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Cultural Critique, 54, Spring 2003, pp. 148-177 (Article)


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DOI: 10.1353/cul.2003.0031

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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cul/summary/v054/54.1chambers.html

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GHOSTLY RIGHTS
Samuel A. Chambers

his essay enters into a set of somewhat abstract philosophical debates through the terms in which they have been recently
staged by leading thinkers in social and political theory.1 But it does
so in order to speak to very practical, some might even say banal,
political matters. Therefore, I want to open this essay rather unconventionally by beginning not with the outline of those philosophical
debates (I will come to them) but with a brief preface of sorts, one
that looks at a completely hypothetical but thoroughly recognizable
political example and attempts to read it in a number of speciWc and
distinct ways.
As an employee of the State of Maryland I receive a relatively
generous package of health care, retirement, and insurance beneWts.
These beneWts can be shared with my legal spouse and with my
dependents. In order to get them, however, the state asks in the former case for an ofWcial copy of a marriage license and in the latter for
an ofWcial adoption or birth certiWcate. In making employee beneWts
contingent on these basic legal requirements, Maryland follows the
majority of states (with a few key exceptions) in providing beneWts
only to straight married couples and their children. Let us assume
that a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and even gayfriendly faculty at my college decide to challenge this policy by
demanding from the college and thereby the State of Maryland the
same beneWts for lesbians, gays, and perhaps unmarried straights as
those received by married couples.
In all likelihood, such a demand for domestic partner beneWts will
be presented in the language of rights. Indeed, the language of rights
Cultural Critique 54Spring 2003Copyright 2003 Regents of the University of Minnesota

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GHOSTLY RIGHTS

has grown almost ubiquitous in liberal-democratic political regimes.


Most political arguments these days (whether they be claims, demands, or protests) Wnd themselves enmeshed at some point within
one of the many overlapping and discontinuous discursive practices
in which rights play a central role. In the case of my beneWts example,
this means that the challenge to the states policy will likely call that
policy into question on the grounds that it violates the rights of those
that it excludes, or by arguing that it provides a right to beneWts only
to a narrowly speciWc segment of its employee population rather than
distributing those rights equally. One of the central questions this
paper asks is: how do we understand or interpret the call or demand
for rights? In the case of this particular example, we can see (at least)
four different ways of reading the demand for rights:
1. Equality. The appeal to rights can be understood as precisely a
demand for equal rights, such that the language of rights serves the
purpose of expressing a fundamental argument about political
equality.2 Historically this has been the basic liberal understanding of rights as the guarantors of liberal freedom and equality.
2. Special rights. The call for rights can be understood as a demand
by a particular minority group to be granted protected status or
to be treated in some special way that likely will prove prejudicial to the majority (here, in the case of greater overall costs to be
borne by that majority). This reading emerges quite clearly from
a large portion of the political right that wishes to challenge what
may be seen as the continuation of the civil rights movement
beyond its logical end (i.e., formal political equality).
3. Ressentiment. The claim for rights can be understood not as a speciWcally political demand, but as a moralizing claim, which is based
on a history of prior injury. This claim, quite paradoxically, serves
not to contest a larger political battle but merely to instantiate in
the law the very minority status of the group. This reading of
rights has recently occupied a segment of radical thinkers on the
left, committed to a critique and transformation of identity politics.
4. Hegemonic articulation. The particular demand for health beneWts
can be seen as emerging out of the speciWc needs of a particular
group (those who have no beneWts),3 but doing so in a language
(the language of rights) that points beyond that particular political

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SAMUEL A. CHAMBERS

battle and toward more universal political projects or goals. As a


challenge to the current system, this particular demand thereby
has the potential to link up with other antisystem demands in
a way that makes signiWcant change possible (but not, for that very
reason, inevitable). These could include demands for modifying the
national health system, demands by lesbian/gay groups, or even
anticapitalist demands. One cannot predict in advance which sort
of linkage (or chain of equivalence) will occur, but the possibility of this linkage remains in play as long as the particular political
demand also offers a broader challenge to the political system as
we know it. This reading of rights can be developed out of the
project of radical democracy, which takes its cues from a Gramscianinspired rereading of both the theory and practice of Marxism.
The differences in these readings prove rather stark, on philosophical and political grounds, as they offer widely divergent interpretations both of the theoretical meaning and of the political implications
of rights and rights discourse. In the space of these four brief, and all
quite plausible, readings we move from mainstream liberal defense
of rights to both conservative and leftist critiques, and on to a radical
reconstruction. Because of the sharp differences in these interpretations, I would suggest that the political stakes of the debate I want to
enter prove quite highand this despite the philosophical languages
in which they are often carried out and which one must use in order
to engage genuinely with them. The way we understand and practice
democratic politics today may well hinge on our approach to the
theory and practice of rights.

HAUNTING AND HEGEMONY


Haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely
given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the
instituted order of a calendar. Untimely, it does not come to, it does not
happen to, it does not befall.4

I take my cues for both the title and the main argument of this
essaythat democracy today requires a ghostly concept of rights, an
understanding of rights as ghostlyfrom Jacques Derridas suggestion

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that the death of Stalinism may well mark the rise of the specters of
Marx. This argument develops the project of preserving a certain discourse of rights in the face of the powerful critiques launched in
recent years from both the left and the right.5 Conservatives have
argued that more and more claims for rights from supposedly disenfranchised groups actually turn out to be subversive attempts to
create special rights and unfair privileges for particular minority
groups. And radical thinkers have launched their own critique of the
discourse of rights, suggesting that more and more claims for rights
from the state tend only to consolidate state power, moralize rather
than politicize problems, and reinstantiate the very historical traumas for which the claim to rights sought relief.6 These critiques prove
to be substantively signiWcant both within the political sphere, where
challenges to special rights have proved both potent and effective,
and on theoretical terrain, where the logic of ressentiment calls into
question a great number of ostensibly democratic political practices.7
As a response to these challenges, I have chosen to develop
Ernesto Laclaus work on hegemonic politics. I aim my efforts speciWcally at applying (and thereby transforming) Laclaus rethinking
of the relation between universal and particular to the theory and
practice of rights. Laclau develops a logic of hegemonic articulations
in which the universal always emerges out of a particular political
demand. I suggest that rights must be interpreted as existing within
a set of discursive practices that make hegemonic articulations possible. In other words, a local political demand, when made in the language of rights, points toward a broader universal. Working through
this logic brings me to the conclusion that the viability of the discourse of rights in contemporary politics depends on conceptualizing
rights as empty signiWers. An empty signiWer is precisely that term
within a discursive practice that has the potential to be Wlled with
a signiWed content that gestures toward the universal. The discourse
of rights turns out to be a discourse of universalization, in which a
political groups particular demands achieve, through a hegemonic
articulation, the status of universal within a given political context.8
But how do we explain or account for the signiWcance of rights as
empty signiWers? What is the political efWcacy of reconsidering rights
through the logic of hegemony?
I wish to begin that accounting process in this essay. I will argue

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that the political saliency of thinking rights as empty signiWers


depends on bringing a notion of untimeliness to bear on Laclaus
Saussurian-derived concept. The theory of hegemony requires a
dimension of radical temporality if it is to avoid the pitfalls of Kantian formalism. Or, to come at my conclusion from the other side, only
a theory of ghostly rights can prove politically efWcacious in contemporary politics. The empty universality of rights is always haunted
by some remainder of particularism, so, in fact, the empty signiWer
can never be purely, formally empty. The universal is the spectral,
waiting to be incarnated, and the particular itself is never merely a
brute empirical realityit is always already ghostly. When rethought
through the lens of untimeliness, the empty signiWer not only preserves a conception of rights for contemporary politics but also leads
us toward a theory of ghostly rights. And a theory of ghostly rights
can reject the idealist formalism of natural rights theory without
falling back on a cultural relativist or positivist account of rights.

