Accepted Paper:

Humanity beyond politics: bare life and the primacy of the ethical  


Lisette Josephides (Queen's University Belfast)

Paper short abstract:

I argue, first, that cosmopolitanism rather than nationalism is the true pair to morality, and second, that the realm of humanity is beyond politics. Ethnography deflects ideas of the primacy of the political, showing an underlying ethical stance stronger than any systems of sovereign machinery.

Paper long abstract:

This paper develops a two-pronged argument. First, I ask to what degree nationalism and morality are mutually constitutive, by introducing another term: cosmopolitanism. I argue that sympathy as recognition of a fellow human being may run counter to ideas about nationalism and the practices of capitalist democracies based on policies of inclusion and exclusion determined by citizenship status. By contrast, cosmopolitanism is concerned with the subjective experience of boundary crossing or blurring.

Second, I argue that the realm of humanity is beyond politics. Drawing on the work of Agamben, I ask how 'bare life' devoid of the accoutrements of political status can be sufficient to maintain a moral concept of humanity. For Carl Schmitt, the political defined what is to be a human being in the modern world. Loyalty to one's group was beyond ethics, and politics hinged on a distinction between 'friend' and 'enemy' that was tested by readiness to die or kill rather than any moral quality. The claim to speak in the name of universal humanity or ethical universalism constituted a betrayal, by refusing to accept limitations to our actions determined by the identity of the community to which we belonged. Yet ethnography deflects ideas of the primacy of the political. It shows an underlying humanity retrieved not because of loyalty to one's community or even oneself, but following a moment of kindness that recognises the other's humanity. The empathy in this ethical moment unleashes responsibility in summons much stronger than any systems of sovereign machinery.

Panel P26
Nationalism, democracy and morality: a historical and anthropological approach to the role of moral sentiments in contemporary politics