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Topics in Cultural Studies: Literature and Human Rights.


This course will explore changing constructions of the category of the human and the notion of human rights as expressed in literature, literary theory, and the global politics of knowledge production. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, in Human Rights and Narrated Lives: the Ethics of Recognition, argue that life narratives are “one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims” (1). We will look at a variety of fictions, some of them life narratives, to consider this claim and to ask what representations of the human and of human rights they support. Christopher Keep contends that the cultural authority of the humanities may be in decline because of “our lingering devotion to an idea of the ‘human’ that is increasingly anachronistic” (59). In considering this statement, we will ask what notion of the human is adequate to our current times. In addition to studying a variety of literary texts, we will explore a range of rights declarations and reports with a view to understanding how they negotiate these questions and clarify—and complicate—understanding of the issues involved. We will be especially attentive, following Joseph Slaughter’s influential work, in considering the relation between the genre of the novel and the rise of a particular notion of the human, and consider the role of that notion in contributing to the colonization of indigenous peoples and their territories. We will be asking a range of questions about the scope and nature of human rights: Does the earth have rights? Are language rights human rights? What about “the right to research” (Appadurai)? Are human rights essentially individual rights or do they also encompass forms of group rights? What is the relation between witnessing and memorializing atrocity and asserting human rights? How can students and teachers work toward achieving “cognitive justice”? What is the relation between “cognitive justice” and “social justice”?

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “The Right to Research.” Globalization, Societies, and Education. 4.2. (2006). 167-7.

Keep, Christopher. “Of Writing Machines and Scholar-Gipsies.” “Readers’ Forum: What’s Left of English Studies” English Studies in Canada. 20. 1 & 2. March/June 2003: 55-66.

Slaughter, Joseph R. Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.

Required Texts and Readings:

Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen. Anchor

Alexis Wright. Carpentaria. Atria (Simon & Schuster).

Kazuo Ishaguro, Never Let Me Go Vintage

J.M.Coetzee. The Lives of Animals Princeton University Press.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor

Joy Kogawa, Obasan. Penguin.

Recommended Background Readings:

Koen de Feyter. Human Rights: Social Justice in the Age of the Market. Zed Books. (Fernwood)

Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity, ed. Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar, Mike DeGagne. Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series. Print or electronic version. Free.

Santos, B de Souza. “Human Rights as an Emancipatory Script? Cultural and Political Conditions” In B de S. Santos, ed. Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso, 2007. 3-40.

Schaffer, Kay and Sidonie Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: the Ethics of Recognition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6495-5.

One Comment
  1. I would love to take this course… Have you thought about a distance-learning project? I live in Costa Rica, and I have just finished my master degree in bioethics… I’m also a feminist activist, a poet and a scientist (Pharm. D.), deeply interested in frontier knowledge and creation.

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