Author: Jan Kleňha (KAS IMS FSV UK)


Findings of Slavoj Žižek are always interesting to consider. We may say that this philosopher of Slovenian origin is one of the most influential thinkers in the field of contemporary social science. Aside of popularizing works of psychologists such as Jacques Lacan and philosophers such as Louis Althusser, Slavoj Žižek shows an ability to bring deeply complicated and controversial issues into an academic debate, understandable to an ordinary educated citizen. Slavoj Žižek appears to have a lot to elaborate on also in case of human rights and its contents in contemporary world.

As a former member of Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Odbor za Varstvo Človekovih Pravic) in Slovenia before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Žižek not only presents his knowledge of positions of many influential thinkers of 18th and 19th century on human rights, but also presents himself with proposals of how to deal with such problems in today´s environment. Žižek´s personal experiences along with an ability to combine outcomes of academic works from various spheres seem to provide us with a good reason why it might be advantageous to cover his positions on human rights.

Following pages are constituted into an expository essay with some analytical elements. I will attempt to reproduce and explain most of the approaches of Slavoj Žižek to human rights both from his own books and publications and from other sources such as interviews, lecture transcripts, explanatory essays or comparative academic studies. Issue of human rights has been an important topic in three of Slavoj Žižek´s publications called The Obsenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom, Human Rights and its Discontents and Slavoj Žižek: Against Human Rights. A primary source is also study by Aleksandru Cistelecan named Which Critique of Human Rights?, while secondary sources consist of work of other important human-rights thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Jacques Rancière or Etienne Balibar.

“(…)no matter how radical, theoretical and inapplicable Žižek´s concepts of human rights might seem, they are very rational, sophisticated and if understood by certain policymakers, potentially very advantageous for the people currently deprived of universal human rights as we know them today.”

Structurally, this essay will follow a list of different issues that the discourse of human rights has to deal with. After an introduction to the topic and brief explanation of how Slavoj Žižek and other philosophers approach the question of human rights, I will attempt to explain how Žižek understands a relation of the concept of human rights with citizenship, ethics and morality, power, humanitarian interventionism etc. In the conclusion, I am going to prove or reject the thesis of this essay, saying that no matter how radical, theoretical and inapplicable Žižek´s concepts of human rights might seem, they are very rational, sophisticated and if understood by certain policymakers, potentially very advantageous for the people currently deprived of universal human rights as we know them today.

The following essay is not lengthy enough to cover the whole problematic of human rights and while explaining such abstract, wide-spread and ever-lasting issue as are human rights, it is necessary to use a larger amount of quotes from original author´s publications in order to provide a reader with more exact idea of how Žižek perceives the problem from a number of different perspectives.

Philosophy of human rights

According to John Tasioulas, “Human rights are understood rationalistically: as consisting, first and foremost, in a set of principles, a code of conduct. For lawyers, these principles possess, or are to be presumptively given, a legal institutional embodiment; for philosophers, the principles form part of the broader web of propositions that compromises a theory of morality or some segment of it.”[1]

This is, in my opinion, a valid way to explain the difference between philosopher´s understanding of the concept of human rights aside of the understanding of its mere owner. There likely exists a set of universal human rights, on which every kind of ethics is based, which creates an unbreakable background for every moral decision human can make. This finding is obviously based on a rational thinking and thus on a presumption of human rationality. According to Ignatieff, however, “Universal human rights are not to be based on a belief in a ‘metaphysical’ idea of human rationality, but on a pragmatic idea of sensibility to cruelty”[2] If we accept this statement to be true, it only shows us how interconnected human rights are with everyone´s psychology and how different philosophers´ approach to to the issues of our everyday life may be.

Background of Žižek´s approaches

In the work of Slavoj Žižek, many long-standing premises are destroyed, jeopardized and   juxtaposed. As I will talk about in the next chapter, there are substantial differences between post-colonial thinkers and so-called post-Althusserian thinkers when it comes to human rights. By defining against post-modern approaches, reviving Marxist ideas along with dialectics and psychoanalyst methods of research or by elaborating on work of Jacques Rancière rather than following Althusser´s conclusions, Slavoj Žižek seems to represent a unique way to define and expand the concept of human rights.

