The Novel of Human Rights by James Dawes
On the day that I began writing this review, the mercurial president of the United States announced, by way of social media, two abrupt shifts on policy decisions that held grave implications for thousands of people: a temporary delay on the mass raids of undocumented immigrant families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in the United States and a hold on retaliatory airstrikes [End Page 258] against the nation of Iran for its attack on a US military drone.1 It would seem the American public, and possibly the rest of the world, has acclimated itself to the "new normal" of such dramatic swings, awaiting the next Twitter storm of abuse and outrage as the executive branch of the US government continues to rule with impunity garnered by way of its centralization of power, a process begun decades before the current administration came into office. Against such madefor-television spectacles created by the commercial news-entertainment complex and fed by the vast machinery of social media and other digital networks, the idea of human rights has never seemed more like a fiction. To even the most casual of observers, the proposition that every human being everywhere has an inherent claim to certain freedoms and protections seems to be countermanded at every turn.
Perhaps it is precisely under such dire conditions that we should take fiction itself as a serious object of study, as James Dawes does in his recently published monograph, The Novel of Human Rights.2 Opening with the proposition that "we are, for the first time, living in a popular culture of human rights"—one whose success has in turn "helped trigger a frightened, revanchist ethnonationalism"—Dawes illuminates the way in which prose fiction in the United States has shaped our common-sense understandings of human rights while rights norms have embedded themselves as formal features and thematic concerns in the contemporary American novel.3 Throughout The Novel of Human Rights, Dawes identifies and elaborates "centers of aesthetic gravity" across a range of late twentieth and current twenty-first century novels not only to argue that such a genre might be said to exist, but also to provide "aesthetic and conceptual depth to our readings" of these texts.4 The conclusions at which Dawes arrives by the end of his study—that "the novel of human rights is defined by aesthetic contradictions and wrenching moral paradoxes"5—speak directly to the significance of studying the intersection of human rights and literary fiction in the current moment.
This is not so much a project of defending the viability of human rights politics and practice on the ground or of prescribing the proper forms for the representation of violence and suffering in literature. Rather, it is one that examines how the material conditions and political realities of our current conjuncture set the terms for both representation and response in our cultural politics, and it also examines how the contradictions and unruliness of those structures offer up the possibility for moving forms of dissensus and transformation. Thus, by the end of the book, Dawes describes himself as "untroubled by the problem of compossibility, the mess of language, and the sometimes bewildering and conflictual plenitude of our imagination and [End Page 259] ideals," seeing the "contradictions and anxieties" in the texts he has surveyed instead as "a sign of human rights' vitality of thought rather than its philosophical or political implausibility."6
Dawes arrives at his ultimate embrace of dissensus and irresolution by charting in his first three chapters those recurring features whose appearances define the genre of the human rights novel. These include (in Chapter One)7 the distinction between the "justice plot" and the "escape plot";8 (in Chapter Two)9 the crucial tropes, motifs, and themes of privacy, homes, secrecy, movement, and family (particularly lost children and orphans) that correspond to the relations that human rights mediate between states and individual persons; and (in Chapter Three)10 the often problematic use of allegory and empathy as vehicles for representing political and state violence in order to prompt humanitarian responses that can reify the categories of "the invulnerable and the vulnerable, the able and the unable, the autonomous and the constrained," which risks fetishizing the violence that is meant to be abjured.11 It is by turning to the figure of perpetrators12 in Chapter Four)13 that Dawes funnels what might otherwise seem to be a rather static set of elements through the difficult questions of responsibility and obligation. He hence demonstrates—particularly by way of an extended discussion of Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones14—that human rights novels, like human rights themselves, are deeply conflicted. If, as he contends, the figure of the perpetrator reveals that "there is nothing we hate more than our own shame embodied in others"15 and also reveals the heterogeneous forms that shame takes, the sources from which it originates, the limits of our control over it, and the virulence with which we attempt to manage it all undermine the seemingly straightforward modes by which we might wish to narrate accounts of violence and redemption; to label victims, evil-doers, and heroes; and to identify causes and effects.16
The version of the "distant reading" practice Dawes adopts in The Novel of Human Rights is essential to warranting his central claim that human rights has given rise to a genre with consistent features across an enormous number of contemporary novels which in turn establishes readers' expectations, market interests, and critical evaluations of contemporary literature. If, however, we believe that what makes fiction—and the literary enterprise, more broadly—distinct from other forms of representation are the imaginative liberties, aesthetic risks, and the singular rendering of collective social and political experiences, then one wonders what difference close reading might make for discerning the cultural politics of any given text in Dawes's archive. To be fair, he does engage certain novels—such as The Kindly Ones, Chris Abani's The Secret History of Las Vegas, and Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered17—more closely [End Page 260] than others, yielding insights regarding the controversies surrounding such texts and the tensions and contradictions that occupy them. However, these readings also suggest that such detailed attention to the formal practice of any text might offer up considerable interventions with regards to the political conventions and ideological formations that infuse more anodyne versions of human rights discourse and humanitarian rhetoric.