RIGHTS AND THE FORMALIST DILEMMA


The problem that formalism poses for a theory of rights proves to be
a legacy of Kantian moral and political theory. Kant deWnes formalism clearly in the opening lines of the Groundwork: all rational
knowledge is either material and concerned with some object, or formal and concerned solely with the form of understanding and reason
themselves.9 In the Wrst Critique, Kants description of intuition as
a transcendental form stripped of any particular content exempliWes
formalism: a philosophical logic that places the universal (the abstract)
and the concrete (the contingent) in isolated and incommensurable
planes.10 In his moral theory Kant insists that only formal knowledge
can ground and justify moral concepts; he stresses, in this purity of
their origin is to be found their very worthiness.11 Universal moral
laws therefore derive from formalism, and the categorical imperative offers a formal guide to action. It is signiWcant to note at the
outset that, precisely because of this purity, moral concepts have an
atemporal character; they are not subject to the vicissitudes of historicity or human contingency. Thus, formalism immediately implies
a certain timelessness.

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Formalism enters the political scene, particularly with respect to


the framework of rights, because universal moral law undergirds
political law in Kant. Kant disproves the Hobbesian theory of the
social contract by showing that political rights cannot be successfully
drawn from a model of the private contract. Only a properly moral
attitude, not a merely egocentric one, can produce a legitimate version of the social contract, since the social contract is not merely a
means to an end, but an end in itself. This requires more than selfcentered rationality; it requires a moral dimension. Kant writes, the
contract establishing a civil constitution . . . is of so unique a kind that
. . . it is in principle essentially different from all others in what it
founds.12 But if the social contract that creates political rights depends for its creation on the moral autonomy of individuals, then
human rights themselves must have their origin in a universal concept of morality. Rights therefore rest on formalism as their ultimate
ground.
To reject this derivation of rights would entail returning to the
empiricist game of trying to derive the creation of a framework of
rights from pure utility calculations. From this vantage point, it is
easy to see that rights, like so many key concepts in social and political theory (e.g., agency, progress, legitimacy) always remain subject
to the dangers of the formalist dilemma. We Wnd strong variants of
natural rights theories, in which natural rights derive directly from
natural law, impaled on one horn. Building a theory of rights on the
basis of natural law founds the theory of rights on a certain ordered,
metaphysically grounded, and idealist conception of the natural and
political world. It seems rather obvious to note that the metaphysical
certainty of natural law is probably not the best place to begin if one
wishes to develop a conception of rights appropriate to twenty-Wrstcentury, postCold War politics. Indeed, it proves to be the exact
opposite starting point for any theory of radical democracy, which
always works against the notion of a positive ground that would
eventually provide closure for the social realm.13 Many contemporary
defenders of rights-based theories work with a watered-down version of natural rights theory precisely because they wish to avoid the
transcendentalism of a doctrine of natural law. But the theoretical
lineage of most of these theories of rights-based individualism still
presupposes some sort of transcendental grounds.14

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We Wnd on the other horn a cultural relativism of rights, with


rights being the product of particular societies and cultures, in particular times and places. I have no intention of broaching the endless
debate over philosophical or cultural relativism, for even if relativism
has its merits in some domains, it does no good for a theory of rights.
That is to say, if rights are merely the practice of certain speciWc, historically bound cultures, then a culturally relativistic theory of rights
will always boil down to a Thrasymachian theory of might makes
right. But the right equals might equation (again, even if it is valid)
proves utterly unhelpful for a theory of rights, since the equation
itself allows us to remove all traces of rights, to substitute might
whenever we see right. In other words, the might makes right doctrine tells us that those in power construct rules and privileges that
determine the behavior of others; this is a theory of political rule, of
political power, and perhaps of political decision making, but it is not
a theory of rights. For a right to be meaningful at all, it must be a
valid claim against political power.15
So the problem of formalism creates an acute problem for rights.
If rights can be said simply to exist on the transcendental a priori
level, then we Wnd ourselves with very little to talk about, and even
less to contest politically. By assuming rights to be transcendentals,
we obscure the contested terrain of rights, thereby denying their centrality to politics today. On the other hand, if we take rights to be but
particular local practices, then they offer little leverage for critique,
little space for political transformation, since they lose their validity
as claims against power. Rights relativism leaves us, once again, with
little to discuss and with little room for criticism or change. Ghostly
rights, I hope to show, offer one way to avoid this impalement; perhaps the logic of the ghost offers a refuge from the formalist pitfalls I
have outlined.
To develop this theory of ghostly rights, I will brieXy enter into
the conversation between Laclau, Judith Butler, and Slavoj izek
created by their recently published series of exchanges.16 All three
thinkers are concerned to elaborate an emancipatory discourse which
does not dissolve into mere particularism but keeps a universal
dimension alive (Laclau, 207), and they wish to do so without resorting either to a metaphysical foundationalism or a Kantian formalism.17 While they all agree that they have sidestepped any sort of

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crude foundationalism, each author accuses the others of unwittingly


falling back on formalism. In other words, while each author wishes
to articulate a conception of universality that emerges out of and
remains mediated by some trace of particularity, each faults the others for, at times, separating the universal and particular into two separate and hermetically sealed spheres, of constructing the universal
as an a priori, transcendental ideal-type, and theorizing the particular simply as an empirical-historical fact.
This disputesometimes comical in its mirrored structure, with
each accusing the others of precisely the same theoretical failing18
illustrates quite clearly the difWculty with simply leaving formalism
behind. And their conversation proves much more than merely academic because the signiWcance of conceptualizing rights as empty
signiWers demands a move beyond formalism.19 Rather than rehearse
the debates in their entirety, I will approach them through Butlers
argumentsusing her attempt to resist formalism to set the stage for
my own formulation of a theory of ghostly rights.
Butler calls izek a formalist for his reading of Hegel, in this
work and earlier ones, but her main focus of critique lies on Lacan.20
Butlers argument targets izeks use of the Lacanian bar as that
which both provides the inherent internal limit to the subject and
helps to constitute subjectivity. izek unwittingly aspires to Kantian
formalism when he promotes the Lacanian bar into an ahistorical,
presocial, and prediscursive transcendental structureone that sets
the conditions for all social conXict and politics but that itself lies outside of any realm of contingency or emendation. izek, for his part,
maintains that the Lacanian bar always operates, across culture, time,
and space, to limit/found human subjectivity.
But what this variant of Lacanian formalism precludes is precisely the sort of investigation of sexuality that has marked Butlers
work since the publication of Gender Trouble; Butler has consistently
argued that what we take to be invariant, ahistorical, and transcendental features of sexuality actually prove to be retroactive effects of
our own reiteration of cultural and political sexual norms. Thus,
while Butler has appropriated Lacanian theories of the subject into
her own work, she cannot tolerate the Lacanian installation of sexual difference into a precultural, prediscursive realm of the Real. She
argues that Lacanian claims such as there is no culture without

