptions. But it does militate
against the adequacy—as understood anthropologically—of the kind of de-
ductivism that has characterized much of the philosophy and legal theory of
human rights, in which “practice” means simply—and only—textual refer-
ence to something other than the norm itself (e.g., reference to “the state” or
“the law” or “all moral claims”).
Finally, the approach to human rights knowledge behind this chapter is
committed to the recognition of new forms of solidarity. By “new forms of
solidarity, what I intend is an analytical orientation to the practice of hu-
man rights that is inspired by debates within anthropology around the rela-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 51Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 51 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
52 Chapter 2
tionship between scholar and research “subject.” As a response to changes in
these relationships, Douglas Holmes and George E. Marcus introduced the
concept of “para-ethnography in recognition of the fact that “our subjects
are themselves engaged in intellectual labors that resemble approximately or
are entirely indistinguishable from our own methodological practices.”  is
shi in the terms of anthropological research, according to Holmes and Mar-
cus, demands that we treat our subjects as “epistemic partners who are not
merely informing our research but who participate in shaping its theoretical
agendas and its methodological exigencies.”  ey envision new “collabora-
tive con gurations” in which knowledge within domains such as science, en-
gineering, law,  nance, and medicine, among others, is produced through de-
centralized and collaborative exchanges that stand apart from the traditional
boundaries that de ne and privilege authoritative knowledge.
As adapted to the practice of human rights, what might be called a “para-
normative approach would likewise suggest that the task be reimagined as
one of developing “collaborative con gurations” in which academic theo-
rists, international lawyers, transnational activists, and so on collaborate with
the diverse range of social actors for whom the “practice of human rights”
is as much strategic as it is analytical and normative. To be clear, this is
not, by extension, an argument against orthodox expertise as such; indeed,
I think Holmes and Marcus are mistaken in their suggestion that a para-
ethnographic approach to knowledge has general application. Conventional
expertise plays a critical role in the way knowledge is produced in science and
many other technical  elds. But knowledge about the what, where, and who
of human rights does not seem to me to be of the same type as, for example,
knowledge of the properties of irregular geometric surfaces or the structure of
DNA or the rate of human-induced climate change. On the contrary, human
rights knowledge would appear to be deepened through the kinds of collab-
orative con gurations that, to a certain extent, have been in place all along, as
the anthropology of human rights demonstrates.
Of Permanent Living Re ections on a Windowless World
With these epistemological and ethical considerations in mind, let me turn
to the problem of human rights subjectivity. What the anthropology of hu-
man rights reveals is that the actual diversity of normative practices that take
shape in reference to human rights, practices that re ect a certain connotative
power, do so against a particular account of the self that is inscribed in fun-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 52Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 52 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 53
damental human rights instruments and their political extensions. I will call
this a monadic conception of the self, in recognition of the fact that in both its
conceptual contours and, more importantly, in the problematic way the hu-
man rights subject—as opposed to the subject of human rights—is meant to
re ect the whole, it curiously resembles the unit of analysis that formed the
basis for Leibniz’s solution to the so-called mind-body problem, something
that had occupied early modern thinkers such as René Descartes and Baruch
Spinoza.  e gesture to Leibniz’s monadology here is purely metaphorical; I’m
obviously not arguing that Leibniz’s ontology shaped the conception of sub-
jectivity behind the “human” of mid-twentieth-century human rights. Never-
the less, there is one key resemblance that merits examining, since it su ers
from the same conceptual weakness, one that creates a structural tension be-
tween what might be thought of as the codi ed self and the actual self across
the historical trajectory and pluralism of human rights practice.
is is the idea that the human rights subject is conceived as a normative-
ontological being who embodies the entire normative system, without onto-
logical overlap or necessary interconnection with other like subjects.  at is,
the monadic conception of human rights assumes both ontological autonomy
and omneity. When Article  of the UDHR asserts that “all human beings are
born free and equal in dignity and rights,” it conjures a world of ontologically
distinct (human) beings who encapsulate, in themselves, and without refer-
ence to others, the entire normative system that (deductively) follows.  is
monadic image of the human rights subject is not modi ed at all by what fol-
lows in Article , which is entirely supplementary and says nothing about the
conception of the monadic human rights subject that precedes it—“ ey [hu-
man beings] ... should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” In
other words, human rights subjects might or might not act toward one an-
other in a spirit of brotherhood; in either case, the ontological status of the
human rights subject remains independent and normatively complete.
