We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Fictions of Dignity

Embodying Human Rights in World Literature

by Elizabeth S. Anker

Publication Year: 2012

Over the past fifty years, debates about human rights have assumed an increasingly prominent place in postcolonial literature and theory. Writers from Salman Rushdie to Nawal El Saadawi have used the novel to explore both the possibilities and challenges of enacting and protecting human rights, particularly in the Global South. In Fictions of Dignity, Elizabeth S. Anker shows how the dual enabling fictions of human dignity and bodily integrity contribute to an anxiety about the body that helps to explain many of the contemporary and historical failures of human rights, revealing why and how lives are excluded from human rights protections along the lines of race, gender, class, disability, and species membership. In the process, Anker examines the vital work performed by a particular kind of narrative imagination in fostering respect for human rights. Drawing on phenomenology, Anker suggests how an embodied politics of reading might restore a vital fleshiness to the overly abstract, decorporealized subject of liberal rights.

Each of the novels Anker examines approaches human rights in terms of limits and paradoxes. Rushdie's Midnight's Children addresses the obstacles to incorporating rights into a formerly colonized nation's legal culture. El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero takes up controversies over women's freedoms in Islamic society. In Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee considers the disappointments of post-apartheid reconciliation in South Africa. And in The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy confronts an array of human rights abuses widespread in contemporary India. Each of these literary case studies further demonstrates the relevance of embodiment to both comprehending and redressing the failures of human rights, even while those narratives refuse simplistic ideals or solutions.

Published by: Cornell University Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (86.0 KB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (37.6 KB)
pp. 2-5


pdf iconDownload PDF (31.0 KB)
pp. 6-7

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (52.3 KB)
pp. vii-ix

... The opportunity to work with Martha Nussbaum at the law school at the University of Chicago was central to my scholarly development. In many ways, my independent studies on law and literature as a third-year law student remain foundational to the core philosophical questions that have motivated this book. ...

read more

Introduction: Constructs by Which We Live

pdf iconDownload PDF (100.1 KB)
pp. 1-14

It is hard to imagine a viable approach to social justice today that does not rely on the language of human rights. The proliferation of the many norms and ideals associated with human rights no doubt represents a hallmark achievement in international law, at the same time as it exemplifies the salutary repercussions of globalization. ...

read more

1. Bodily Integrity and its Exclusions

pdf iconDownload PDF (179.3 KB)
pp. 15-46

Theorists have long invoked the notion of paradox to explain human rights, and many of the most entrenched of these paradoxes ensue from the exclusionary anatomy of human rights discourses and norms. While inherent in the basic philosophical architecture of human rights, exclusions arise on each of the intersecting levels of law, political practice, and discourse. ...

read more

2. Embodying Human Rights: Toward a a Phenomenology of Social Justice

pdf iconDownload PDF (179.3 KB)
pp. 47-78

As I have argued, liberal human rights discourses and norms, along with the theories of the human that sustain them, evince significant ambivalence toward embodiment. On the one hand, within these liberal cartographies of the subject, the body is treated as an entity that must be mastered, integrated, and subdued through reasoned self-determination, a project that casts rights-bearing subjectivity as dependent on the quarantine of corporeal being and its subordination to the intellect. ...

read more

3. Constituting the Liberal Subject of Rights: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

pdf iconDownload PDF (193.6 KB)
pp. 79-114

This book’s literary case studies begin with Salman Rushdie, a writer who has personally lived out the nexus between free speech and human rights. Catapulted into the international limelight when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in response to The Satanic Verses (1988), Rushdie and his career might seem to offer a parable for freedom of expression.1 However, this chapter investigates not the real-world human rights controversy spawned by ...

read more

4. Women’s Rights and the Lure of Self-Determination in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero

pdf iconDownload PDF (187.5 KB)
pp. 115-148

Of all the controversies over human rights, those surrounding the status of women’s rights perhaps most vividly illumine how and why rights discourses are prone to overdetermination. Indeed, one need merely cite recent contentions about the veil to demonstrate the exceptionally, even explosively charged tenor that debates about women’s rights often assume, especially when they mutate into related disputes over secularism. ...

read more

5. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: The Rights of Desire and the Embodied Lives of Animals

pdf iconDownload PDF (203.2 KB)
pp. 149-185

Much as the language of human rights can serve as a powerful means to censure injustice, it is also believed to contain the political ideals, legal mechanisms, and idiom for enacting healing—both on an individual and a national level—after a pervasive legacy of rights violations. While narration is key to human rights witnessing, it is equally central to bringing the language of human rights to bear on recovery and reconciliation. ...

read more

6. Arundhati Roy’s “Return to the Things Themselves”: Phenomenology and the Challenge of Justice

pdf iconDownload PDF (182.4 KB)
pp. 186-219

This book has wrestled with many of the foreclosures haunting the liberal cartographies of selfhood that guide dominant human rights discourses and norms. Above all, such mappings of the human have been defined by their profound ambivalence about the ontological condition of embodiment. ...

read more

Coda: Small Places, Close to Home

pdf iconDownload PDF (56.9 KB)
pp. 220-224

An excerpt from Arundhati Roy’s collection of essays fittingly titled Field Notes on Democracy (2009) sums up many of the inquiries that have been at the heart of this book. Roy meditates on what she perceives as the failure of democracy in contemporary India, yet her remarks also speak poignantly to the present-day predicament of human rights. As Roy asks: ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (322.0 KB)
pp. 225-242

Works Cited

pdf iconDownload PDF (118.2 KB)
pp. 243-257


pdf iconDownload PDF (55.3 KB)
pp. 259-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780801465635
E-ISBN-10: 080146563X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801451362
Print-ISBN-10: 0801451361

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1