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sexual difference serve only to indicate a normative orientation protected from challenge by remaining in the pure, formal realmreentrenching the very sexual norms that Butlers work so often seeks
to challenge (145).21 Her answer to this problem proves rather predictable, but not for that reason any less important: we must challenge sexual difference as a transcendental claim so as to oppose its
normative weight; we must expose the social functioning of the
term and seek to alter both its force and its implications (148). This
is not to reject sexuality or even sexual difference en toto but rather to
deconstruct its formalist presentation and pretension within Lacanian theory. It is precisely those pretensions that Butler emphasizes
in her critique of izek.
Butlers argument proves much more sympathetic to Laclau,
partially because she sees the potential of what we might call postformalism in his work.22 Despite this common ground, Butler and
Laclau clash on two points. SuperWcially, they seem to disagree on
what role the theory of Hegel might have to play in radical democracy.23 Their more signiWcant dispute emerges in Butlers opening
essay when she accuses Laclau ofsurpriseunsuspectingly falling
back on a formalism of language. Butler rightly notes that Laclau
develops his conception of empty signiWers out of Saussures formal
model of langue, which establishes all linguistic identities strictly
within a system of negative differences.24 Butler challenges the overly
formal emptiness of this particular concept of the empty signiWer and
questions its political efWcacy. The Saussurian approacheven given
Laclaus poststructuralist reading of Saussure25may separate a formal analysis of language from a description of its use and practice
within speciWc political contexts. Butler asks a signiWcant question
here with respect to my discussion of temporality to come: why
should we conceive of universality as an empty place which awaits
its content in an anterior and subsequent event? (34). Butler will
always insist on theorizing language in its discursive practice, not in
its formal structure.
Laclau responds by emphasizing, with the example of Barthes,
the very transformation of formal categories of language through
their application to contingent and always shifting social and political contexts. That is, there is no immutable formal structure of language, since the formal categories will be subject to revision through

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the process of their application. To further his critical response,


Laclau wonders aloud whether it is not Butler herself who presupposes a formal model of language applicable to all contingent contexts. And this defense exempliWes a critical logic that circulates
throughout these exchanges: you see formalism in my work only
because you yourself are thinking with formalist categories.
I will argue that a viable resolution to this dispute that can move
beyond this very logicbeyond merely calling your critic the very
name that he or she has just called youwill require the resources of
untimeliness, which I will turn to and attempt to develop in the next
section. For now it sufWces to reveal further the crucial impact of formalismthe grenade that Butler tosses toward both of her interlocutors and that they often throw back at her.

FORMALISM, FUTURITY, AND HAUNTOLOGY


Any honest answer to these repeated questions of formalism would
require us to admit that none of these authors are closet, proto, or
silent Kantian formalists. Each is grappling with the difWcult project of working with and sustaining a notion of universality beyond
both foundationalism and formalism, and while they all agree on the
importance of such a project, they differ signiWcantly as to how to
pull it off. I want to contribute to the debate, and perhaps move
beyond it, by arguing that neither Hegel nor Lacan provides adequate theoretical provisions to develop fully a nonformal account of
the universal/particular relation. The problem in both cases, and the
largest gap in the izek/Butler (and Laclau) debate, lies not with
structure, form, or place, but with an inadequate attention to the
problem of time.
Only a greater attentiveness to, and exploration of, a radical
thinking of temporality can lead us out of this debate over formalism. Butlers texts provide abundant clues here, through her numerous
and repeated references to time, temporality, and futurity. Indeed,
while Butlers contributions focus more than the others on questions
of temporality, all three authors gesture in the direction of untimeliness through their offhand references to ghosts, specters, and hauntings, which reappear so frequently throughout their texts as to betray

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that they are far from offhand. And as I have suggested elsewhere,
the logic of the ghost, the reappearance of the specter, will always disrupt timeliness.26 What I am tempted to call the haunting of this text
suggests an approach to temporality that evades the very formalist
impasse in which the authors often Wnd themselves trapped. And
Butlers contributions, in particular, point decidedly to the signiWcance of the specter and the time of the ghost. The conversations
carried out in these exchanges often appear to be joined by more than
three interlocutors, and these ghosts prove fundamentally important
to the theory of rights. In beginning to build my own theory of rights,
I will try to summon these ghosts from their exchange.
On the Wrst page of her Wrst essay, Butler describes the politics
of hegemony as follows: democratic polities are constituted through
exclusions that return to haunt the polities predicated upon their
absence (11). This formulation appears innocent enough, but it translates modern democratic theory and practice into an effort to do away
with or silence ghostsor at the least, it founds modern democracy
on the false pretense that there really are no ghosts. And it makes radical democracy into a politics of the specter, since radical democracys
central concern rests with this return to haunt. In fact, I think it is
fair to characterize Butlers formulation of the universal/particular
relationon which both the larger project of radical democracy and
my smaller project on the discourse of rights both hingeas a
spectral one. Butlers articulation evokes the logic of the ghost, and it
preserves Laclaus insights into the politics of hegemony while simultaneously displacing the relation from the frame of formalism.
In trying to show the operation of what, following Derrida, Im
calling the logic of the ghost within Butlers text, I do not seek to
dismiss Butlers turn to Hegel. But I am concerned to show that what
this move serves to accomplish is not exactly a Hegelian reconceptualization of the concrete/universalsomething that Laclau himself cannot accept, and for which he therefore consistently criticizes
Butler. Instead, the reading of Hegels text allows Butler to bring a
dimension of radical temporality to bear on the theory of the universal/particular. Butler argues that Hegels critique of Kant performs
a split of universality into its ofWcial (i.e., formal) form and a spectral universality (23). Butler reads the contamination of the abstract
by the concrete through the logic of the ghost; the universal always

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remains haunted, therefore always spectral. The assimilation of the


particular into the universal leaves its trace, an unassimilable remainder, which renders universality ghostly to itself (24). Butler maintains
that this temporalized conception of universality proves fundamental to the theory of hegemonic politics, for without it we run the
risk of creating a static conception, one that fails to accommodate
challenge (24).
I contend that this hint at static conceptions actually holds
the key to Butlers entire critique of formalism, for it is precisely the
static, timeless conception of universality that falls prey to all the
false trappings of formalism. Butlers strongest political critiques of
both Laclau and, especially, izek fall under this heading of an inability to accommodate challenge. The shielding of the Lacanian Real
or the formal model of language from political scrutiny rests on a static, atemporal conception of those theoretical constructs, which are
said to be explicable through recourse to anachronistic structuralist
accounts (140). A nontemporalized conception of universality remains isolated and closed off from particularity exactly because it is
not subject to historicity in the same way that contingent historical
events must be. And as I delineated earlier, natural rights theories fall
under this same static, nontemporalized conception. It is a static conception of time that undergirds any Kantian formalism of universal/particular, and that founds a naively universalist conception of
rights. In contrast, a temporalized approachor what I will describe
as a radical, untimely approachto both the universal and the particular would prohibit recourse to the terms of formalism and help
to theorize a more rigorous and politically salient conception of the
universal/particular relation. This thinking of untimeliness will produce a theory of rights that avoids the formalist impasse.
Toward the end of her opening essay, Butler goes on to specify a
certain temporal dimension and to explain how it supplements a theory of the universal. She refers to the futural promise of universality. This universal is not merely an empty form, but a limitless and
unconditional feature of all political articulation (32). One cannot
adequately describe a temporalized universality as simply empty,
because it cannot be thought only along the dimension of space. The
temporal axis shifts our understanding, as Linda Zerilli eloquently
demonstrates: the empty universal is not the container of a presence,