Note that this formulation of the human rights subject does not depend
on the type or kind of human right in question. With both civil and political,
as well as social, economic, and cultural rights, the conception of self remains
monadic; what does change is the nature of the intended conditions that fol-
low. Whereas the should of civil and political human rights implies simply the
absence of violative treatment, the should of social, economic, and cultural
rights implies assemblages of (largely state) action and investment. Yet even
in an imagined community in which networks of state institutions ensure the
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 53Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 53 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
54 Chapter 2
protection and  ourishing of social, economic, and cultural rights, they do so
in ways that leave untouched the ontological conception that grounds the in-
dividual human rights subject.  is is what it means, among other things, to
conceive of the human rights subject as a “bearer” of rights.
e essential point for my argument is that the unit at which the rights
are believed to repose is imagined as a complete—and completed—normative
universe, entire unto itself, without necessary relation to other self-contained
normative embodiments. Like Leibniz’s monads, human rights subjects are
de ned as normative beings whose relation to others is purely ancillary. For
example, the  rst and last human being in the world was and will be a human
rights bearer, and her normative status as such is not altered in the slightest
by the fact that she was and will be the only one of her kind—however brie y.
is is the essence of the monadic conception of the human rights subject
that, I argue, forms the foundation of orthodox postwar accounts. As Leibniz
puts it, in relation to his mysterious monads, “there is nothing which can be
moved f rom one position to another, and it is i mpossible to conceive of any in-
ternal motion, which could be set up, redirected, increased, or diminished in-
side it.... Monads have no windows to let anything in or out by.”
Yet the normative autonomy of the human rights subject forms only the
rst part of what I argue amounts to a paradox at the heart of the postwar hu-
man rights project.  is paradox comes into full view only when the system
as a whole is considered. If the human rights subject is conceived as a closed
normative universe, entire unto herself, what is her relation to other human
rights subjects?  is was the same problem that occupied Leibniz, one that he
fudged by proposing that monads came into being programmed with what he
called “pre-established harmony.” He unconvincingly used this conceit to ex-
plain the vague condition of “interconnectedness, or this accommodation of
all created things to each, and of each to all the rest.” Even more, this predis-
position to coexist among windowless monads was the reason that, accord-
ing to Leibniz, each monad was “a permanent living mirror of the universe.”
Wi thout h aving to m ak e a d eto ur in to t he co mpl exit ies o f ea rly- e ight een th-
century metaphysics, I believe that a similar paradoxical weakness a ects the
status of the human rights subject: despite being normatively sovereign and
autopoietically closed, the human rights subject is nevertheless imagined as
“endowed” with an intellectual and moral sensibility that predisposes her to a
prevailing altruism towards others—that is, to be predisposed to “act toward
one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Even more problematically, from this
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 54Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 54 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 55
perspective, this unjusti ed altruism, which is imagined to pass from one hu-
man rights subject to the next, is then projected—again, in the UDHR—to
culminate not as a “permanent living mirror of the universe” but as the “foun-
dation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Since I am an anthropologist and not a political philosopher or an intellec-
tual historian, it is beyond the scope of my interests and capabilities to trace
the origins of this monadic conception of the human rights subject. What
concerns me here is how this conception of the human rights subject creates
an ever-present tension with the subject of human rights—that is, the norma-
tive subject(s) that emerges within the practice of human rights. In the next
section, I ask what the anthropology of human rights has to say about this
tension before considering what it might suggest about an alternative concep-
tion of human rights subjectivity, one interwoven into the fabric of actually
existing, if highly diverse practices of “ordinary ethics.”
