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Rethinking the Human in Human Rights

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Organizer: Alexandra Moore

Co-Organizer: Elizabeth Swanson

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At a time when global events and trends, from rising populism and xenophobia to climate disaster, would seem to call for redoubled commitment to fundamental principles of human rights, the category of “the human” has come under renewed scrutiny in literary theory. This panel investigates humanistic discourses of human rights and their alternatives, asking, first, if critiques of “the human” render untenable the conceptual underpinnings of human rights as well as their discursive and juridico-political applications; and, second, how literary studies contribute (or not) to discourses of freedom, dignity, equality, and human flourishing.

 

Postcolonial critiques of a universal humanity and humanism more broadly are well known, and these interventions have contributed to readings of human rights normative discourses as fatally linked to post-Enlightenment imperial interests. At the same time, as historians such as Steven B. Jensen have demonstrated, the history of human rights is decidedly complex and includes crucial contributions from non-Western nations and actors. Another important strand of critique stems from posthumanist theories that put pressure on “the human’s” claim to distinction within larger biological, material, and technological assemblages, even as human rights institutions and legal instruments continue to evolve. Finally, the neoliberal order with its burgeoning technological revolution calls into question the fundamental notion of the self, and of consciousness, upon which the human person in human rights depends. 

 

We invite proposals that address the role of literary and cultural production and literary theory in responding both to the critiques as well as to the vital needs for legal, political, and moral frameworks that can respond effectively to emergent threats to human flourishing. Topics might include, but are not limited to:

 
  • Literary genre and subjectivity  

  • Literary imaginations of freedom, dignity, and equality

  • The role of literary studies in the history of “the human” and of human rights

  • Literary imaginings of alternatives to human rights

  • Literary and philosophical understandings of what constitutes “the human” 

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