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but the placeholder of an absence.27 The universal turns out to be


that is, in the end but also from the beginningempty but also
haunted: it carr[ies] the trace of the excluded in spectral form as an
internal disruption of its own formalism (167).28 Like any specter, we
cannot predict its arrival nor plan its departure. This means that the
universal, like radical democracy itself, must always remain open to
a certain future. But I will insist that this future not be thought as the
next predictable point upstream in time (not the next application of a
static formal structure), as it would be under a timely conception.29
The future must be thought, as Butler puts it, as a not yet or, as I
have described it previously, as the-future-to-come, la-venir. Butlers
own elaboration, with my emendations, runs as follows:
To claim that the universal has not yet been articulated is to insist that
the not yet [or the future-to-come, la-venir] is proper to an understanding of the universal itself [an insistence that injects untimeliness
into the core of universality]: that which remains unrealized by the
universal constitutes it essentially [thus, the universal is ghostly]. The
universal announces, as it were, its non-place, its fundamental temporal modality, precisely when challenges to its existing formulation
emerge from those who are not covered by it. (39; emphasis in original)

Butlers formulation here places a temporalized understanding of


formalism at the forefront of our thinking of the universal, since the
universal must always be both haunted by the particular and yet concerned with a certain futural promise (138). But as my inserted
comments demonstrate, I want to push this formulation much further, beyond mere temporality, to untimeliness.30 A truly untimely
account of politics will be necessarily outside the scope of formalism.
Untimeliness does not merely work within the structure of time but
instead takes heed of Hamlets lament that time is out of joint, and
once time is disjointed so too must be the structures of formalism.
Or, to phrase it otherwise, what must be developed here is a
ghostly approach to the universal/particular relation. If the universal
always turns out to be haunted, then it can never be truly empty,
but this also means that the particular can never be reducible to its
empirical facticityas it is precisely what does the haunting, it too
must be ghostly. The specter will always turn out to be both universal and particular and yet never really reducible to either of the

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formalist poles. The ghost that appears at a speciWc point and time
does indeed embody the particular, but at the same time the ghost
only appears by reappearing, by reiterating a past appearance.31 So
the specter always transcends any particular time and place and can
always reappear at other times and places. Time is out of joint. Thus
the ghost escapes conWnement to radical historicism and always
expresses a broader universalism. This is not a transcendental universalism but a spectral onenot an ontology but a hauntology.
izek demands that some dimension must prove more fundamental than the plane of radical historicism, and through this ghostly
approach to the problem of formalism we may wind up agreeing
with him, to a point. izek insists that there must be a historicity that
makes contingent historical formulations possible. The solution here
lies not with the Lacanian bar or the Lacanian Real, since each of
these theoretical constructs produces only a static, timely (thoroughly
ahistorical) variant of historicityone posited at an unchanging (and
as Butler would say, unrevisable) fundamental level. What we need
instead is an untimely conception of historicity. An untimely approach to history will allow us to move beyond both brute empiricism on the one hand, and end-of-history theses on the other. Butler,
I would submit, suggests very much the same approach when she
writes, we [must] rethink the meaning of history beyond both positivism and teleology (138). Butler insists that she can Wnd in Hegels
writings much more than an end-of-history claim: the Phenomenology, for instance, operates according to a temporality that is irreducible to teleology (172). Again, what we need is not an ontology
but a hauntology.
Hauntology hints at foundations in much the same way as hegemony hints at universals. A hauntology is the condition of (im)possibility for ontology. It is both that radical temporality that even
Heidegger says makes ontology possible and also that which draws
the internal limits of ontology (something Heidegger never mentions).
Derrida describes hauntology as follows: this logic of haunting would
not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being. It would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed
places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves. It
would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly.32 Hauntology emerges
only by reworking ontology through the logic of the ghost.

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To put it simply, hauntology is a theory of being, but one that


grants the possibility of being even to specters. Such a possibility
must radically disrupt traditional ontology, which would be circumscribed by or intimately tied to death (Heidegger). Hauntology,
therefore, turns out to be nothing more, but certainly nothing less,
than an untimely ontology. Through the logic of the ghost, a hauntology can account for contingent historical forms, but only by rejecting what izek would pejoratively call a radical historicismwhich
turns out to be a mere empiricism. In other words, under a hauntology, historical particulars become ghostly appearances, not brute
facts, and universal categories become specters, not static formal
structures.
I would submit that within Butlers contributions we catch a
glimpse of a futural, untimely thinking of the universal/particular
relation and we witness the operation of a hauntology. But Butler
implies that the work of Laclau and izek is moving in the same
direction when she describes the open-ended futurity of hegemony
on which both my interlocutors here also depend (174). Their texts
too are haunted, and each of them repeatedly mentions these
ghosts.33 It is perhaps with this haunting that we see the real evasion
of formalism. The spectrality of the universal/particular removes any
trace of formalism, but does so precisely by leaving ghostly traces
of the particular within the always haunted universal. Hauntology offers one way of thinking our way through or around the problem of formalism. Now we need to turn that thinking back to the
problem of rights.

THE SPECTRALITY OF RIGHTS, THE RIGHTS OF THE SPECTER


At the end of her Wrst essay, Butler asks a key question well suited to
the terms of this article, and it is one I wish to focus on in the space
remaining. She formulates the question in brilliant, bafXing, and frustratingly simple form when she asks, what, then, is a right? (41).
This proves to be a much harder question to answer now than we once
thought it was; the framework of radical democracy certainly supplies no direct response, even though the terms of both modern social
contract theory and Kantian moral theory had offered an immediate

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reply. And this is probably just the reason that Butler asks the question in such seemingly simple terms, even though she herself goes on
to show that there is no straightforward answer. The point is not
then to answer these questions but to permit them an opening, to
provoke a political discourse that sustains the questions and shows
how unknowing any democracy must be about its future (41). Butlers response highlights the untimeliness of democracy, as it gestures
toward la-venir. My own response centers on the notion that within
the rather untimely terms of radical democracy we can only think
rights as ghostly rights.
The phrase ghostly rights calls to mind, simultaneously, two
important movements of thought. It suggests the need to theorize a
concept of rights through the logic of the ghost, while it also implies
a reconsideration of rights as themselves spectral. I already focused,
at some length, on this Wrst notion as I tried to show that any viable
theory of rights in contemporary politics requires a move beyond the
formalist dilemma, but I still need to demonstrate that the logic of the
ghost enables this very shift. In this Wnal section I wish to focus more
closely on this second notion. What does it mean for a right to be the
right of ghost? And to what would the political productivity of such
a notion amount?
Derrida argues that a belief in ghosts or the ghostly must always
call into question our assumptions about the difference between the
real and the unreal. The decision to grapple with ghosts must be
anathema to the scholar:
[T]here has never been a scholar who really, and as scholar, deals with
ghosts. A traditional scholar does not believe in ghostsnor in all that
could be called the virtual space of spectrality. There has never been a
scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between
the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the
non-living, being and non-being.34