The Spirit of the Norm
By the end of the  rst decade a er the Cold War, the discipline of anthropol-
ogy had developed two distinct orientations to human rights. In the  rst, an-
thropologists had created a distinctive disciplinary network of human rights
activism that was concerned with the promotion of “emancipatory cultural
politics.”  is network was heavily in uenced by developments within the
American Anthropological Association (AAA), which had promulgated a
formal Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights in  in order to
structure and give philosophical form to these interventions.  e basic argu-
ment of the  Declaration was that anthropologists had an ethical obliga-
tion to use their cultural knowledge and close relations with research interloc-
utors to advance a putative “human right to culture” as the basis for political
and social mobilization by marginalized and vulnerable populations.
In the second orientation, anthropologists had turned to human rights
as an emergent domain of legal, political, and ethical practice, o en in the
course of conducting ethnographic research on other questions around inter-
national institutions, truth and reconciliation processes, social movements,
and development regimes, among others.  e ethnography of human rights
thus developed largely serendipitously, at least until the early s, when the
study of human rights became well established as a subspecialty within the
wider anthropology of law and politics. It is to the ethnography of human
rights, therefore, that I turn in order to draw out several lessons for a more
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 55Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 55 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
56 Chapter 2
general reconsideration of human rights subjectivity. To do so, I brie y survey
three case studies: Shannon Speed’s ethnography of the place of human rights
during the Zapatista rebellion against the Mexican state; Joel Robbins’s analy-
sis of meanings of justice in Papua New Guinea; and my own recent study of
rights subjectivity within Bolivia’s “third revolution.”
In her study of the in uence of human rights among the indigenous com-
munities of Chiapas, Mexico, in the decade a er the Zapatista uprising be-
gan in , Speed documents what happened when human rights NGOs and
hundreds of foreign activists  ooded into Chiapas.  ese human rights ac-
tors were drawn by their support for the claims of indigenous peasants who
had su ered decades of persecution and neglect by the ruling Institutional
Revolutionary Party, reports of atrocities committed against local activists
by military and paramilitary forces, and the  gure of the charismatic Za-
patista spokesman and ideologist Subcomandante Marcos. As she describes
this density of human rights activism in the region, by the late s, “there
were ten independent human rights organizations ... ,  ve national human
rights NGOs, and at least nine international ones with a permanent or peri-
odic presence in Chiapas.”
As Speed observes, Zapatista community leaders, both men and women,
took inspiration from what they learned about human rights to develop a ro-
bust local human rights practice that was grounded in what Speed describes
as an “organic reformulation.”  is reformulation was one in which human
rights subjectivity was derived from human rights practice; that is, for the Za-
patistas, the subject of human rights crystallized only in the course of making
claims on behalf of the community. As Speed explains, indigenous activists
came to see human rights as a form of political action in defense of local inter-
ests against the domination of the Mexican state. According to the Zapatistas,
human rights existed only “in their exercise” for productive ends on behalf of
the community. At the same time, the Zapatistas rejected the idea that hu-
man rights bearing could be equated with personhood, since local concep-
tions of belonging were shaped by what might be understood as an agentive
social ontology, one in which identity was de ned through both social inclu-
sion and social action on behalf of the community.
In a second case study, a re ection on alternative conceptions of justice
in Papua New Guinea, Robbins analyzes two legal spheres in which local un-
derstandings of rights subjectivity clashed—in di erent ways and to greater
or lesser degrees—with those of both the Papuan state and international hu-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 56Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 56 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 57
man rights institutions.  e rst are “village courts” in West Sepik Province,
in which traditional dispute resolution processes take place under the careful
watch of a state “district o ce. e second is the “compo girl” case, which be-
came something of a cause célèbre among international human rights activ-
ists when the Papuan Supreme Court invalidated a forced marriage in com-
pensation for a killing on the grounds that local justice practices “must give
way to the dictates of ... modern national laws.”
