Fictions of Dignity

Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature

Elizabeth S. Anker
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Fictions of Dignity
    Book Description:

    Over the past fifty years, debates about human rights have assumed an increasingly prominent place in postcolonial literature and theory. Writers from Salman Rushdie to Nawal El Saadawi have used the novel to explore both the possibilities and challenges of enacting and protecting human rights, particularly in the Global South. In Fictions of Dignity, Elizabeth S. Anker shows how the dual enabling fictions of human dignity and bodily integrity contribute to an anxiety about the body that helps to explain many of the contemporary and historical failures of human rights, revealing why and how lives are excluded from human rights protections along the lines of race, gender, class, disability, and species membership. In the process, Anker examines the vital work performed by a particular kind of narrative imagination in fostering respect for human rights. Drawing on phenomenology, Anker suggests how an embodied politics of reading might restore a vital fleshiness to the overly abstract, decorporealized subject of liberal rights.

    Each of the novels Anker examines approaches human rights in terms of limits and paradoxes. Rushdie's Midnight's Children addresses the obstacles to incorporating rights into a formerly colonized nation's legal culture. El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero takes up controversies over women's freedoms in Islamic society. In Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee considers the disappointments of post-apartheid reconciliation in South Africa. And in The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy confronts an array of human rights abuses widespread in contemporary India. Each of these literary case studies further demonstrates the relevance of embodiment to both comprehending and redressing the failures of human rights, even while those narratives refuse simplistic ideals or solutions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6563-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Constructs by Which We Live
    (pp. 1-14)

    It is hard to imagine a viable approach to social justice today that does not rely on the language of human rights. The proliferation of the many norms and ideals associated with human rights no doubt represents a hallmark achievement in international law, at the same time as it exemplifies the salutary repercussions of globalization. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have, in turn, come to be widely touted as the era of human rights—a sentiment that captures both the growing preponderance of rights talk and the immense promise that it invariably carries. This internationalization of human rights...

  5. Chapter One Bodily Integrity and Its Exclusions
    (pp. 15-46)

    Theorists have long invoked the notion of paradox to explain human rights, and many of the most entrenched of these paradoxes ensue from the exclusionary anatomy of human rights discourses and norms. While inherent in the basic philosophical architecture of human rights, exclusions arise on each of the intersecting levels of law, political practice, and discourse. It goes without saying that, as a legal-philosophical construct, human rights carry significant normative force, their standards and rhetoric implicitly defining the parameters of the human. And although human rights enshrine certain qualities as constitutive of humanity, they simultaneously ostracize others—along with those...

  6. Chapter Two Embodying Human Rights: Toward a Phenomenology of Social Justice
    (pp. 47-78)

    As I have argued, liberal human rights discourses and norms, along with the theories of the human that sustain them, evince significant ambivalence toward embodiment. On the one hand, within these liberal cartographies of the subject, the body is treated as an entity that must be mastered, integrated, and subdued through reasoned self-determination, a project that casts rights-bearing subjectivity as dependent on the quarantine of corporeal being and its subordination to the intellect. Liberal articulations of rights thus exhibit a highly dualistic architecture within which core realities of embodiment come to be denied and repressed, contributing to a remarkably unidimensional...

  7. Chapter Three Constituting the Liberal Subject of Rights: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
    (pp. 79-114)

    This book’s literary case studies begin with Salman Rushdie, a writer who has personally lived out the nexus between free speech and human rights. Catapulted into the international limelight when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in response to The Satanic Verses (1988), Rushdie and his career might seem to offer a parable for freedom of expression.¹ However, this chapter investigates not the real-world human rights controversy spawned by The Satanic Verses but rather Midnight’s Children (1981), a novel that, although it garnered widespread literary acclaim, did not yet make Rushdie a global celebrity. Awarded the 1981 Booker Prize and then...

  8. Chapter Four Women’s Rights and the Lure of Self-Determination in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero
    (pp. 115-148)

    Of all the controversies over human rights, those surrounding the status of women’s rights perhaps most vividly illumine how and why rights discourses are prone to overdetermination. Indeed, one need merely cite recent contentions about the veil to demonstrate the exceptionally, even explosively charged tenor that debates about women’s rights often assume, especially when they mutate into related disputes over secularism. To be sure, from one vantage point, the beleaguerment of women’s rights in many societies—within the North as well as the global South—is troubling and persistent. There is little doubt that advocacy for women’s rights represents one...

  9. Chapter Five J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: The Rights of Desire and the Embodied Lives of Animals
    (pp. 149-185)

    Much as the language of human rights can serve as a powerful means to censure injustice, it is also believed to contain the political ideals, legal mechanisms, and idiom for enacting healing—both on an individual and a national level—after a pervasive legacy of rights violations. While narration is key to human rights witnessing, it is equally central to bringing the language of human rights to bear on recovery and reconciliation. By compelling a reckoning with formerly silenced (and in extreme cases unspeakable) wrongs, public acts of storytelling can variously convey the magnitude of the harms inflicted on a...

  10. Chapter Six Arundhati Roy’s “Return to the Things Themselves”: Phenomenology and the Challenge of Justice
    (pp. 186-219)

    This book has wrestled with many of the foreclosures haunting the liberal cartographies of selfhood that guide dominant human rights discourses and norms. Above all, such mappings of the human have been defined by their profound ambivalence about the ontological condition of embodiment. As they ordain reasoned, autonomous self-fashioning, liberal formulations of the subject variously elide and diminish crucial dimensions of corporeal being and experience. This aversion toward embodiment has helped to author countless of the exclusions that have historically compromised and only now continue to trouble the universality of human rights. In turn, I have argued that greater theoretical...

  11. Coda: Small Places, Close to Home
    (pp. 220-224)

    An excerpt from Arundhati Roy’s collection of essays fittingly titled Field Notes on Democracy (2009) sums up many of the inquiries that have been at the heart of this book. Roy meditates on what she perceives as the failure of democracy in contemporary India, yet her remarks also speak poignantly to the present-day predicament of human rights. As Roy asks:

    The question here, really, is: what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 225-242)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 243-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-262)