Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

So revolution is always to be preferred to reform, and violence to democratic processes (“the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty”)? Maybe that’s how it stacks up in some specialized world of rights discourse. But if you asked a group of people for whom this sort of thing is a currently vivid concern, say the inhabitants of Syria, I expect all of them, leaving out the psychopaths and the power-mad, would have preferred to secure the departure of their tyrant by a process of popular deliberation, framed in law. Not as glamorous as “an eruptive political act of mass revolt,” but less wasteful of human lives.

But by advocating a negotiated legal procedure whereby Enlightenment-style subjects stand up in the public sphere, voice their opinions, and try to choose representatives and institutions through voting, I guess one would be showing one’s inner Cheney, according to the following passage:

The North Atlantic theoretical models of modern democratic constitutional nation-statism have a formalist obsession with… the public sphere, elective representation, parliamentary debate, the social contract, the general will, etc. Human rights and the idealist Bildungroman share this democratic fetishization…  (pp. 118-119)

Indeed, the thesis of democratic formalism tends to go without saying in the domestic national context, but it surfaces explicitly in the figures of imperialist speech, when, for example, the militaristic, economic project of European colonialism is rationalized as a humanitarian civilizing mission…. Or, in the contemporary context of the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the trigger finger of military invasion is justified by the projective human rights ink of the ‘purple finger’ of popular democratic elections. (pp. 120-21)

The author of that book is perhaps the only person on earth who seems to think that the invasion of Iraq was carried out for actual democratic purposes. Oppose a pretext as a pretext, my friend, but don’t dignify it with the status of a motive. No matter how many things Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush stained with their brutal international behavior, they didn’t yet put people off the idea of having a vote that counts.

Who’s the subject of rights? Maybe this is a question that needs to be framed historically for some purposes, and potentially for other purposes: who has been, but also who can be such a subject? Not to mark the distinction between the two kinds of description leads to some off-label consequences.

Although the idealist Bildungsroman and international human rights law respond to issues of rightslessness, they do not begin by imagining in what the rightless (the victims of human rights and undemocratic social formations) consist…

Wait a minute. If the various Declarations that promulgate the idea of human rights are to be taken seriously, there aren’t any “rightless” people; all are “endowed with,” etc. There might be a lot of people whose rights are not currently respected, but the point of making such Declarations was never, to the best of my knowledge, to tell them “You already have certain inalienable rights, now shut up.”  Let’s go on.

… they begin by imagining the normative, rights-holding citizen-subject–an abstract ‘universal’ human personality that ‘presumes particular forms of embodiment and excludes or marginalizes others’ and that has been historically defined as ‘always already [white, propertied, and] male.’ (pp. 42-43; bracketed insertion Slaughter’s)

Passim, we hear a lot about this deceptive switcheroo, whereby whole populations were snookered into thinking they could be represented by “a monadic, self-sufficient Enlightenment individualism” (33). Adorno and Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is a brilliant, sly book, but I wish it hadn’t made “Enlightenment” a term of abuse. Toussaint Louverture didn’t have a chance to read it, so he just charged ahead in 1801 and wrote a constitution for Haiti that, for one thing, abolished slavery forever, and for another thing, declared that all men were born and remained free and equal; moreover, that the only basis for distinctions of status was social utility. In all this he was simply restating the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The former slaves of Haiti, far from being dissatisfied with the subject-position of Enlightenment man, fought a bitter war to claim it for themselves; they certainly had no problem with seeing themselves as the subject of rights. Nor, mutatis mutandis, did the first generations of women to raise a protest against the utter absence of any mention of female humans in any of the declarations, bills, constitutions etc. of the relatively democratic countries that dealt in this curious “rights of man” language. They too were okay with the role of the subject, and would figure out how to inhabit it with their own “particular forms of embodiment” once they had won access to it. This seems to me a poor argument, using a historical precedent to predict the possible scope of a concept. We’d all recognize the fallacy if someone had said, in 1801, “This Constitution for Haiti is nonsense, because it is known to all that black people have never organized themselves in the shape of a modern republic and therefore they never can.” So let’s not accept it when it comes with more attractive critical baggage.

Along the way, Slaughter misrepresents a speech by Mary Robinson as if she were sneering at the work of agencies charged with advancing social and economic rights (as distinguished from civil and political rights), and cavils at the work of Amartya Sen for “tend[ing]… to econometricize the human personality”: “With the increasing influence of developmental economics and ‘human capabilities’ approaches to human rights, these terms have come to monopolize the bureaucratic language, if not the law, of human rights” (pp. 347, 87). I can only suppose that this means that the author feels Amartya Sen’s work on remedying famine and distributing health care and other social goods is trivial. Many formerly starving people would, I think, respectfully disagree. Is this the way a humanist greets an economist– de haut en bas?

At the end of the day, “what is to be done?” What does the comparative-literature scholar, putting down the book, burn to do?

…we must learn to recognize not only our structural complicity in an international system that extends and denies human rights differentially, but also the triumphalist cosmopolitan pretensions and privileges of our humanitarian reading practices that can exacerbate the divisions between the incorporated and the disenfranchised that both we and these novels presumably aspire to remedy. (p. 326)

Recognize your complicity with evil! Learn that your notions of doing good emanated from your “cosmopolitan pretensions and privileges”! — If the aim of the book was to drive people out of literature and humanities and into law, medicine, social work, engineering, etc., it may achieve it, but only negatively and by implication. It would have been preferable, to my mind, to include a little box on the last page marked:


Write Amnesty letters. Petition for redress of wrongs, especially those done by your own government or the UN. If you have the required talents, go into a profession that will enable you to remedy specific inequalities; or if you cannot, donate to low-overhead organizations that support such endeavors.

That would have done something to counteract the impression of futility that results from the contact of literature and rights.

I must add, too, that the book is distressingly repetitive, often making the same claim three or four times in the course of a single paragraph.

And yet– well, there’s a lot of “and yet.” Obviously, a book about human rights that isn’t written from the point of view of human rights advocates’ self-perception is a necessity. A book that sees human rights discourse as a particular conceptual, linguistic or literary practice, one that circulates across the globe but whose conditions of applicability can’t just be taken for granted, does good work too. And from it I learned for the first time about a number of interesting novels. It’s just that an important subject doesn’t guarantee an outstanding book.(See below on “pixie dust.”)  I’m glad it exists, I’ve assigned it for my courses, because there’s no other book that does quite the same things; but as with any book one feels strongly about, I can hardly just wave at it and say, “Have a nice future.”


One thought on “Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

  1. Or maybe I’ve misunderstood, and the position of self-confined powerlessness appeals to humanities people. In that case, I say they’re suffering from an aggravated case of the Contemplative Illusion.

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