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  • Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature by Elizabeth S. Anker
  • Tereza M. Szeghi (bio)
Elizabeth S. Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature (Cornell University Press, 2012), 262 pages, ISBN 978-0-8014-5136-2.

Elizabeth S. Anker critiques dominant conceptions of human rights, beginning by asserting that however useful notions of human dignity may be to our ability to define and implement human rights, in the end these notions are fictions. Thus from the outset she provokes readers to revisit and reconceive the nature of human experience and—by extension—operative human rights frameworks. Anker contends that the fiction of human dignity (commonly posited as the basis of human rights) works in tandem with the fiction of bodily integrity to perpetuate a disembodied, anemic, and exclusionary conception of human nature. She argues that liberal notions of human rights, which have come to define the field, contain two key paradoxes. The first paradox pertains to a profound ambivalence toward embodiment. Human rights standards typically reference an ideal of the self-contained, impenetrable body, yet also rely on a dualistic, Cartesian conception of the relationship between mind and body that elides and even denigrates corporeal experience (with the body as the site of passions the rational mind must regulate and control). The second paradox pertains to the language of human rights, which Anker sees as working in opposition to the original social and political aims it was intended to advance, and instead serving “the opportunistic ends of selfish actors.”1

In her first chapter Anker elaborates on what she identifies as some of the most problematic features of human rights discourse, including: its adherence to liberal norms that validate Western values, such as an aversion to the body that “masks and condones concrete discrimination against raced, gendered, and otherwise disadvantaged populations”;2 its reliance on a neocolonial victim/savior dichotomy; and its perpetuation of exoticizing and derogatory stereotypes about the postcolonial world. She exemplifies these features and their consequences through brief analysis of recent “human rights bestsellers,” which, she notes, have the ostensible aim of inspiring sympathy from readers about postcolonial peoples and the human rights abuses they suffer while actually doing far more to bolster [End Page 244] an idealized view of the West (as distinct from the disorder and suffering experienced in the rest of the world). These postcolonial portraits frequently recycle imperialist discourse and justify Western interventionism, with human rights activism being the West’s current civilizing mission.

In Chapter Two Anker identifies and develops aspects of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology as springboards for her argument, including the role of particular types of literature (as opposed to human rights bestsellers) in facilitating more just and complete conceptions of human nature and rights. Through her later explication of four well-known postcolonial novels—namely Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—Anker models an “embodied politics of reading” that draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. By showcasing the embodied dimensions of human experience and what Merleau-Ponty terms its “intertwining” with other beings (human and non-human), Anker argues that an embodied politics of reading can help salvage and recalibrate “our existing social and political imaginaries”3 and thereby propel a more just and effective human rights framework. She emphasizes that—counter to liberal ideals of bodily integrity, dignity, and autonomy—intertwining connects beings in their shared woundedness. Notably, the intervention texts like Rushdie’s, El Saadawi’s, Coetzee’s, and Roy’s offer operates not just on the level of theme or content, but on the level of craft—through aesthetic experimentation that dislocates readers from habitual assumptions and interpretations, thereby provoking a confrontation with what Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists refer to as “things themselves.”

Anker reads Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as an indictment against liberal views of rights that underlie human rights discourse and that were foundational to the reconstruction of India in the wake of its independence from British rule. The novel’s protagonist, Saleem, is aligned not just with Indian independence and...


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pp. 244-250
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