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Reviewed by:
  • Human Rights, Inc., and: That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity
  • Eleni Coundouriotis (bio)
Joseph R. Slaughter , Human Rights, Inc. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) 435 pp.;
James Dawes , That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), 289 pp.

Joseph Slaughter's Human Rights, Inc. (winner of the 2008 René Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association) argues that human rights as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the United Nations Covenants defined the modern individual in a manner that mirrors the literary genre of the novel of formation, or the Bildungsroman. Human rights and the Bildungsroman are mutually reinforcing ideological constructs, which according to Slaughter, argue for the person's inclusion and enfranchisement in the nation state, a process he calls the "incorporation" of the individual and which structures the human rights "plot," a narrative pattern implicit in the formulation of human rights law. Thus human rights and the Bildungsroman are "mutually enabling fictions that institutionalize and naturalize the terms of incorporation in (and exclusion from) an imagined community of readers and rights holders."1 Because the subject of human rights is the individual, its project has helped historically to contain the potential for revolution, what Slaughter calls "act[s] of collective self-assertion."2 Where human rights has become hegemonic, the impulse to collective action is redirected and manifests itself instead as "socially acceptable modes of narrative protest that make individual claims on the state."3 Slaughter highlights what he calls the "institutional conservatism of human rights law,"4 the origins of which he sees in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) that legalized "an operative distinction between man and citizen" creating "a paradoxical 'historical figure' of Enlightenment civil subjectivity that is neither man nor citizen."5 Slaughter relies here on the critique of this document by Étienne Balibar who argued that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen invented the "Citizen Subject," a figure who although no longer subjected to the authority of a king is not yet a citizen but must prove himself, or develop into, a citizen.6 In France, [End Page 1002] this meant to own property and to be educated; in Germany, which provides the literary-cultural model that Slaughter draws from, there was no centralized state in the late eighteenth-century and thus the "qualifying criterion was Bildung . . . a philosophy for the positivizing of human nature."7 Indeed Slaughter sees Bildung as a response to the violence of the French Revolution, "a reactionary alternative to revolution," which reinforces the project of human rights because both Bildung and human rights law share the same "pacific spirit."8

Slaughter's study provides a strikingly different narrative for the linkage of human rights to literary culture than the one given by Lynn Hunt in her widely reviewed history, Inventing Human Rights (2007). Hunt examines the epistolary novel of the eighteenth century, in particular Samuel Richardson's influence in France, and argues that the epistolary novel fore grounded inter-subjectivity and taught its audience new ways of imagining equality, which led in turn to the formulation of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Hunt's argument also draws from the growing disapprobation of torture in the eighteenth century that illustrates radically new attitudes towards the body. Hunt, therefore, looks squarely at English and French literary culture of the eighteenth century and at a genre (the epistolary novel) which became peripheral in the nineteenth century onwards as the novel became more focused on the individual's interiority. Although Slaughter, as I show below, also takes a reference point from the English novel Robinson Crusoe, he places the German idea of Bildung at the center of his history and discusses it as a reaction to the French Revolution. Slaughter's model enables him to suggest a much fuller narrative for the nineteenth century as the Bildungsroman form attained canonical status,9 and transformed the genre into the "world novel" referred to in Slaughter's title. However, like Hunt, Slaughter also ultimately places his primary focus away from the nineteenth century. His primary...


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