Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights

Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights

Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights

Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights


Surrendering to Utopia is a critical and wide-ranging study of anthropology's contributions to human rights. Providing a unique window into the underlying political and intellectual currents that have shaped human rights in the postwar period, this ambitious work opens up new opportunities for research, analysis, and political action. At the book's core, the author describes a "well-tempered human rights"- an orientation to human rights in the twenty-first century that is shaped by a sense of humility, an appreciation for the disorienting fact of multiplicity, and a willingness to make the mundaneness of social practice a source of ethical inspiration.

In examining the curious history of anthropology's engagement with human rights, this book moves from more traditional anthropological topics within the broader human rights community- for example, relativism and the problem of culture- to consider a wider range of theoretical and empirical topics. Among others, it examines the link between anthropology and the emergence of "neoliberal" human rights, explores the claim that anthropology has played an important role in legitimizing these rights, and gauges whether or not this is evidence of anthropology's potential to transform human rights theory and practice more generally.


It is unsettling how an experience can rapidly shift from the incongruous to the profoundly moving, from a moment of surprise to the realization that one's frame of reference, which has been put in place only with great difficulty, is no longer quite so adequate.

So there I was, halfway through a whirlwind sequence of lectures at European universities that was supposed to give many of the ideas in this book one final critical public airing before they were forever committed to the permanence of print. I found myself standing in line waiting to board a small regional jet in one of the outer terminals at Heathrow. My fellow passengers bound for Copenhagen looked to be mainly business travelers; already busy working their cell phones in several languages, they were oblivious to the world around them. Ever the anthropologist, I couldn't help but observe this sleepy early-morning ritual, marked as it was by its sheer mundaneness and rational efficiencies.

My hosts had sent me off the night before with a typically generous despedida. I was not exactly worse for the wear, but as I stood there waiting to hand my e-ticket to the Lufthansa agent, it occurred to me that the demands of daily early-morning international travel stood in some tension with the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the academic life.

Suddenly the eerie quiet and sense of routine anticipation in that outer terminal at Heathrow were jolted by a din: from around the corner, still out of sight, came a multitudinous jumble of voices of the kind that is usually attached to a throng of people. This urgent sound snaked around the curved wall and hit the waiting masters of the universe like a thunderbolt. Cell phones . . .

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