One idea of the decade summarizing a critical trend in the field of comparative literature may well be that of human rights. Regardless of period or region of scholarly focus, one would be hard pressed to find a field of comparative literary research that has not been touched by “the human rights turn.” If the cultural turn signaled the critical response to post 60s politics, and the 90s were marked by the postcolonial turn, then perhaps the human rights turn best characterizes the period following the attacks of 9/11/2001.  

Although such a claim is intentionally hyperbolic, let us say that the primary critical lens used to make sense of post 9/11 geopolitics was, indeed, that of rights -- and for two main reasons. First, for critics in the United States, rights became the safe way to interrogate the abuses of power that immediately followed the attacks. Approaches to the new iterations of empire, millennial biopolitics, and neoliberal social structures were commonly framed in rights theories that asked how we come to value human life, how it is represented, and how it is destroyed. Such a logic allowed critics working under the spotlight of the USA Patriot Act to claim the cover of defending rights while investigating the sinister new forms of governmentality, disaster capitalism, and militarization that were becoming a new way of life. 

Second, the rights turn put pressure on some of the slippery ways that poststructural critique often seemed to retreat from offering concrete ways to think about how to value and defend life. Through the prism of rights one could critique the legacies of the enlightenment or the master narratives of empire or the self-righteousness of liberal humanism while still holding to a goal of a more utopian critical outcome. While no scholar working on rights could remain immune to the history of how the idea of rights had repeatedly been used with the sole intent of violating them, the grounding of human rights allowed for the recovery of much-needed utopian yearnings within a framework that was anything but naïve. Or at least that was the idea.

That first decade of rights work was highlighted by a number of key texts and special journal issues that charted new directions for the fields of postcolonial studies, identity-based studies, trauma theory, translation studies, and more. What is perhaps of even greater interest, though, is what will become of the human rights turn in its second decade. If the rush to rights-related work was inspired, at least in part, by a desire to make the field of comparative literature socially relevant, politically engaged, and academically meaningful, this next phase has lost some of that early allure. As scholars dig more deeply into the nuances of the human rights story and its multiple representations it is no longer possible simply to point to a given text as representing humanity’s salvation -- or its downfall. Such readings may have been common in the first decade after 9/11, but they are increasingly rare now. In the next decade comparative work will increasingly go beyond the notion that literary texts offer specific aesthetic connections to the idea of rights and develop instead truly comparative frameworks for the very idea of rights as well as a greater interest in moving beyond the Anthropocene as the limit notion of rights. As the human rights turn enters its second decade it is necessarily challenged to make the sort of critical interventions that will help the field of comparative literature remain not just relevant, but indispensable.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Print.

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

Balfour, Ian and Eduardo Cadava, guest editors. “The Claims of Human Rights.”  South Atlantic Quarterly 103, 2/3, Spring/Summer 2004.

Butler, Judith and Domna Stanton, guest editors. “Human Rights and the Humanities.” PMLA, 121, 5, October 2006.

Cubilié, Anne. Women Witnessing Terror: Testimony and the Cultural Politics of Human Rights. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Print.

Douzinas, Costas. Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism. London: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007. Print.

Goldberg, Elizabeth S, and Alexandra S. Moore. Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

McClennen, Sophia A, and Henry J. Morello. Representing Humanity in an Age of Terror. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010. Print.

McClennen, Sophia A, and Joseph R. Slaughter, guest editors. “Human Rights and Literary Form.” Comparative Literature Studies 46, 1 (2009).

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

Wenzel, Jennifer. Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Internet resource.