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  • Vulnerability and Security in Human Rights Literature and Visual Culture by Alexandra Schultheis Moore
  • Eleni Coundouriotis (bio)
Alexandra Schultheis Moore, Vulnerability and Security in Human Rights Literature and Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2016), ISBN: 9781138860278, 262 pages.

Because an investment in human rights always returns us to lived experience, it invariably raises questions of how to document actual events. Out of this foundational gesture of documentation comes the intense focus in human rights scholarship on methods of narration and representation. The law, human rights reports, witness of humanitarian workers, government and corporate reporting, and work of journalists all exhibit some degree of their own narrative unconscious: ways in which they presume to capture truth (if not the real), glossing over the mediations which render convincing representation. Much of the intervention [End Page 774] of literary scholars in the field of human rights raises awareness of this narrative unconscious. Wendy Hesford's Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms is a good example of such an approach. Drawing attention to tactics of persuasion in the representation of reality, Hesford heightens our awareness that human rights texts (especially visual texts) may be immediately compelling but are not transparent.1 A different alignment of human rights scholarship and literary analysis can be found in Joseph Slaughter's field-shaping Human Rights, Inc: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law. Slaughter demonstrates how conventions of narrative form, which condition the types of stories we tell, are implicated directly in the writing of law. By uncovering the ways in which a discussion of literary form played a role in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Slaughter is able to direct his analysis at how literary expression consequentially shapes our engagement in other discursive practices of human rights.2 Creative expression is not merely an aftereffect or a tool for compelling storytelling directed towards human rights activism, but a constitutive element of the entire edifice of human rights thinking. It shapes the imaginative ground from which we build the concepts that move us to act and think in terms of human rights. Alexandra Schultheis Moore's Vulnerability and Security in Human Rights Literature and Visual Culture carries the work of both Hesford and Slaughter forward in important ways.

In this far ranging study, Moore tackles a key question for scholars of the humanities and human rights: what do we read for when we use a human rights approach to analyze creative expression, which (without precluding documentary forms) is a capacious corpus of literary and visual media? The answer for Moore is that we read to understand who is the subject of human rights. Her key operation as a critic lies in identifying how the subject of human rights is delineated in the works she examines. She deploys vulnerability theory to expose a more socially embedded subjectivity with greater agentic potential, captured by the complex depiction of relationality in the texts that interest her. The core of her study criticizes human rights alignment with neoliberal thought. She suggests that by relying on the victim figure to make human rights legible, human rights repeatedly evokes an individual, liberal subject as the aspiration. The liberal subject becomes the identity to move toward as rights are restored, in the process distorting the historical account of the abuse and closing the door to more powerful identities in solidarity and collective movements. Drawing from Judith Butler's vulnerability theory and legal theorists, Moore opposes securitization to vulnerability.3 Again to put this in outline form, securitization intervenes to protect or save but does so in the name of the liberal subject. Moore hesitates to sacrifice the potential found in the open, relational, and vulnerable subject to this atomized self to whom safety has been promised. Instead she wants to reexamine the experience of abuse to retrieve the collective, structural, and relational aspect of the experience. Because her method is richly contextual, she is most interested in connecting the [End Page 775] account of what happened with the forms of redress it inspired. Her frame of analysis undercuts the habit of looking at human rights abuse and its aftermath as distinct stages, with their own narrative...


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pp. 774-777
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