In observing dispute resolution processes in the West Sepik village courts,
as well as the national and international debates over the competing norma-
tive values at stake in the compo girl case, Robbins derives three elements
that fundamentally distinguish Papuan rights subjectivity from that associ-
ated with what I have described as the monadic human rights subject.  e
rst is that the individual qua rights-bearing subject does not exist as such,
at least traditionally, in Papua New Guinea. Rather, rights and duties, which
are tightly bound, inhere in relationships that enmesh people in vast networks
of multigenerational kinship relations, ancestor reverence, and marriage. As
Robbins puts it, “creating, realizing ... , and maintaining relationships is the
thing Melanesians most value.... [Relationships] play a role equiva lent to that
played by the individual in Western societies (where people are expected to
most want to create, realize, and maintain their individual selves).”
Second, Melanesians do draw a distinction between that which is natu-
ral or innate to people and that which is not, but in doing so, they construct
a very di erent account of normative subjectivity than the one expressed in
orthodox human rights. What is considered innate for Melanesians, accord-
ing to Robbins, is a person’s position in a web of relations to which a person
has obligations. In addition, personhood is also understood as the capacity
to catalyze these existing relations in the form of new relationships through
marriage, dispute resolution, and the care of the elderly so that subjectivity is
de ned by this dual human essence: a preexisting relationality, present from
birth, and the latent potential to transform relationships over the course of a
life. Robbins adapts Marilyn Strathern’s formulation of this account of nor-
mative subjectivity to emphasize its radical non-individualism: “in Melane-
sia, persons are microcosms of relationships....  ey are born as images or
containers of the relationships that made them.”
Finally, Robbins’s study of clashing conceptions of rights and normative
belonging in Papua New Guinea shows how “rights of relationships” are ex-
pected to be nurtured through regular gi exchanges that are structured by
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 57Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 57 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
58 Chapter 2
reciprocal giving and receiving. Yet what is most important about what might
be thought of as “normative reciprocity” is not the things themselves that
are exchanged in a way that is meant to leave no one either better or worse
o materially (for example, people engage in the daily exchange of food that
they can easily produce themselves). Rather, as Marcel Mauss demonstrated
in his iconic  study of what he called “forms and functions of exchange
in archaic societies,” it is the way in which the performance of relationality
through gi exchange involves the circulation of the “spirit” of things (called
the “hau” in the Maori language).  e spirit is the moral and social imper-
ative that is embodied in relationships and moves within a complicated se-
ries of exchanges that are never, in a sense, completed: one particular act of
exchange both is compelled by what has come before and anticipates those
e nal sounding from the anthropology of human rights comes from
my own recent study of the place of law within Bolivia’s constitutional revo-
lution. As we have already seen, the question of human rights subjectivity is
one that occupied the attention of key protagonists in what is known locally as
el proceso de cambio (“the process of change”). Even more, the emphasis on le-
gal pluralism both in the constitution and in the practice of the Plurinational
Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) points to the possibility of many alternative
conceptions of normative subjectivity coexisting at the same time. Here, how-
ever, I want to highlight yet another aspect of Bolivia’s radical experiment in
sociolegal alterity: the way in which rights and obligations are embedded in
a wider cosmovisión, or worldview, in which social life is believed to re ect
certain ontological truths about the universe itself. Frank Salomon described
this understanding of interconnectedness in Andean cultures as a “uni ed
biological-technological productivity [that] unfolds seamlessly from human-
telluric bonds through matrimonial alliance outward to very wide regional
alignments and toward cosmological forces.”
