Joseph R. Slaughter teaches postcolonial literature and theory, human rights, and narrative approaches to international law in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His book Human Rights, Inc: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, won the René Wellek Prize for Comparative Literature and Cultural Theory. He has co-edited a volume of essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and African literatures and culture entitled The Global South Atlantic (2017), and is currently finishing two books: New Word Orders, on intellectual property and world literature, and Pathetic Fallacies, a collection of essays on human rights and the humanities. He was a founding co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Humanity, and he recently completed his term as President of the American Comparative Literature Association.

His talk, “Naming the Crisis: The Language of Human Rights and the Neoliberal Turn” will be held this Thursday, February 20th from  5:30 PM – 7:00 PM with a reception at 5:00 PM in Smith Warehouse, Bay 4, Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall. 

Miranda Gershoni (MG): How did you get into the fields of human rights and literature? What do you think is their relationship with each other?

Dr. Joseph Slaughter (JS): As a graduate student pursuing a PhD in comparative literature, I was simultaneously working on human rights and taking public international law courses. I had the good fortune to have a dissertation director, Barbara Harlow, who wrote a book on Resistance Literature and who shared deep interests in literature and social justice. Literature, and other forms of cultural expression more generally, have various relationships to human rights. The most obvious relationships are those where a work of literature explicitly depicts human rights themes or advocates for an ideal of social justice.

However, most of my work is interested in deeper, underlying connections between literature and human rights; I am especially interested in the “social work” of particular cultural forms (or literary genres), in how story forms normalize (or problematize) certain ideas about the human, humanity, and human rights that are articulated in law and that we tend to take for granted. For example, in Human Rights, Inc. I argue that the Bildungsroman (the coming-of-age novel) and human rights share certain fundamental assumptions about the normative subject, about what it means to be human and what the human being needs in order to become a self-possessed, autonomous, well-fulfilled individual within society.

Thus, for better and for worse, the literary genre serves to disseminate and consolidate human rights ideals; in turn, the genre becomes an ideological battleground for making new human rights claims and expanding the rights vocabulary, even as it tends to reinforce dominant normative ideas about human rights. There are myriad other ways in which literature intersects with human rights and international law because the rhetorical procedures and devices of literature (such as personification, analogy, metaphor, metonymy, etc.) are the same ones that make the law possible and operational.

MG: Is there a takeaway from your talk that you find particularly meaningful? What do you hope students, faculty, and community members take from your lecture?

JS: In 1974, the Second International War Crimes Tribunal met in Rome to consider evidence of Repression in Brazil, Chile, and Latin America. This Second Russell Tribunal ultimately found that “crimes against humanity” had been committed, and were ongoing, in Latin America by a combination of state dictatorships, U.S. foreign policy and economic interventionism, and multinational corporate capitalism.

Looking back from our current neoliberal era, we can see fairly clearly that the Second Russell Tribunal was trying to identify and to name systemic forms of socio-economic exploitation that we now associate with Neoliberalism and neoliberal globalization, using the available and expansive language of human rights. That use of the language of human rights was in keeping with radical Third-Worldist agendas for decolonization, reparations, and the New International Economic Order that were stymied by the U.S. and postcolonial powers of Europe, who also sought to restrict the focus of human rights discourse to the civil and political rights of individuals.

In my talk, I consider the contested terms of the language of human rights by examining the verdict of the Second Russell Tribunal in relation to two contemporary literary texts: Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, a short novella by Julio Cortázar, who served on the Russell Tribunal jury, and a 1974 Mexican comic book about a transnational conspiracy against World Literature and the cultural heritage of humankind.

Through these materials, I’m interested in examining, among other things, the ways in which the Russell Tribunal, like the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before them, chose to beg the questions of “humanity” and “human rights” in order, in part, to evade the definitional problem of humanity and to use the ideas of “humanity” and “human rights” morally and historically. What might we learn from the history of begging the question of “humanity” in the name of humanity itself?