Therefore, one of the most signiWcant tenets of any theory of ghostly


rights lies in its ability to reveal to us something crucially important
about rights that we already intuitively know, yet never wish to
admit, namely, rights are not real. Rights make their appearance only
in the spectral plane that exists between the actual and the inactual.
This formulation should not suggest that rights do not exist;

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certainly the practice of rights and the discourse of rights play a


prominent, if not dominant, role in contemporary democratic politics. But one reason that it is very practically signiWcant, and not
merely playful or just theoretically interesting, to think of rights as
ghostly is that it helps to account for the historical fact that apparent
rights that we expect to emerge, to literally be there, sometimes just
never manifest themselvesor when they do, they quickly disappear. Rights are not real. This means that they have no transcendental truth, good for all times and places, and they hold no irrefutable
empirical validity, good for a particular time and place, given the
letter of the law.35 The historical experience of democratic politics
illustrates this ghostly quality of rights, since throughout that history
neither transcendental philosophical principles nor speciWc particular laws have ever been able to certify beforehand the eventual appearance and protection of rights. Rights are always already untimely
because they can never be guaranteed in advance.
This key insight into the history of rights seems lost on many of
my advanced undergraduate seminar students, and this experience
has led me to emphasize the importance of thinking through the
spectral quality of rights. My students wish to assert a one-to-one
relationship between the rights they read about (either in the Constitution, in the texts of political philosophers, or in particular laws) and
the empirical political world. The tendency can be exempliWed by
the student who, when discussing civil rights for gays and lesbians
and the debate over gay marriage, literally pointed to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as if its mere existence
could bring both our classroom discussion and the raging political
battle to an end.36 The statement rights arent real can help to disrupt assumptions about the one-to-one correlation between rights on
paper and rights in the world. If rights are ghostly, then there can be
no such direct correlation. Rights on paper and rights in the world
must be mediated; they must be incarnated. And incarnation belongs
to the logic of the spectera belief in ghosts, or at least a patience to
work with them, undermines the faith of both the scholar and of the
idealistic student.37
The specter also undermines any nave belief that rights that have
appeared will never disappear. To put it otherwise, a theory of ghostly
rights might help prevent us from retroactively writing a teleological

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history of rights, in which democratic politics consists of a march


forward from less and less to more and more rights. Again, this
tendency marks the vast majority of my students approach to the
history of civil rights in the United States, to such an extent that my
introductory American politics class consistently interprets Plessy v.
Ferguson as nothing more than a stepping-stone toward the ending of
segregationjust one chapter in the teleological movement toward
full civil rights for African-Americans. (They invoke the negative
moment of the Hegelian dialectic despite their lack of acquaintance
with it.) Introductory American politics students want American history to be Wlled with concrete advancements in rights, not with ghosts.
When my students and I very brieXy cover the basic facts of the
Bowers v. Hardwick decision, they often have a hard time even believing me. They consistently ask me to restate the terms of the decision;
they feel certain that they must have heard wrong. This retroactive
installment of a rights teleology might also help to explain the conWdence with which many younger, pro-choice Republicans voted for
George W. Bush. Their decision to vote for Bush, despite his pro-life
stance and despite the strong possibility that he will appoint at least
two Supreme Court justices during his time in ofWce, rested (perhaps
tacitly, but nonetheless) on the belief that Roe v. Wade simply could
not and cannot be overturned, since it establishes a womans right to
chooseand rights, on this teleological model, cannot be taken away
once they are granted.38 That decision, in other words, presumes that
rights are real and ghosts are not.
The untimeliness, the spectrality of rights, interrupts any sort
of seamless historical narrative that we might wish to tell about
rights in our democracy. A theory of ghostly rights calls our attention
to the vigilance and patience required both to bring rights into being
and to make sure that they do not disappear. And it highlights the
common disjuncture, the gap between rights on paper and rights
in the world. Ghostly rights thereby bring into our purview what
Butler calls the spectral remainder, which does not have a home in the
forward march of the universal (178). This remainder is formed by
those people who remain excluded from rights, and whose exclusion
forms the basis for a false conception of rights as universals, marching
forward in time. With a theory of ghostly rights, there can be no nave
faith in the real of rights and there can be no allegiance to a humanist

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story of progress. The notion of ghostly rights allows us to focus on


the way that rights tend to work in history, and it offers us a more
viable approach to negotiating the future of rights for democracy.39
Butler offers her own indirect evidence for the political viability
of a theory of ghostly rights when she takes up the debate over the
right to gay marriage. Butler summarizes the position on gay marriage taken up by the mainstream of the lesbian and gay movement:
marriage should be a fundamental civil right open to all citizens
regardless of sexuality, and in opening up that institution to lesbians
and gays we democratize it and extend a whole host of basic civil
rights (175). The principle of equal rights dictates that marriage
should not be an exclusive association available only to heterosexuals, and it suggests that any current negative implications or ramiWcations of marriage (particularly its traditional participation in sexist
gender roles) will be overcome when the entry of gays into the institution transforms it. Butler notes that this argument in support of the
strategy to pursue gay marriage as a primary goal of the lesbian and
gay movement resonates with a certain understanding of universalization within the political theory of hegemony; that is, the struggle
by a particular group leads to greater universalizing effects.
Even more intuitively, both supporters and more neutral observers of the struggle for gay marriage claim that the extension of
rights is always a good thing. If straights have the right to marry, why
shouldnt gays? And many supporters of gay marriage as a primary
goal for the lesbian and gay movement make it clear that they are
not advocating marriage as such but merely the right to marry, which
will then make marriage just another choice for everyone. Michael
Warner, one of the Wrst queer theorists in recent years to launch a
piercing and passionate critique of gay marriage, suggests that this
intuitive logic has led to the relative silence of a large number of
gays who might oppose the institution of marriage for themselves
and who may well see other pressing issues on the agenda of gay politicssuch as immigration laws, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, repeal of sodomy laws, adoption; the list goes on and on.40 But
who wants to stand in the way of progress for rights?
For all of these reasons, Butler says, we might be tempted to
applaud the strategy to win the right to marry (175). But before we
do, Butler, following Warners important work on this topic quite

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closely, suggests we think more critically about the effects that the
pursuit of this strategy has both on the lesbian and gay movement in
general and on rights in particular. The strategy for the right to gay
marriage bundles together a whole host of rights, privileges, and
responsibilities, including adoption, health care, inheritance, hospital
visitation, and tax breaks. But we can also see a rather dark underside
to this shift:
[T]he successful bid to gain access to marriage effectively strengthens
marital status as a state-sanctioned condition for the exercise of certain
kinds of rights; it strengthens the hand of the state in the regulation of
human sexual behavior; and it emboldens the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of partnership and kinship. (176)