According to this vision, the normative subject is conceived in terms of
nested complementary pairs, beginning with the married couple and radiat-
ing out to culminate in a cosmic structure that is itself composed of a com-
plementary division between terrestrial and celestial space.  ere are two as-
pects of this broader understanding of rights and obligations—both of which
are codi ed in the  Bolivian Constitution—that bear most directly on a
(re)consideration of human rights subjectivity.  e rst is that the ethical or
good or socially valued life is lived in terms of a fundamental—that is, on-
tological—complementarity.  is means that subjectivity itself is understood
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 58Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 58 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 59
only through the realization of this multilayered, dyadic interconnectedness.
e common phrase in Quechua that expresses this basic interdependence
is “Tukuy ima qhariwarmi,” or “Everything is man-woman” (in the English
translation, the absence of the conjunction “and” is the key to this phrase).
e second is the way in which the system of “normative complementar-
ity” (to add to that of “normative reciprocity” above) in Bolivia does not privi-
lege the human subject at all; indeed, human beings as such are merely impor-
tant actors within a broader holistic ontology that di ers radically from the
one that Philippe Descola described as “naturalism.”  is is the ontology (out
of four types) that has marked the West since antiquity, in which a rigid dis-
tinction is made between “nature” and “culture,” a distinction that treats hu-
man beings as unique among all other living and non-living things. On the
contrary, at the center of Bolivia’s “indigenous state” is a conception of being
in which a vital life force, which has its source in the Pachamama (very loosely
translated as “Mother Earth”), is nourished in perpetuity through an endless
series of cosmic cycles marked by millenary renewals called Pachakuti (the
revolutionary government of Evo Morales identi es itself as a marker of the
most recent Pachakuti).
So to return to the question of human rights subjectivity: What do these
illustrative case studies from the anthropology of human rights reveal about
the possibility for radically non-monadic conceptions of human rights, those
that would overcome what I have described as a paradoxical weakness at the
heart of the postwar human rights project? Before describing what I see as
three main implications, it is important to underscore the fact that alterna-
tives to the orthodox conception of human rights have actually ourished
within the practice of human rights, as we have seen. Indeed, it has been the
contrasts between human rights theory (o en expressed through human
rights law) and human rights practice—understood ethnographically—that
have provided the basis for imagining what might lie beyond.
Yet rather than thinking of alternatives to dominant conceptions of hu-
man rights as a form of opposition or resistance, what interests me here is
what it would mean to synthesize elements of these actually living normativ-
ities and fold them back into the center within the context of a foundational
reformulation. In a sense, the revisionary project I have in mind is similar to
the one undertaken by UNESCO in  and , which reminds us that
human rights comparison and distinction, and not the identi cation of a com-
mon denominator ... , were at the core of the resulting examination of the po-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 59Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 59 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
60 Chapter 2
tentia l grounds of an inter national decla ration of human rig hts. Re- di scovering
such a di erentiated and culturally sensitive philosophical discussion of hu-
man rights allows us to hope for reinvigorated debate around pluralistic inter-
pretations in international human rights law a er a long interruption.
us, in moving beyond the monadic conception of human rights, a concep-
tion centered—as I have argued—on a particular and problematic account of
human rights subjectivity, three implications drawn from the anthropology
of human rights appear most signi cant.
First, as the study of “organic reformulation” in Mexico during the Zapa-
tista rebellion showed, human rights can be conceived not as an innate char-
acteristic, coextensive with personhood (itself a contested and variable con-
cept), but as a description of a particular form of sociopolitical agency. For the
Zapatistas, this meant collective action on behalf of the community against
the Mexican state in the name of traditional cultural values. But, though
important, the basis on which an agentive account of human rights is con-
structed seems to me less relevant than the fact that the locus of normativity
is displaced from the individual qua rights bearer to what might be thought of
as e cacious social and moral practice.