According to Žižek, general trend of human rights nowadays consists of a constant attack on the empty, formal and abstract nature of the human rights declaration, and on an emphasis on the possible alternatives to it. Said in Hegelian terms, “This contemporary trend could be accounted as demanding a necessary passage from ‘abstract right’ to ‘morality’ – where morality is to be understood as the sphere of the particular will, with its centering on identity, intention, demand and ought-to-be.”[3]

In his thematically most relevant book Against Human Rights, Žižek is ruthlessly criticizing the legacy of human rights. Interestingly enough, he does not, however, criticize the abstract nature of the concept, which itself makes human rights susceptible to relativism and pragmatic interpretations, but rather criticizes the “‘morality’ that recent approaches try to infuse in the abstract frame of these rights.”[4] A problem is, according to Žižek, that the symbolic individual in the western society can no longer be “reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies.”[5]

Another target of Žižek’s critique is the very concept of the notion of free choice and the morals of human rights, which allegedly undermines authenticity of our will. According to Žižek, “in the consensual universe of naturalized particular beliefs, genuine free choice cannot be the simple and direct expression of the subject’s will and substantial identity: ‘a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself.”[6] Only by violence, people are able to escape the “immediate life context and disrupt the organic unity of the social body to generate a genuine universality.”[7]

Human rights vs. citizenship and rights to universality

A classical postmodern position on human rights is a one claiming that human rights are basically generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship. Slavoj Žižek seems to fundamentally disagree with this premise, claiming that there is a fundamental difference between universal human rights and rights of a citizen. „At the very moment when we try to conceive political rights of citizens without the reference to universal “meta-political” Human Rights, we lose politics itself, i.e., we reduce politics to a “post-political” play of negotiation of particular interests.“[8] Žižek further explains, that natural rights of men are not a product of certain historical events or processes of politicization of citizens but rather they are rights to universality as such.

Concept of human rights being rights to universality is a milestone in Žižek´s work. As he notes, “the gap between the universality of Human Rights and the political rights of citizens is not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere; it rather ‘separates the whole of the community from itself.’”[9]

“According to Žižek, all emancipatory movements (including Marxism) can be viewed as a radicalization factor of human rights.”

Talking about a formal version of human rights, Žižek recognizes them as a necessity only until a „real freedom can emerge in antagonistic relation to them.“[10] In other words, even if the formal human rights offer only an illusion of freedom, they are an important way to promote coming of the real freedom in future. According to Žižek, all emancipatory movements (including Marxism) can be viewed as a radicalization factor of human rights. “What is universal in human rights is not a particular set of values, Western or otherwise, but the right to universality as such, the political subject’s right to seek and to formulate its own universality.”[11]

Conceptions of human rights

Hannah Arendt famously writes in her book Origins of Totalitarianism: “The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human.”[12]

This is an all-important issue, which Slavoj Žižek covers with particular attention.  As he notes, “When we come too close to a bare-life person, it appears as pure horror, man ‘as such’, deprived of all phenomenal qualifications, appears as an inhuman monster. The problem with human rights humanism is that it covers up this monstrosity of the “human as such,” presenting it as a sublime human essence.” [13] This notion again seems to correlate with a psychoanalyst´s findings about the human feelings while confronting something that may symbolize our deepest worries and inner-fears. By analyzing our probable reactions while encountering humans being deprived of everything but their humanity, we are approaching the very baseline of morality, entering a thin ice of ethics but maybe also opening a “pandora´s box” of understanding basic human dignity.

From Slavoj Žižek texts, one gets a feeling that a certain kind of evil inhumanity must exist only to be posed against the good humanity. He repeatedly elaborates on what happens to human rights when they are reduced to the rights of “homo sacer”[14], of those excluded from the political community who “become of no use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, are treated as inhuman.”[15]

Here, Jacques Ranciére offers a very interesting solution to the problem in a specific example of theory attempted to be put in practice. Talking about immigration issues, he basically proposes sending people deprived of everything but their humanity back where they came from. “Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right.” Theoretically applied to the current international politics, an obvious problem of preservation and protection of such humanitarian rights of these returned people is not discusses by neither Ranciére nor Žižek, which, in my opinion, notably lowers the value of such proposal.

Demanding universal human rights

As Gilbert Leung paraphrases Slavoj Žižek, “universal rights are manifested through demand.”[16] Occupy Wall-street movement, even though not exactly demanding human rights, is a good example of a political action being an answer to questions not formulated. Failure of the movement was apparently a lack of clear reasons and suggested solutions to the issues protested against. Such “questions” as Žižek calls it, need to be formulated, transformed into a reasonable demand and then insisted on to be successful. This process is a possible solution to spreading human rights successfully and it will be explained shortly in the next chapter of this essay as one of the few concrete proposals of Žižek´s solution to problems connected with human rights.