This exacerbation of the illegitimate/legitimate distinction has signiWcant and insidious effects. It increases the normalizing power of
marriage. If gay marriage actually increases state power over the regulation of sexuality and if it ties a large number of fundamentally important rights to the institution of marriage, then marriage becomes
much more than simply a right; it becomes a disciplinary institution
(which, of course, it already is to begin with). Warner formulates
this point in succinct yet powerful terms: as long as people marry
the state will continue to regulate the sexual lives of those who do
not marry.41
There seems to be no doubt that, contrary to the intuitive belief
that rights are always a good thing, the right to marry is haunted.
There is nothing neutral about the strategy to seek the right to marry;
it has signiWcant spectral effects. Successfully achieving the right to
marriage will effectively bar lesbians, gays, certain single persons,
and nonmarried straights from access to a long list of other rights,
since all those rights that are bundled into the institution of marriage
will now be open to all. That is, they will be open to all who are
able to and choose to enter into the institution of marriage, an institution that will now have the potential to bestow beneWts on gays and
straights alike. But those gays who seek the association of marriage
will now be severing their ties to other groups and individuals whose
sexual lives made them queer with respect to the sexual norm. The
lesbian/gay alliance with these people . . . is broken by the petition
for marriage (Butler, 176). Moreover, gay marriage does not challenge

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the power of that norm; it increases that power by allowing more


gays to be normal.
So the mainstream lesbian and gay movements choice to elevate
the right to marriage to their primary goal actually mirrors the traditional privileging of that institution by the state, and it enhances the
disciplinary power over those who cannot or will not marry, i.e.,
those who remain queer with respect to marriage law. Again, Warner
makes the point sharply: marriage sanctiWes some couples at the
expense of others. It is selective legitimacy.42 The married receive
beneWts that the unmarried do not because the state wishes to privilege an institution said to cultivate Judeo-Christian values and to
serve as the nurturing center for that unit we call the family. If this
formulation seems a bit extreme, or at least overly conservative, one
only has to read the Bowers v. Hardwick decision of 1986, which upheld anti-sodomy laws43 on the grounds that they preserved precisely
those Judeo-Christian values. Or one can consider the marriage tax
relief proposed by President Bush, which seeks to increase the tax
breaks for married couples dramaticallyso that there will literally
be a penalty to be paid by a working couple that chooses not to
enter the state institution of marriage.44 Of course, there is nothing
new or novel about the states privileging of marriage, but there is
something very dangerous about the lesbian and gay movements
strategy of mimicking that privileging, despite their best intentions.
Following Warner, Butler wishes to illuminate the dangers and
pitfalls of pursuing the right to marry, to reveal those effects of this
strategy that cut against the purpose and spirit of radical democracy.
Along the way, I think the example serves to demonstrate the importance of thinking rights as ghostly. Butler writes:
So, the claim to extend the right of marriage to non-heterosexual
people may appear at Wrst to be a claim that works to extend existing
rights in a more universalizing direction, but to the extent that those
universalizing effects are those that emanate from the state legitimation
of sexual practice, the claim has the effect of widening the gap between
legitimate and illegitimate forms of sexual exchange. Indeed, the only
possible route for a radical democratization of legitimating effects
would be to relieve marriage of its place as the precondition of legal
entitlements of various kinds. (17677)

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I would argue that Butlers reference to rights points us straight in


the direction of ghostly rights. Rights in quotation marks suggests
the very route around formalism that I have discussed at length,
since rights are neither simply transcendental truths nor empirical
historical realitiesit suggests that we think rights as ghostly.
And in the case of the right to marriage, this haunting proves
rather dangerous. By further entrenching the distinction between the
married and the nonmarried, the right to gay marriage will not resolve the spectral remainder. As Butler emphasizes, this movement
cannot be considered simply one of universalization. The right to
marry will, instead, increase and exacerbate the effects of the institution of marriage on that spectral remainder still barred from that very
institution. The spectrally non-human that Butler refers to will now
be entrenched further outside the space of legitimacy and will have
little or no hope of gaining the very rights that marriage offers. The
disciplinary power acting on those queers who cannot or wish not to
marry can only be increased by the right to gay marriage.
The alternative strategy, therefore, as advocated by both Butler
and Warner, has to be one of delinking the institution of marriage
from the bundle of basic civil rights sought by gays and lesbians. This
means, in turn, that most of those rights will have to be unbundled
from one another, since many of them have no necessary or logical
connection to one another; they are linked only contingently and historically through the institution of marriage. There can be little doubt
that the unbundling strategy may make the struggle for gay rights
more difWcult because it increases the number of fronts on which
defenders of gay rights must Wght. But it cannot be overemphasized
that this delinking strategy proves absolutely essential to a politics of
hegemony, for it makes it possible to challenge the very normalizing
power of marriage as an institution. In other words, seeking civil
rights outside of the catch-all of marriage is not only an effort to gain
substantive practical rewards for queers but also an attack on the
hegemony of marriage as a disciplinary institutionwhereas the alternative strategy of seeking gay marriage may only further entrench
that hegemony.
In turn, this strategy makes the struggle for those rights much
messier and more complicated. Those battles for rights must therefore

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be fought piecemeal on a number of different fronts, with no guarantees of victory and no assurances that victory, if won, will be permanent. But the struggle is now one to be waged on the terrain of
hegemonic politics. Thus, this is still a battle for rights, but it takes up
a strategy that accepts the spectral quality of rights. It rejects the one
single, universal goal of the right to marrywhat Laclau would
call an effort at a Wnal suture of the socialand works on universalizing a number of particulars. It tries to preserve the possibility of
allowing the spectrally nonhuman to participate in the universal in a
future-to-come, la-venir, through new legal arrangements and different structures of kinship. The pursuit of ghostly rights must always
remain open to these democratic futures.
My conclusion can be stated rather brieXy by way of a crude
reformulation of this sections heading: only an insistence on the
spectrality of rights can keep alive the possibility of afWrming the
rights of the specter. And the rights of the specter can only be sought
through a strategy that confronts and seeks to undermine the norm,
through the reiteration of sexuality beyond the dominant terms
(Butler, 177). This is precisely a politics of hegemony. In other words,
the theory of ghostly rights that I have worked to articulate here
provides an adequate account of the spectral remainder and insists
on maintaining that openness to la-venir necessary for the project
of radical democracy to be both meaningful and, possibly, successfulwhich does not, indeed cannot, mean that the project could ever
come to a Wnal end. Here I return to Butlers initial formulation of
radical democracy as a project that is politically effective precisely
in so far as the return of the excluded forces an expansion and rearticulation of the basic premises of democracy itself (11). A theory of
rights proper to the project of radical democracy and, I would suggest, a viable theory of rights for contemporary politics in general must
respond to previous hauntings, it must be able to await the return of
the specter, the revenant whose appearance is always a reappearance.

