Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mullins reviews Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law

Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (Fordham University Press, 2007) is reviewed for H-Law by Greg A. Mullins, Comparative Literature, The Evergreen State College. Mullins writes:
The title of Joseph Slaughter's masterful new book Human Rights, Inc. accurately suggests that the author offers a critical view of contemporary human rights work as too closely allied with corporations and the market logics that late capitalism so assiduously promotes. But rather than analyzing the political economy of human rights, Slaughter takes the question of human rights"incorporation" in an entirely new--and urgently needed--direction. Liberal ideology and neoliberal economic practices may well provide one context for understanding the rapid diffusion of human rights discourse over the past six decades, but Slaughter asks us to consider how human rights have come to make sense--in his phrase, to make common sense--to billions of people from heterogeneous social, philosophical, and theological backgrounds. His answer: that the conceptual framework of rights has been incorporated not only intonational constitutions and international covenants but also into modern human subjectivity. Most startlingly, he argues that a great deal of this incorporative work has been accomplished by a particular genre of novel: the Bildungsroman.
This is an argument that will especially appeal to literary historians, for Slaughter has infused renewed vitality into the critical history of the novel.Readers outside literature departments may wish to read his second chapter especially carefully in order to appreciate what the Bildungsroman is, and what it has to do with human rights. Essentially, Slaughter builds on the work of Georg Lukács and other historians and theorists of the novel who have argued that novels of "Bildung" (or the maturation and self-formation of a youthful protagonist, typically through a journey and a series of challenges) enact as a cultural practice the emergence of the modern, bourgeois, liberal subject of rights. Slaughter brings to this long-standing appreciation of the ideological dimensions of the Bildungsroman the critical practices of postcolonial theory,and he closely analyzes a handful of expertly selected novels from Europe,Latin America, Africa, and the South Asian diaspora.
What emerges from his sustained scrutiny of the "world novel's" engagement with Bildung through the lens of political, literary, and cultural theory is the bracing argument that narrative fiction acts "as a cultural surrogate for the missing warrant and executive sanction of human rights law, supplying (in both content and form) a culturally symbolic legitimacy for the authority of human rights law and the imagination of an international human rights order" (p. 85). Put another way, novels perform the work of incorporating, naturalizing, and normalizing human rights in diverse societies--so that people around the world today believe in human rights even though states flagrantly violate them, and even though international enforcement of human rights is at best highly constrained.

Continue reading here.