Academic journal article New Formations

Elizabeth S. Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature

Academic journal article New Formations

Elizabeth S. Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature

Article excerpt

Elizabeth S. Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature, London, Cornell University Press, 2012

Fictions of Dignity is a distinctive contribution to the growing body of scholarship concerned with the relationship between human rights and novels. Anker identifies two particular problems with human rights discourse--one to do with embodiment, the other with language--and argues that fiction can act as a corrective and a counter to these difficulties.

The first chapter argues that only victims of rights abuse appear in the discourse as bodily vulnerable creatures. Meanwhile, the subject who possesses human rights is defined through concepts such as dignity and bodily integrity, which present a whole, nonporous and 'strangely bloodless' body as the ideal projected consequence of rights protection (p3). In this way, to have human rights is understood as an overcoming or a transcendence of the woundable human body, and the various registers of embodied existence are neglected. The second difficulty identified by the opening chapter has to do with language. If the emancipatory vocabulary of human rights has been contaminated by political opportunism, forced to serve neo-imperialist agendas and employed to defend gross abuses, can its terms and categories be rehabilitated and used in ethical ways?

Anker's contention is that the problem of language and the problem of the body are linked and both can be addressed, and human rights themselves thus reimagined, through the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In a convincing chapter on his thought Anker shows that for Merleau-Ponty, bodily experience shapes the self in multiple and dynamic ways and that there is a level of experience which flows from embodiment and precedes social or linguistic meanings. …

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