A second piste that points toward a synthetic reformulation of human
rights subjectivity is one in which the subject of human rights is conceived in
terms of relational interdependence, an alternative that has been fruitfully ex-
plored by other scholars. As we saw through the ethnography of law and re-
lational practices in Melanesia, local understandings of “natural rights” run
contrary to those that ground orthodox accounts of human rights: instead of
the natural rights of individuals versus the social and political constructions
that emerge in relation to the “rights of man,” Melanesians see individuals as
social constructs who emerge and are trans gured in relation to the “rights
of relationships.” A reformulation of human rights subjectivity that takes ac-
count of an inversion of this type would go well beyond even the most expan-
sive versions of socioeconomic rights, since it would require a reconsideration
of the meaning and grounds of society itself.
But it is the  nal implication from the anthropology of human rights that,
it seems to me, suggests the most far-reaching challenge to orthodox accounts
of human rights subjectivity, a challenge so fundamental that it calls into ques-
tion the normative category of “human rights” as such.  is is an alternative
that would require a fundamental repositioning of what the UDHR describes
as “all members of the human family,” a normative decentering through which
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 60Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 60 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 61
the rights, obligations, and interests of human beings—whether as individuals
or within collectivities—are subsumed within a broader, indeed universal vi-
sion of ontological interdependence.
As the ethnography of Bolivia’s revolution by constitution reveals, the
country is in the midst of a profound—if contested—experiment in what Ar-
turo Escobar has called “postliberal” subject-making. Although the norma-
tive alterity of the process of change in Bolivia is most o en associated with
the new plurinational legal and political order, it is grounded in a more fun-
damental reorientation that is meant to re ect an underlying cosmovisión in
which collective belonging is understood ecologically. Perhaps the best em-
pirical study of the kind of social formations that emerge in relation to this
type of ecological belonging is Eduardo Kohns How Forests  ink, a
granular re ection on what it means to conceive of sociality itself “beyond the
human.” Among other things, a regime of (human) rights based in ecologi-
cal interconnectedness—which can be seen as the opposite of monadic auton-
omy—implies a kind of antipodean system in which most of the key elements
are reversed or inverted: the parts are the sum of the whole; duties give rise to
rights; the (human rights) subject is not a person but persons in relation; and
juridical identity is embedded in actions rather than individuals.
Conclusion: Rights Without Humans
To conclude, let me summarize the main arguments of the chapter by way of
making several additional points that go beyond the question of human rights
subjectivity. First, I argued that orthodox accounts of human rights—that is,
those codi ed in the major postwar instruments and their political expres-
sions —are shaped by a paradox that revolves around a particular conception
of human rights subjectivity. Evoking Leibniz’s monadology, I described the
way in which the conventional human rights–bearing subject is imagined as
a closed normative universe. Yet at the same time, echoing a similar weakness
at the center of Leibniz’s metaphysics, the enclosed and “windowless” human
rights–bearing subject is nevertheless imagined to be a mirror of the whole, to
which she relates through a mystical “pre-established harmony.” I then sug-
gested that this conceptual dilemma played out within the practice of human
rights as a kind of ever-present disjuncture with actually existing normativi-
ties in relation to which the project of human rights rose and fell in the post–
Cold War and beyond.
I then moved to consider these normativities as revealed by several illus-
trative case studies drawn from the contemporary anthropology of human
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 61Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 61 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
62 Chapter 2
rights. A er surveying what was most pertinent from each study, I synthe-
sized these  ndings as a gesture toward possible, if admittedly radical, re-
formulations of human rights (which necessarily implicate its subjects).  e
broader outlines of such possible—if improbable—recastings pointed toward
a normative regime (or, better, regimes) grounded in values and ontologies
that di er substantially from those that underlie orthodox accounts.
Yet beyond this recapitulation, two further points must be made: the  rst
regarding the geopolitical and political economic context against which any
e ort at reformulating human rights must take place, the second regarding
the need to move beyond what I have called elsewhere the “myth of universal-
ity.” It is not a coincidence that much of the anthropological research on the
post–Cold War expansion of human rights took place in postcolonial coun-
tries that had earlier been the sites of the postwar development project. Hu-
man rights promotion, like the massive wave of technology transfers during
the Green Revolution, took place within a wider consolidation of political,
economic, and military power in which the normative technologies of “glob-
alization” (a term used not analytically but historically) were bundled with
those of democratic institution building and neoliberal capitalism as part of a
global realignment a er the end of the Cold War.