Finally, Dawes locates the genre of the human rights novel as a specifically US form and situates his work as a critical US literary and cultural studies project that has refuted the exceptionalism that US nationalism accords to itself. However, this laudable goal to provincialize the United States always proves, to my mind, a tricky balancing act for those examining international affairs and transnational cultural production. That is, the attempt to study the superpower as if it were any other national state can, perhaps, too easily erase the outsized political and economic power it wields and thus can erase the level of damage it inflicts upon the rest of the world, for which it assumes disproportionately little responsibility. Dawes describes the US human rights novel as "both inwardand outwardlooking, taking not only atrocity abroad as its narrative focus but also atrocity at home."18 Yet, he tends to focus on the place of human rights within the United States, that is to say, the bearing that human rights norms might have on domestic social structures, legal norms, and political culture. In contrast, the genre's representations of "atrocity abroad" appears largely as humanitarian in character and thus as bound to aid workers and organizations whose primary concern is to alleviate suffering in a neutral, independent, and impartial manner.19
Dawes is certainly and necessarily skeptical about such claims of humanitarianism. However, if (as he argues) human rights are "nothing if not political,"20 The Novel of Human Rights places limited emphasis on the specific political histories and economic policies by which the United States contributes to, or is even wholly responsible for, the suffering and violence that constitutes atrocity abroad; the exception is in cases where the text in question makes the relationship explicit. This is, of course, understandable; elaborating on the historical contexts of the numerous texts covered in The Novel of Human Rights could likely prove bulky for a book whose clarity and accessibility is one of its many strengths. Even more importantly, given the sense in the United States that human rights have little to do with social justice at home—especially in what Dawes elucidates as the "traumatic split from and disillusionment with human rights" by the US civil rights movement21—his insistence that there are "more potential gains than losses" and "unique opportunities" to be had in the collaboration between civil and human rights activism is more than welcome.22 As Dawes demonstrates throughout The Novel of Human Rights, the provisional—if not entirely ephemeral—quality of human rights helps us to see that there is, in fact, little about rights granted by sovereign states and international governmental organizations that are guaranteed and permanent, even in the [End Page 261] United States. Without the political will to realize them, they remain fictions, a lesson many Americans have only begun just begun learning. [End Page 262]
Crystal Parikh is a Professor of English and Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University, where she is also the Director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute. Most recently, she authored Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
1. Phil McCausland & Julia Ainsley, President Trump Announces Delay of Mass Immigration Raids that Were to Start Sunday NBCNews, (22 June 2019), https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/president-trump-announces-delay-mass-immigration-raids-werebegin-sunday-n1020671; Tom Embury-Dennis, Trump Explains Why He Called Off Iran Airstrikes at Last Minute: "We Were Cocked & Loaded to Retaliate," The Independent (21 June 2019), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-irantweet-strike-drone-shot-down-war-us-nuclear-weapons-deal-a8969041.html.
2. James Dawes, The Novel of Human Rights (2018).
3. Id. at 2.
4. Id. at 4–5.
5. Id. at 202.
6. Id. at 197.
7. Id. at 22–53.
8. Id. at 22.
9. Id. at 54–116.
10. Id. at 117–68.
11. Id. at 118.
12. This is a subject that Dawes has also thoughtfully probed in his other published work.
13. Dawes, supra note 2, at 169–202.
14. Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (2006).
15. Dawes, supra note 2, at 180.
16. Id. at 180–96.
17. Littell, supra note 14; Chris Abani, The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014); Chang-rae Lee, The Surrendered (2011).
18. Dawes, supra note 2, at 10.
19. Id. at 14.
21. Id. at 11.
22. Id. at 12–13.