Nature and Society in Revolutionary Rights Debates

Authored by: Susan Maslan

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights

Print publication date:  August  2015
Online publication date:  July  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415736411
eBook ISBN: 9781315778372
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696285


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How did French legislators in 1789 imagine the subjects of their legislation? It is a crucial question since the Revolution famously transformed subjects into citizens (Balibar 2012). But such a transformation was anything but given in the Revolution’s early days. The Parisian masses who took the Bastille and marched to Versailles did not look anything like political subjects to many of those who served as deputies to the newly formed National Assembly. Not only were there plenty of women in the street, the whole lot of them – men, women, and children – appeared poor. Some were even hungry. These were creatures of the body, subjects of need rather than will and rights; in Hannah Arendt’s terms, they seemed to belong only to the world of labor, not to that of action (Arendt 1958). In this brief chapter I discuss how the deputies of the new National Assembly debated and conceived of the subjects of the Declaration of Rights they would ultimately draft and especially how they confronted a new and pressing problem that was at once political and imaginative: what is the political subjectivity of the poor?

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