At the same time, existing and emerging global powers like the United
States, China, and Russia resisted human rights promotion at home while
either strategically encouraging it abroad or, like China, actively working
against human rights institutions within international bodies. At home,
these global powers rejected human rights as a violation of national cultural
sovereignty and pursued national and regional policies that involved mani-
fest and even gross violations of human rights. Even humanitarian Denmark
could not escape from its problematic relationship with human rights advo-
cacy. As Julie Mertus has argued, Danes vigorously supported the develop-
ment of human rights institutions in the Global South while resisting the ap-
plication of a human rights litmus test within national politics.  e reason?
According to Mertus, many Danes believed that human rights should be pro-
moted for countries whose political and legal systems were wracked by cor-
ruption, violence, and chronic mismanagement. At the same time, human
rights were considered inappropriate for Denmark itself, which had devel-
oped over the centuries a particular Danish culture of “extreme egalitarian-
ism” and collective sacri ce—embodied in the Danish concept of Janteloven,
in which the idea of the (monadic) individual rights bearer pursuing her nor-
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 62Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 62 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
The Misbegotten Monad: Anthropology, Human Rights, Belonging 63
mative self-interest was anathema. It is thus against this problematic back-
ground—one that has arguably only become darker for human rights—that
the collective e ort to rethink human rights subjectivity must stake its claims.
Finally, this chapter suggests that in the struggle to rescue human rights
from the trials and tribulations of its “end times,” we must reconsider very ba-
sic impulses that have generally pushed in the direction of a cosmopolitan-
ism grounded in a “myth of universality.”  is is the idea that universality
was a basic precondition for building a postwar world of “freedom, justice and
peace,” as the Preamble to the UDHR describes it. By calling this idea a myth,
I don’t mean to suggest that it is a false story; instead, I conceive of the myth
of universality as a key cultural narrative that did particular kinds of work in
the postwar period.
Nevertheless, as I have also argued elsewhere, there were hidden dan-
gers to the rising importance—and roughly ten-year post–Cold War hege-
mony—of this myth. In short, when universal categories like “inherent dig-
nity,” “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” and
even “all human beings” were put into practice, they quickly withered in the
face of o en brutal particularities—nationalism, racism, cultural identitari-
anism, religious fanaticism, and so on.
At the same time, the normative wispiness of human rights universality
was no match for the geological depth of global inequality, which continued
to grow at the same time as the “age of human rights”—now revealed as a kind
of global Potemkin village—was announced with such assuredness and ar-
dor.  us, there are good reasons to also rethink the meaning and implica-
tions of normative universality itself, or, more provocatively, to conceive of
“rights”—understood in terms of the full range of anthropological complexity
examined in this chapter—without “humans.”
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 63Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 63 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
Notes to Chapter X 259
. Nedelsky, Law’s Relations.
. Civil Partnership Act, 2004, c. 33 (Eng.).
. Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, 2013, c. 30 (Eng).
. See Nedelsky, Law’s Relations, Chapter 3, n.37 and n.38 for discussion of the
U.S. case, Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), and the judicial era it ushered in.
. Reich, A ershock.
. Moyn, “A Powerless Companion.”
. Markovits, e Meritocracy Trap.
. Moyn, 149.
. Douzinas, Human Rights and Empire.
. See Marks, “Human Rights and Root Causes.”
. See Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism.
. See Rosenberg, e Hollow Hope.
. Williams, e Alchemy of Race and Rights.
. See Nedelsky, “Reconceiving Rights and Constitutionalism.”
Chapter 2
. See Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments.
. Postero, e Indigenous State.
