Not If You Do It Right

A bad antithesis in an article from last summer, on human rights as a topic of humanities teaching:

In the college curriculum, works of art are treated as objects to be studied in quiet places or consumed at leisure, but in a course on human rights, they assume a kind of urgency and immediacy that is not altogether aesthetic, as forms of witnessing, instruments for conveying in pictorial or narrative form the human realities associated with such abstract issues as dignity, the value of individual existence, and justice. Philosophy, religion, and history become in the context of human rights not just academic fields but distinct ways of thinking through real political, social, and moral issues. (Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “Human Rights in the Humanities“)

So without “the context of human rights,” “philosophy, religion and history” were not “ways of thinking through real political, social and moral issues”? News to me. I am skeptical of this before-and-after scenario, and also of the taken-for-granted definition of the “aesthetic.” Certainly dull, indifferent or lazy teaching presents works of art without any “urgency.” But people who can’t make works of art speak should find something else to do: students, you have a choice, desert their classes! And let’s recall that even the people generally derided as aesthetes– Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Viktor Shklovsky– had an agenda. A social agenda, since it affected other human beings and proposed a different organization of the world we inhabit and wrangle over.

If the point is that the phrase “human rights” magically confers moral seriousness on whatever it touches, I propose calling it the new verbal pixie dust. (Cf. “neuroscience,” among other no-knock additives.)