Notes
For helpful comments, criticisms, and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay,
I owe debts to Iris Marion Young, Lisa Disch, Patrick Finn, and Rebecca Brown. I

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also thank the St. Marys summer writing group, and two anonymous reviewers
for Cultural Critique.
1. The debates may be safely called abstract because the languages of
psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and Marxist-Gramscian theory prove rather
rareWed, but I use the word precisely because so many of the writers within these
debates call into question any simplistic distinction between, on the one hand,
plain and simple language or common sense and, on the other, specialized language or jargon.
2. Of course, the issue here could also be framed as one of equal pay, particularly with respect to educational institutions since Title IX forbids discrimination on the basis of marital status. If enforced to the letter it would prohibit
the granting of unequal beneWts packages to the married and nonmarried. This
approach to the problem of rights would also avoid the entire framework of identity politics. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer of Cultural Critique for sharing
this important insight.
3. Jacques Rancire deWnes this claim by those who have no claim as the
very essence of politics. See his Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie
Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
4. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 4.
5. Initiated in Giving Up (on) Rights? Currently under review for publication in the American Journal of Political Science.
6. Wendy Brown articulates this argument most cogently and forcefully.
See her States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1995).
7. See Browns States of Injury, where she uses Nietzsches logic of ressentiment critically, as a tool of leverage for broadening our conception of democratic
practice. She is particularly concerned with the limited space of freedom offered
by liberal pluralism.
8. Although I will not pursue the distinction in any detail here, it seems
prudent to note the possible gap between universal and particular that is mapped
by the difference between human rights and civil rights, respectively. Talal Asad
provides an illuminating discussion of Malcolm Xs appeal to human rights as a
critique of the American civil rights movement. See Asads What Do Human
Rights Do? An Anthropological Enquiry, Theory and Event 4, no. 4 (2000), at
http://www.press.jhu.edu/journals/theory_&_event, where he cites Malcolm X,
The Ballot or the Bullet, in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, ed.
G. Breitman (New York: Grove Press, 1990).
9. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New
York: Harper, 1964), 55; emphasis added.
10. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St.
Martins Press, 1965).
11. Kant, Groundwork, 79.

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12. Kant, On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical
Use, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. T. Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1983), 71; quoted in Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse
Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 93.
13. This starting point is also rejected by the discourse theory of democracy,
which always insists on a postmetaphysical concept of reason. See Habermas,
Between Facts and Norms, as well as note 29.
14. Often this ground turns out to be a seemingly pragmatic, but not, for
that reason, any less dogmatic variant of humanism. Here I would cite the work
of George Kateb, who adamantly defends a theory of rights-based individualism
(particularly in the face of utilitarian or communitarian challenges) on the
grounds that only a theory of rights can fully honor human dignity. Kateb writes,
why make so much of human dignity? I do not Wnd much to say. Im not even
sure that much should be said. Kateb runs short of words just as his theory runs
into the bedrock of humanism, but if postfoundational political theory has accomplished anything, it lies in a demonstration of the important political (indeed,
democratic) necessity of questioning even these grounds, at least for the sake of
opening them up to democratic contestation. See Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 4.
15. This last formulation, of course, expresses the difference between right
and rights. Obviously Thrasymachuss doctrine seeks to assert that moral right or
justice is only the expression of the strongest or of those in power. But the formula
still applies, across time and space, to a cultural relativism of rights, since the latter tells us that rights must be explained only as the practices of particular communities, suggesting that in some communities those in power grant rights to
citizens and in some they do not. This turns rights, which are meant to be claims
against power, into the product of the powerful. The mighty therefore make right
and give rights.
16. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj izek, Contingency, Hegemony,
Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000). Hereafter,
all references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text with page number and, where necessary, author.
17. Unlike the issue of formalism that constitutes the key topic for debate,
postfoundationalism serves as an implicit and governing assumption of that
debate.
18. The humor is, of course, not lost on the authors themselves, whose styles
and tone in this volume seem to create a unique mix of criticism and collegiality.
This approach allows them to forward powerful substantive challenges to one
another while still never taking themselves too seriously. Butler, in particular,
makes explicit mention of this comedy of formalisms (137).
19. The move beyond formalism proves crucial, in other words, because if
thinking rights through the logic of hegemony as empty signiWers just means seeing them as formal a priori structures, then this conception turns out to be no
more helpful than contemporary weakened variants of natural rights theory.

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20. Butler repeatedly accuses izek of, at times, using Hegels philosophy
itself as a formalist schemaclearly a signiWcant misreading from Butlers perspective since it must overlook one of Hegels most important contributions to
modern thought. Butler makes reference to izeks tendency to render [Hegel]
compatible with a Kantian formalism on more than one occasion. She cites
izeks Tarrying with the Negative in support of this assertion, although in the limited space of these exchanges she offers no actual reading of that text. See izek,
Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, N.C.:
North Carolina University Press, 1993). But for her most focused attack on izeks
work, Butler targets not Hegel but Lacan. This is not the Wrst time that Butler, who
quite clearly appreciates both izeks contributions to Lacanian theory and his
work as a searing social critic (27), has called izek to task for his commitments
to Lacanian doxa (6); she devotes an entire chapter of Bodies That Matter to formulating a sympathetic, but no less piercing critique of izeks appropriation of
the Lacanian Real. In that work Butler vigorously questions izeks insistence
that the Lacanian Real remains utterly prior to the symbolic realm and therefore
outside of the realm of contingency and revisability. By precluding the Real from
social and political critique, izek reiWes the heterosexual injunctions of the Oedipal scenario by inscribing them into the Lacanian law. See Bodies That Matter: On
the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993).
21. In her work on Antigone, Butler continues this critique by engaging
directly with the narratives that ground much of psychoanalysis; she challenges
the formalism of Lacanian doxa, for example, by asking George Steiners question, what would happen if psychoanalysis were to have taken Antigone rather
than Oedipus as its point of departure? See Butler, Antigones Claim: Kinship
between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and George
Steiner, Antigones (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).
22. Butler and Laclau develop a very productive dialogue on the similarities
in their thinking of hegemony, particularly the shared afWnities between Laclaus
concept of chains of equivalence and Butlers notion of cultural translation.
Both are efforts to articulate the universal dimension of politics from within particular realms.
23. Their dispute on this point is less noteworthy or substantive than it
might appear, because each author seems to take Derridas deconstruction of the
Hegelian Aufhebung quite seriously. Laclau reads that deconstruction as a critique
and repudiation of Hegel: Hegel interprets all antagonism between the concrete
and the abstract as reconciliation (sublation) when we should be reading it as contamination (192), while Butler takes that deconstruction to inaugurate a new
Hegel, one whose own text allows for the possibility of contamination in what
appears to be only reconciliation. In other words, Butlers Hegel has already been
deconstructed by Derrida; thus, hers is a much more radical Hegel, whose texts
are full of potential. When it comes to the actual relationship between the abstract
and the concrete, Laclau and Butler end up saying almost precisely the same
thing; they only differ on whether a notion of the abstract as contaminated by the

