World literature, narrative ethics, and the discourse of human rights

Anker, Elizabeth Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia

"World Literature, Narrative Ethics, and the Discourse of Human Rights," by challenging the legal and philosophical construct of "human rights," suggests newly emergent paradigms for thinking about the aims and ambitions of international social justice. As appeals to human rights have only gained visibility in the political, legal, and popular imaginaries, this project argues that we are currently in the midst of a discursive impasse and looks to the postcolonial novel for an urgently needed reconceptualization of our expectations for human rights. Most appraisals of literature's contributions to human rights exclusively celebrate the sheer act of narration; however, the novels in this study self-consciously illuminate the many tensions inherent to representing injustice. Moreover, rather than to perceive human rights as unyielding or normative standards, this project reads human rights as inextricable dilemmas that should be approached with a cautiously tragic sensibility.

The first chapter considers how J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace presents two philosophical alternatives to human rights: its protagonist's "rights of desire" to exert his sexuality without inhibition and a communitarian ethos of collective bondedness disabused of the fictions of human "dignity" and entitlement underpinning human rights. Moreover, the ethical indeterminacy of the novel's conclusion shows the limits to our conventionally binaristic ways for making calculations about social and legal justice. In a second chapter, Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown contains a very bleak forecast for human rights while meditating upon the rise of international terror and the hurdles to representing the subjectivity of the terrorist. Finally, a concluding chapter examines the pressing conflict between "cultural rights" and women's rights in Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero. Although Woman at Point Zero's frame narrator purports to offer a clear human rights parable, its protagonist's narrative refuses a generalizable status and defies containment within the limited codes available for the articulation of human rights. Ultimately, by revealing the ambivalent choices that surround any rights enforcement, I argue that the literary medium is uniquely able to expose both its own complicity and the intractable quandaries at play in any appeal to human rights.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
world literature, human rights, international social justice

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-02-18 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:33:33.

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