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  • Introduction to Focus:The Human Rights Turn
  • Sophia A. McClennen (bio)

One might easily argue that the most significant development in recent literature and scholarship of literature has been the human rights turn. Regardless of the period of study or area of focus, human rights have been at the center of critical and cultural production since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Human rights perspectives are now merged with stories of ethnicity, sexuality, and cross-cultural identity. They infuse stories of war, labor, and personal struggle. They inform stories of language rights, empathy, and trauma. The notion of human rights is at the center of every major cluster of literary writing identifiable today. One simply can’t peruse a list of bestsellers and not find a significant segment of texts that touch on issues of human rights.

Such claims of the centrality of rights writing are intentionally hyperbolic—meant to provoke an immediate resistance. But, in the end, these claims are true. They are true, in part, because the notion of rights has come to spill well beyond its traditional borders. They have expanded so far, some would argue, as to be almost empty of meaning. Today every story is about rights—the right to life, right to sex, right to consume, right to religion, right to identity, right to fight back and seek revenge—and they connect with the right to profit from human rights stories. As Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith explain in Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004), one reason the rights based story is so popular today is because these stories sell.

One way we might make sense of the upsurge in human rights literature and criticism is to think about the timing of its rise to prominence. Latin American writers, for instance, were long writing “human rights literature” before the term was fashionable. The testimonio, one of the most famous genres of eyewitness memoir, emerged on the literary scene in the late 1960s. And yet, even when Rigoberta Menchú told her story in 1984 and then won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, we didn’t use the term human rights to describe her story. Today we would.

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2012), Samuel Moyn pegs the rise of the use of the term “human rights” to 1977: the year that Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize; US President Jimmy Carter focused on human rights in his inaugural address; and Charter 77 was published in Czechoslovakia, accusing the Czech state of failing to uphold human rights. Joseph Slaughter explains that this era also saw the direct link between personal storytelling and human rights:

the rise of personal story politics and memoir culture in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with mass movements for decolonization, civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedoms.

Writers and scholars began to increasingly frame their work in the overt language of rights during those years so much so that Michael Ignatieff called the era immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall the era of human rights. In the 1990s, the United Nations set up ad hoc criminal courts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and began trying individuals, especially state leaders, accused of violating human rights. Each of these cases was accompanied by a series of texts that told the rights stories of victims. But it wouldn’t be until the attacks of 9/11 that the rhetoric of human rights would fully enter academic writing and literary publishing. The events of 9/11 signaled a deep crisis for human rights since the United States openly went to work dismantling rights—both at home and abroad—in order to protect them. In those early days, critiquing the nation was sensitive terrain for writers, but defending rights was safe. And we saw a clear upsurge in courses, programs, books, and conferences dedicated to the topic. One of the key pivot points was a conference on “Human Rights and the Humanities” that took place at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in October of 2005 and then led to a special issue of PMLA edited by Domna Stanton and Judith Butler. By...