- The Ends of Human Rights in US Literary Studies
A grainy satellite image of a detention camp accompanies a recent op-ed circulated by the Senior Counsel of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. The annotated image shows dozens of hastily constructed tent structures, with each new block of tents identified by a red box. Displayed in the upper right-hand corner are the camp’s precise coordinates: 106°8′24″ W by 31°26′1″ N. You can enter these coordinates into Google Earth, if you’re interested, and see exactly where the camp located. But if you do, you’ll notice that the tent blocks are missing. That’s because they were just added last summer, and by the time you read this, they may be invisible yet again.1 The image used by Human Rights Watch, however, has already been added to the US’ human rights record, with location and date labeled, “Migrant Children Detention Center (Tornillo, Texas) – September 13, 2018” (Bochenek).
“In the United States,” James Dawes writes early in The Novel of Human Rights (2018), “we are, for the first time, living in a popular culture of human rights.” It’s very tempting to object to this premise—Dawes’s book, after all, was published just one day before this satellite image of Tornillo was taken—but, according to Dawes, “Even the dramatic setbacks to human rights policy in the most recent movements of US politics are, to my mind, best understood as a sign of the pervasiveness of human rights as a movement.” Human rights have achieved such “widespread cultural legitimacy,” he argues, that they may have also “helped trigger a frightened, revanchist ethno-nationalism” (2). As a leading scholar in the growing interdisciplinary subfield known as “literature and human rights,” Dawes specializes in such paradoxes.
Literature and human rights first emerged as a codified subfield during the last years of the George W. Bush administration, the nadir of the post-9/11 era. In his introduction, Dawes describes how [End Page 356] the years 2006 and 2007 saw the appearance of several groundbreaking monographs and a special issue of PMLA called the “The Humanities in Human Rights: Critique, Language, Politics,” edited by Domna C. Stanton and Judith Butler.2 Just as the subtitle of the special issue signals, ideology critique has been a defining methodology of the subfield ever since. Over the past decade, according to Dawes, scholars of literature and human rights
have argued . . . that representations of atrocity are both principled interventions and acts of voyeurism; that human rights protects the dignity of the human by juridically restricting what counts as human; and that it grounds itself in the integrity of the unviolated body even as its theoretical dualism denigrates bodily experience.(4)
The list could go on. When Greg Mullins registered the “recent boom in literary studies of human rights” in this journal almost a decade ago, he observed that much of this new work also resisted a “long tradition of locating human rights struggles ‘elsewhere,’” inviting us to think more about atrocity closer to home (225–26). Along these lines, the paradigmatic rights violation of the era was the US practice of “enhanced interrogation” in the “war on terror.” The representative site was Guantánamo.
In hindsight, critique was a methodology perfectly suited to the hypocrisies of a previous era, when it appeared as if a liberal-internationalist conception of human rights—along with its neoconservative double—might still be ascendant. We now find ourselves in a slightly different situation. Guantánamo is still open, but many of the old euphemisms are disappearing. A presidential candidate can now refer to torture by its real name, violating a sacred taboo of liberal speech, and it can help him win. The most recent annual report from Human Rights Watch now urges “resistance” to a “surge of authoritarian populists,” including in the US (Roth 1). Meanwhile, in his latest book, the historian Samuel Moyn writes of human rights...