Paik Interrogates Rightlessness at Guantanamo

By Tanzeen R. Doha - On October 6, 2016, A. Naomi Paik, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, gave a talk entitled “Rightlessness: Hunger Strikes, Force-feeding, and Testimony at Guantanamo.” In it, she sought theoretical and practical solutions to systematic prisoner oppression.

Paik introduced the history of U.S. prison camps, and explored how the prison structure violates the rights of the prisoner. In the contemporary War on Terror, she explained, many prisoners are not given their full civil and legal rights. In Guantanamo, such rightlessness leads many prisoners to attempt suicide. Texts written by these prisoners, addressing death and the impossibility of life under such conditions, provide crucial insight into the repercussions of rightlessness.

Paik deconstructed the common-sense notion of “inalienable rights” in liberal rights discourse by suggesting that, in political history, rightlessness is intrinsic to the concept of rights. Therefore, the treatment of prisoners and the violation of rights is not “un-American” but, rather, fundamentally American. In other words, in order to have rights for a group of people within the structure of liberal-democracy, another group of people must be rightless. This is the paradox of the discourse of rights.

More tolerant future?

Analyzing legal documents, truth commission records, poetry, and other sources to think through the problem of rights, Paik found removing people from their social and political communities to be essential in the enforcement of rightlessness. The political and social alienation it engenders exists, she said, within a specific kind of repressive history. Here, the works of Hannah Arendt provided Paik with a lens through which to view a new configuration of inhumanity in late capitalist modernity.

Paik ended her talk with a guarded optimism, claiming that a more inclusive and tolerant future will have to examine the concern of rightlessness. She also outlined how, for pragmatic reasons at least, there has to be some sort of political, legal, social engagement with the rights discourse in order for prisoners and captives to enjoy some possibility of life.

Central question

Fielding questions from the audience, Paik engaged with topics including neoliberalism, human rights discourse, political strategy, the history of decolonization in the 1960s, the history of inhumanity in late modern capitalism, and the history of fascism in relation to World War II. In one of her responses, she suggested that neoliberalism has a tendency to de-democratize. She also addressed a question regarding her formulation of the essential paradox of rightlessness: if, in fact, rightlessness is part of the liberal-democratic notion of rights, isn’t a focus on de-democratization potentially redundant? Paik agreed that this was a central question for her work.

At the theoretical level, Paik displayed a deep interest in a world beyond liberal-democracy—one that is more tolerant, inclusive, and just. At the level of practicality, she wants to ensure that those who are imprisoned and unjustly violated can utilize the discourse of rights in order to survive the conditions of oppression—the conditions of rightlessness.

Learn more about A. Naomi Paik at her University of Illinois faculty webpage.

This event was sponsored by Cultural Studies, American Studies, Asian American Studies, Human Ecology, the School of Law, and the Davis Humanities Institute.