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concrete proves to be an idea that refutes Hegel or one that can be found in
Hegels own text (Butler, 39; Laclau, 193). And at the end of these exchanges,
Laclau himself says as much: I do not object to the language games that Butler
plays around Hegelian categories, so long as it is clear that, in playing them, she
is clearly going beyond Hegel (296). Butlers Wrst book has been republished
with a new preface by the author centering on the role and relevance of Hegel
in contemporary theory. See Subjects of Desire: Hegelian ReXections in TwentiethCentury France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). For Derridas reading
of Hegel, see his Glas, trans. John P. Leavey and Richard Rand (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1986).
24. Laclau goes on to push this Saussurian approach in the direction of Derridas deconstruction when he asks questions about the limits of the system of
signiWcation. Within this system of negative differences, the universal can only
emerge as the external limit to the system of signiWcation. Laclau, Why Do
Empty SigniWers Matter to Politics? in his Emancipation(s) (London: Verso Press,
1996), 40.
25. And here I have to agree fully with Butler, although it is rather ironic to
see her making the same observation about his reading of Saussure that might
well be made by Laclau about her reading of Hegel. The system of signiWcation
as a system of negative differences is no doubt a part of Saussures text, but the
idea that the limit to that system of signiWcations sets in motion the very systematicity of the system is something difWcult to develop without the help, again,
of Derridas reading of Saussure. See Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri
Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
26. For an elaboration on the logic of the ghost, see my Spectral History,
Untimely Theory, Theory and Event 3, no. 4 (2000), at http://www.press.jhu.edu/
journals/theory_&_event.
27. Linda Zerilli, The Universalism Which Is Not One, Diacritics 28, no. 2
(1998): 320.
28. Toward the conclusion of these exchanges, Laclau himself seems to
accept a modiWcation of his appropriation of empty signiWers for the theory of
hegemony. He writes, there is not, strictly speaking, a signiWer which is truly
empty, but one which is only tendentially so (304).
29. On the surface, it might appear at this point that the move my argument
is takingto reject a Kantian (formalist) understanding of rights by bringing in a
dimension of temporality oriented toward the futuremirrors the recent work of
Jrgen Habermas, particularly his effort to apply discourse theory to law and
democracy in Between Facts and Norms (BFN). After all, Habermas rejects Kants
subordination of rights to the moral law just as he has clearly insisted (at least
since Remarks on Discourse Ethics) on a postmetaphysical concept of reason
(one not grounded on religious or metaphysical worldviews). Thus, he clearly
wishes to avoid an empty formalist thinking of universality when it comes to
the question of rights. Habermas goes on to insist that political autonomy be
founded on the internal connection between popular sovereignty and human

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rights (BFN, 101). And he locates this internal connection in his discourse principle: the sought for internal connection between popular sovereignty and human
rights lies in the normative content of the very mode of exercising political autonomy,
a mode that is . . . secured . . . only through the communicative form of discursive
processes of opinion- and will-formation (BFN, 103). In other words, communicative action itself becomes the ground for rights or, as Habermas himself puts
it, a logical genesis of rights (BFN, 121). Emphasis in quotations is in the original.
Moreover, this internal connection that overcomes the impasse between liberals and civic-republicans only exists in the dimension of time. Habermass recent
Political Theory article elaborates on this particular pointone already implicit in
Between Facts and Norms. He writes, this internal connection between will and
reason can develop only in the dimension of timeas a self-correcting historical
process (Constitutional Democracy, 768). Habermas makes the apparently
postfoundational (thereby postmetaphysical) argument that neither universal
human rights nor a particular political communitys popular sovereignty can
be the ultimate ground for democracy. Instead, the apparent regress merely
expresses the future-oriented character, or openness, of the democratic constitution. Habermas calls this a tradition-building project that produces the selfcorrecting learning process of democratic societies. There is no vicious circle
between popular sovereignty and human rights precisely because democracies
have this self-correcting temporal-historical dimension built in, as it were. Thus,
with Habermass application of discourse theory to democracy, we have a rejection of the Kantian conception of rights inextricably linked to a temporal dimension, indeed, a future-oriented temporal dimension.
However, rather than offering a complement to the conception of ghostly
rights that I develop here and in the text following, Habermass current application of his theory of communicative action actually provides the perfect counterexample for my theory of rights. Habermass understanding of democracy
maintains a temporal dimension, but it is by no means ghostly or untimely.
Indeed, Habermas offers us a clear case of a linear, timely conception. As Bonnie
Honig powerfully illustrates in her response to Habermas, his understanding of
time proves to be thoroughly linear and progressivist. He robs democracy of the
very open-ended character he points to by tying democratic citizens to a speciWc
tradition in the past, and placing on their shoulders the responsibilities of unfolding this tradition in the future. She asks, In what sense is Habermass gesture to
futurity meaningful if that future is always already known to be governed by
progress? In what sense can the people be said to be learning from their experience if their learning process is said to be self-correcting? (Dead Rights, Live
Futures, 795). In going on to stress the democratic importance of questioning faith
in progress, Honigs critique of Habermas does gesture in the direction of the theory of ghostly rights that I try to outline here; for the purposes of my argument,
her critique shows quite clearly why adding a temporal dimension to democracy
is not nearly enough to produce an untimely or ghostly conception of rights. The
live futures that Honig says we must maintain in order to invigorate democratic

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activism are precisely the ghostly futures that I try to describe here. For the
Habermas and Honig articles, see Political Theory 29, no. 6 (2001): 76681 and
792805, respectively.
30. Again, this is why merely considering a dimension of time does not get
one around formalism or allow one to arrive at an untimely theory of rights.
31. Derrida argues that the ghost is always a revenant, one who appears only
by reappearing: a specter is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings
and goings because it begins by coming back (Specters, 11; emphasis in original).
32. Ibid., 10.
33. For example, in insisting on the necessity of locating the very ontological condition of historicity (18687), Laclau gestures in the direction of the very
hauntology that I am working through here. For his part, izek points to Kant,
who he says implicitly outlined a theory of the structural necessity of ghosts
(235). izeks more recent work meditates at greater length and depth on the
question of ghosts. See The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000).
34. Derrida, Specters, 11.
35. As Derrick Bell has recently put it, rights dont really exist if youre
not willing to stand up for them. Bell, RedeWning Racial Issues for the Next
Decade, speech given at St. Marys College of Maryland, February 6, 2001.
36. To a certain extent, William Eskridges The Case for Same-Sex Marriage:
From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment (New York: Free Press, 1996) operates
on precisely the same level, particularly when he makes the constitutional argument for same-sex marriage.
37. Derrida, Specters, 11.
38. For one angle into this issue, see In Campaign, High Court Is High on
the Agenda, at http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6696-2000Jul8.
html (accessed January 10, 2001).
39. We can also follow out one other crucial implication of this line of logic:
rights are the last thing that can be assimilated to a formal or historicist logic,
even though the history of political thought is marked by efforts to assimilate
them to both models (through natural rights and cultural relativism).
40. Among others, including Butler herself, see especially Michael Warner,
The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: Free
Press, 1999).
41. Ibid., 96.
42. Ibid., 82.
43. SpeciWcally, the court upheld antihomosexual sodomy. An ironic and
more obviously homophobic decision, given that the Georgia law in question
outlawed all anal and oral sex, with no mention made of sexual orientation.
44. And as bit of a side note, I would point out here that the so-called marriage tax penalty, which is said to unfairly and unduly burden married couples,
has only become a burden because the structure of the family has changed. In
other words, current tax law with respect to marriage actually beneWts married
couples and it beneWts precisely the vision of the family that many conservatives

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still hold dear. The 1950s suburban household in which the husband works and
the wife stays home still receives tax beneWts from the current law: the husbands
standard deduction is higher since he has a wife. And this tax law therefore still
serves a certain 1950s-era disciplining function in that it encourages single men to
take a wife. The problem, as we all know, is that there are no longer that many
1950s households around, and the current law does not beneWt married couples
in which both partners work outside the home.

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