Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2019
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Political Science
The Production of Human Dignity: Rethinking the Rhetoric of Rights

How did "dignity"—a derivative of a Roman word signifying high social rank (dignitas)—, come to carry such resonance for, among many others, striking teachers in Oaxaca (2006), anti-regime protesters in Syria and Yemen during the Arab Spring (2011), indigenous activists in Ecuador (2012), and for #BlackLivesMatter protesters in the United States? I argue that recent neo-Kantian attempts to elucidate "dignity" as a concept (notably, by Jürgen Habermas and George Kateb) have overlooked the Cold War-historical dynamics that produced dignity as so politically cathectic across such a wide range of contexts. Further, I argue that they overlook the dynamics by which it is reproduced as such today. This oversight results in a basic misunderstanding of the strategic rhetoric of the emancipatory politics of the past decade. Against such accounts, I propose a way of reading invocations of dignity as a function of the invokers' position within specific political struggles with specific ways of relating to international power politics. I contend that what matters is less the concept of dignity as what dignity as ideological phenomenon has served as a means to express and do that was otherwise inexpressible and impossible to do. Using evidence gathered from archival research and activist interviews, I will explore the hypothesis that the individuals and groups who—under the banner of dignity—have put their bodies on the line in Oaxaca, Dar'a, San'a, Quito, Madrid, Kiev, Ferguson, etc. are better served by scholarship treating dignity primarily as a word rather than primarily as a concept or affect, the word being, as V.A. Voloshinov has described it, "the ideological phenomenon par excellence [and] most sensitive index of social change" at our disposal.