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Literature and/of Human Rights

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number IDSEM-UG1885
Section 001
Instructor Sara Murphy
Days MW
Time 9:30 AM - 10:45 AM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   HUM



The extent and the manner in which we can think of literary or cinematic genres as linked with human rights raises many questions. The historian Lynn Hunt has argued that the emergence of the novel as a genre in the eighteenth century is the site of the emergence of human rights: the novel invited its readers to engage with an individual's story, to sympathize and empathize with a character whose situation might be quite different from the reader's own. Literary works might even be understood as participating in the construction of the rights-bearing individual and designating the boundaries of the human. However, as Samuel Moyn points out, human rights, as a concept associated with legal frameworks and political claims, is a product of the mid-twentieth century. Testimony, autobiography, plays, essays, and film have been recruited to expose violations of what we might call human rights, inciting awareness and sympathy--and sometimes action. We will begin by sketching a microhistory of the emergence of human rights, testing--and complicating--Hunt's claims for the novel. Then we will move on to look at specific sites and issues. What are some different ways in which literary genres and discourses represent, render visible, and perhaps even constitute human rights violations? How do the techniques of representation associated with the literary communicate? What are the stakes of these forms of representation? How have writers negotiated the limits of genre and language to engage with that which cannot be readily represented? To what extent do the norms of some forms of literary representation serve, paradoxically, to silence or occlude certain voices? Do certain kinds of literary discourse implicitly sustain a problematic opposition between the humanitarian and the political? Authors and texts discussed may include Mary Hays, Olympe De Gouges, anti-gallows literature, Hannah Arendt, Costas Douzinas, Jane Taylor, J. M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Rigoberta Menchu, among others.


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Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)