Human rights and power

In his study Against Human Rights, Žižek summarizes our contemporary appeals to human rights rested on assumptions, that they are (along with universality and an opposition to fundamentalism) the “rights to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of pleasure rather than to sacrifice it for some higher ideological cause, [and that] an appeal to human rights may form the basis for a defense against the ‘excess of power’” [17] With the first part of the statement being quite clear (while possibly offending some religious groups), the second part defines substantial issue playing a significant role in today´s relations to political power.

History has proven, that the concept of human rights evolved from existing to socially exclude a certain sort of people to our current omnipresence of human right notion by rising a tension between appearance and reality. Tension of human rights, according to Dilworth´s interpretation of Žižek´s work, was set in motion when it was “not possible any more to simply say that appearance is just a mask of the reality of oppression.”[18] Thus, human rights may be a successful power tool, which, in today´s international relations, is often called humanitarianism.

Imposing human rights – humanitarian interventions

While undoubtedly being a political tool, “humanitarianism presents itself as something of an anti-politics; a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defense of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals.”[19]

The mere concepts of human rights seem to have been abused to the extent that, as Cistelecan reframes it, the “inherent contradiction of rights seems to drive the need for an urgent supplement of morality.”[20] Even more interestingly putted, “Human rights are not just an innocent defensive tool attached to a pre-existing subject, but they actually produce the subject to whom they are assigned.”[21] Since we all can experimentally apply such theories onto many current events, rather than offering political examples and practical proofs of such claims, I will stay with a topic and offer Žižek´s human rights perspective, offering (along with Ranciére) a possibility to escape three deadlocks that are detected in above-mentioned post-colonialist framework.

Critique of post-colonial concepts of human rights

In his study, Aleksandru Cistelecan quoted Ratna Kapur, a post-collonialist philosopher who basically claims that human rights are by its nature “discriminatory universality”. It is later in the essay elaborated, that the current western society can approach world problems connected with a poor existence of human rights in three ways – erasing differences (assimilation), accepting differences as inevitable (tolerance) or fighting to impose human rights on people by force (rejection). The so-called post-colonialist thinkers find these problems to be stuck in a deadlock but Slavoj Žižek seems to be defined against these claims and provides own solutions to the problem.

According to his post-Althusserian view (refusing to differentiate between conscious person and its unconscious rights), human rights are a tool to “interpellate natural individuals into political subjects, to uproot individuals from their particular life context and throw them into the open space of proper politics.”[22] Most importantly, however, he explains that “the way to resist the deliberate politics of domination pursued under the banner of universal rights is not by trying to delineate an irreducible outside to this discourse, but by confronting from the inside this politics with its own proclaimed principles”[23]


zizekface-252x300The latter quote, especially, seems to contain a substantial meaning and an essence of Slavoj Žižek´s approach to human rights. Even though human rights have often been disused and abused by power, they are universal, they are rights to universality as such. By pertaining life in jouissance and offering a freedom of choice (no matter how actually impossible this choice might be to make), human rights are in a sense rights to violate even the most fundamental moral concepts such as Ten Commandments. On the other hand, universal human rights are and must be based on substantial morality of human beings. As Žižek once quoted Václav Havel in his lecture, “human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world.”[24]

“Even though human rights have often been disused and abused by power, they are universal, they are rights to universality as such.”

While human rights are being accused of being a manipulative tool of political power, he replies by saying, that “it’s not that the abstract frame of human rights is not to be accused of hypocrisy, of attempting to conceal a particular privileged bearer of these rights (the western male) under a presumed enunciated universality; it is rather that hypocrisy is, here, not only better than nothing, but even better than honesty. Hypocrisy is not the last bastion of Western patriarchal values, but the first opening of the political universality” [25]

Slavoj Žižek, while bringing analytical philosophical thinking into the ages-old concept of human rights, offers undoubtedly motivating solutions to be at least considered. It is possible to say, that if his non-radical solutions (brought up by somewhat radical interpretations) are understood and eventually implicated in a worldwide concept of human rights that, in my opinion, will soon appear in our globalized world, it can be advantageous for our humanity. If only one outcome of Žižek´s work we should keep in mind, it would be to generally hold on to our current conceptions of human rights rather than experiment with new ones. In other words, „formal human rights represent false freedom but are, nevertheless, the only avenue through which actual freedom can appear.“[26]


