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Literature After Rights

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Organizer: Arielle Stambler

Co-Organizer: Alexandra Lossada

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For over a decade now, the interdisciplinary study of human rights and literature has offered a generative lens for thinking about questions of citizenship, the nation-state, and narrative form. Scholars have studied the human rights novel (James Dawes), the co-constitution of human rights and the bildungsroman (Joseph Slaughter), literary and cinematic depictions of torture (Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg), and the rights-based political imaginations of American writers of color (Crystal Parikh), among other projects. These approaches have emphasized the discursivity of human rights: literature does not represent a static conception of human rights but rather helps shape understandings of what human rights are or could be.


At the same time, scholars and activists have challenged the adequacy of the rights framework. As critical race theorists and critical trans studies scholars have pointed out, rights-based activism calls for the extension of legal rights to marginalized subjects rather than the dismantling of normalized structures of exclusion (Dean Spade). In another vein, Samuel Moyn has argued that human rights are “not enough” because, under neoliberalism, they have become increasingly compatible with profound distributive inequality. Still others have identified the structural entanglement of rights with rightlessness. Elizabeth Anker has demonstrated how liberal human rights depend upon the circulation of depictions of violated postcolonial bodies, which consolidates a particular kind of “human” (white, Euro-American, able-bodied, self-regulating, and male) as the proper bearer of human rights. Likewise, A. Naomi Paik argues in Rightlessness (2016) that “people are rendered rightless not as the result of the failures of rights, but as a necessary condition for rights to have meaning in the first place” (4).


These important critiques of the rights framework point toward alternative political horizons: not to build a world where everyone has rights but rather “a future where rights are no longer necessary.”1 How might we imagine this future after rights? More specifically, what role might literature and literary study play in imagining such a political future? How do other political imaginaries organized around self-governance, mutual aid, and/or solidarity offer alternatives to the rights framework, and how does literature help us to explore these other possibilities? How might this future also include radical re-imaginings of normative human rights in its current dispensation?


We welcome presenters working in all languages, historical periods, and theoretical frameworks as well as presenters whose work crosses conventional disciplinary boundaries.


[1] A. Naomi Paik. “Public Thinker: A. Naomi Paik on a Future without Rights.” Interview with Dylan Rodriguez. Public Books, 10 Jan. 2020.

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