. Goodale, Dilemmas of Modernity.
. Hardt and Negri, Empire.
. Panikkar, “Is the Notion of Human Rights a Western Concept?”; see also Eber-
hard, “Au-delà de l’univers alisme et du relativisme: L’hor izon d ’un pluralisme respon-
sable,” and Goodale, “Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights.”
. Goodale and Merry, e Practice of Human Rights, 24.
. Goodale and Merry, e Practice of Human Rights, 25.
. Goodale, “ e Myth of Universality,” and Goodale, ed., Letters to the Contrary.
. Keane, Ethical Life.
. See Goodale, “ e Myth of Universality.”
. See Holmes and Marcus, “Para-Ethnography,” 595.
. Holmes and Marcus, “Para-Ethnography,” 595.
. Lambek, ed., Ordinary Ethics.
. Turner, “Human Rights, Human Di erence.”
. See Goodale, Surrendering to Utopia.
. See Wilson, ed., Human Rights, Culture and Context, Cowan, Dembour, and
Wilson, eds., Culture and Rights, and Wilson and Mitchell, eds., Human Rights in
Global Perspective.
. See Dunkerley, “Evo Morales, the ‘Two Bolivias’ and the  ird Bolivian
. Speed, Rights in Rebellion.
. Speed, Rights in Rebellion, 47.
. Speed, Rights in Rebellion, 169.
. Speed, Rights in Rebellion, 165.
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 259Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 259 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
260 Notes to Chapter X
. Robbins, “Recognition, Reciprocity, and Justice,” 185, quoting from Strathern,
Kinship, Law and the Unexpected, 114.
. Robbins, “Recognition, Reciprocity, and Justice,” 175.
. Robbins, “Recognition, Reciprocity, and Justice,” 175.
. Mauss, e Gi .
. Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments.
. Salomon, “Review of To Make the Earth Bear Fruit,” 654.
. Descola, Par-delà nature et culture.
. Besson, “International Human Rights Law and Mirrors,” 8.
. See, for example, Nedelsky, Law’s Relations.
. Escobar, “Latin America at a Crossroads.”
. Kohn, How Forests  ink. See also de la Cadena, Earth Beings.
. See also Gareau, “We Have Never Been Human,” Haraway, When Species
Meet, and Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.
. Goodale, e Myth of Universality.”
. Escobar, Encountering Development.
. Davis and Mohamed, “Global Rights, Local Risk.”
. Mertus, Human Rights Matters.
. Mertus, Human Rights Matters, 22.
. See Reinbold, Seeing the Myth in Human Rights.
. Goodale, “Human Values and Moral Exclusion.”
. See Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Moyn, Not Enough.
Chapter 3
. MacKinnon, Are Women Human?, 41 and 43.
. MacKinnon, Are Women Human?, 43.
. Charlesworth, “Human Rights As Men’s Rights,” 103–13, Bunch, “Transform-
ing Human Rights,” 11.
. An Earnest Englishwoman, “Are Women Animals?,” 11.
. Derrida, “‘Eating Well,’” 114.
. Derrida, “On Reading Heidegger,” 183.
. Sellars, e Rise and Rise of Human Rights, 197.
. Descartes, Discourse on Method and Other Writings, 73–76. For a brilliant ex-
position, see Shannon, e Accommodated Animal.
. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 176.
. Wollstonecra , A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 74.
. Wollstonecra , A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 130.
. Wollstonecra , A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 161.
. Wollstonecra , A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 160–61.
. Lawrence, A Philosophical and Practical Treatise on Horses, 118–19.
. Lawrence, A Philosophical and Practical Treatise on Horses, 119–20.
. Young, An Essay on Humanity to Animals, 8.
. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ccix.
. Bentham, “Anarchical Fallacies”, 496–501, 505, 508, and 521.
Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 260Celermajer-1st_pp.indb 260 3/31/20 12:53 PM3/31/20 12:53 PM
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.