The Discourse of Human Dignity and Techniques of Disempowerment: Giorgio Agamben, J. M. Coetzee, and Kazuo Ishiguro
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A multidisciplinary approach is needed to critique the frequently invoked but seldom questioned notion of "human dignity," a discursive tool that is subtly serving abusive power structures while seemingly promoting human rights. The discourse of human dignity misrepresents the meaning of empowerment for modern citizens, making them interested more in political gestures and less in profit, comfort and protection from abuse. Dignity‘s epistemes—self-assertion, recognition, political action, public-spiritedness, responsibility, resistance, the denial of animal instinct, sacrifice—should not be human ideals, for they are exactly the opposite of the sovereign‘s characteristics and because they are responsible for recursive violence that preserves the status quo. They should be replaced with ethics based on sensuous interest, instinct, and natural-spiritedness (a sense of mystical oneness with other living beings). This dissertation answers Foucault‘s question about how the modern state endows citizens with a political subjectivity while simultaneously subjecting them to a totalized system, exposing human dignity as just the link between individuation and totalization. It questions Agamben‘s notion of the indistinction between political life and natural life, arguing that sovereign power, using the discourse of human dignity, creates a clear distinction. The human dignity discourse keeps the human within political life, representing such life as the middle point between the instinctive life of the animal and the mechanical life of the laborer. In reality, the dissertation shows, these two demonized modes of life are the same mode, which should be championed as a valuable and empowered state of being. In the literary field, a close examination reveals that J. M. Coetzee‘s fiction subverts the human dignity discourse while Kazuo Ishiguro‘s work is enmeshed in it. Coetzee generates sympathy for humans who lack the sense of human dignity and act on mere instinct. He offers ―disgrace‖ as a spiritual-ethical state of sensuality, acceptance and humility and promotes an agenda of desire-based rights in lieu of dignity-based ones. His writings also eschew authorial dignity as they discount the values of newness and originality in favor of expression attuned to desire, even when such moves appear selfish and politically irresponsible.
Giorgio Agamben, J. M. Coetzee
Mohammad, Malek Hardan (2010). The Discourse of Human Dignity and Techniques of Disempowerment: Giorgio Agamben, J. M. Coetzee, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from