  • Slavoj Žižek, “The Obsenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom“, com: 2005, available at http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.html.
  • Slavoj Žižek, “Human Rights and It´s Discontents”, speech given at Bard College, 11/16/1999, quoted from Václav Havel, “Kosovo and the End of the the Nation State”, 6/10/1999.
  • Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights”, New Left Review, July – August 2005, available at https://libcom.org/library/against-human-rights-zizek.
  • Wendy Brown, “Human Rights as the Politics Of. Fatalism,” South Atlantic Quaterly2/3, Spring 2004. http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.htm.
  • Dianna Dilworth, „Why Salinism was more Perverse than Nazism“, Interview with Slavoj Žižek in The Believer, July 2004, http://www.believermag.com/issues/200407/?read=interview_zizek.
  • Gilbert Leung, “Rights, Politics and Paradise: Notes on Zizek´s Silent Voice of New Beginning”, Critical Legal Thinking, 3/14/2012, available at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2012/03/14/rights-politics-and-paradise-notes-on-zizek/.
  • Hannah Arendt, Origins Of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1958).
  • Aleksandru Cistelecan, “Which Critique of Human Rights? Evaluating the post-colonialist and the post-Althusserian alternatives”,International Journal of Zizek Studies, Vol 5, Nr. 1, available at http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewFile/291/387.
  • John Tasioulas, “Towards a Philosophy of Human Rights“, edu, available at https://www.academia.edu/1839196/Towards_a_Philosophy_of_Human_Rights.

[1] John Tasioulas, “Towards a Philosophy of Human Rights“, Academia.edu, available at https://www.academia.edu/1839196/Towards_a_Philosophy_of_Human_Rights.

[2] M. Ignatieff, quoted in Aleksandru Cistelecan, “Which Critique of Human Rights? Evaluating

the post-colonialist and the post-Althusserian alternatives”, Center for Ethics and Global Politics LUISS, University of Rome, International Journal of Zizek Studies, Vol 5, Nr. 1, 6, available at http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewFile/291/387.

[3] Cistelecan, „Which Critique of Human Rights?“, 1.

[4] Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights”, New Left Review, July – August 2005, available at https://libcom.org/library/against-human-rights-zizek, 117.

[5] Ibid., 117.

[6] Ibid., 118.

[7] Cistelecan, „Which Critique of Human Rights?“, 8.

[8] Slavoj Zizek, “The Obsenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom“, Lacan.com: 2005, available at http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.htm, 1.

[9] Ibid., 1.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Hannah Arendt, Origins Of  Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1958).

[13] Slavoj Zizek, “The Obsenity of Human Rights“, 3.

[14] The term “Homo sacer” was introduced by philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

[15] Ibid., 4.

[16] Gilbert Leung, “Rights, Politics and Paradise: Notes on Zizek´s Silent Voice of New Beginning”, Critical Legal Thinking, 3/14/2012, available at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2012/03/14/rights-politics-and-paradise-notes-on-zizek/.

[17] Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights”, 117.

[18] Dianna Dilworth, „Why Salinism was more Perverse than Nazism“, interview with Slavoj Žižek in The Believer, July 2004, http://www.believermag.com/issues/200407/?read=interview_zizek.

[19] Wendy Brown, “Human Rights as the Politics of Fatalism,” South Atlantic Quaterly 2/3, spring 2004, http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.htm.

[20] Aleksandru Cistelecan, “Which Critique of Human Rights?, 7.

[21] Brown criticizing Ignatieff , Ibid.,7.

[22] Cistelecan, “Which Critique of Human Rights?”, 10.

[23] paraphrising Slavoj Žižek, Ibid., 7.

[24] Slavoj Žižek, “Human Rights and It´s Discontents”, speech given at Bard College, 11/16/1999, quoted from Václav Havel, “Kosovo and the End of the the Nation State”, 6/10/1999.

[25] Cistelecan, “Which Critique of Human Rights?”, 9.

[26] Slavoj Zizek, “The Obsenity of Human Rights: Violence as Symptom“, Lacan.com: 2005, available at http://www.lacan.com/zizviol.htm