MLA 2024

Human Rights, Technology, and Culture

Panel Description

Sophia A. McClennen and Joseph R. Slaughter in “Introducing Human Rights and Literary Forms” warn: “Human rights are under threat everywhere, especially when the language of human rights is used to justify their violation” (Comparative Literature Studies 2009). They notice that through double-speak the states exercise violence to advance their jingoist agenda in the name of protecting the rights of the children and women, as George Bush did while invading Afghanistan in 2001. James Dawes complements this foregoing view in his “Human Rights in Literary Studies” when he argues that aesthetics captures human rights because both categories deal with “human dignity” (Human Rights Quarterly 2009). In his more recent and advanced study The Novel of Human Rights (2016) Dawes brings the American novel in tension with the ethical pressures on the novelists to engage civil rights in the US. In their recent edited book Technologies of Human Rights Representation (2022), Moore and Dawes connect the question of human rights with representation: “Human rights as representation, then, ask questions like these: How do new technologies not only change the modes available to us to shape and disseminate information but also set the parameters for what counts as information, what counts as representable?” This volume demands that the peripheral representations of human rights be acknowledged and information therein be recognized as valid witness to the gross violations.

To negotiate and reflect on human rights through literary and cultural studies, this panel engages with the representations and their forms which do not count as such in the popular imagination.

 Nimisha Sinha opens the panel with her theoretical paper on the figure of the climate refugee who is legally unrecognized, socio-politically vulnerable, and ecologically displaced. She argues that a climate refugee is a visual category. She uses the word visual generously, paying attention to many ways in which climate refugees are made visible and concealed through various legal and cultural representational technologies. This paper posits new ways of witnessing and spectatorship which urge us to reflect on the rights of climate refugees.

While Sinha’s paper delves into the visual content, Muhammad Waqar Azeem dissects the form of the representations of technology-driven human rights violations. He explores interplay between cultural forms and social forms, a literary plot and a political plot, and fictional characters and historical characters. Using Caroline Levine’s influential study Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015), he argues that literary forms are part of the broader networks that surround us. Referring to Hardt and Negri’s argument that the US has appeared as an Empire of networks because of its control over the global communication (Empire 2000), he argues that we can challenge the imperial network with a counter-network of cultural and literary forms, the structures capable of intervening into our worldview, and our conceptualization of human rights.

Lopamudra Basu offers a comparative analysis of the phenomenon of state surveillance and impingement of human rights through a close reading of scenes from Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced and V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night. She argues that we tend to focus most on surveillance mechanisms that have been unleashed since the development of the internet in the 1990s and deployment of drones during the War on Terror. However, the violation of civil rights of profiled minorities predates the development of internet and drone technologies and can be witnessed in representations of the Sri Lankan Civil War. She examines the depiction of state sanctioned violence on Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka and the profiling and arbitrary detention of Sri Lankan youth as a precedent of the trend of racial profiling and detention of Muslim, Arab, and other brown youth in the aftermath of 9/11in the US.

Slater Lee in her innovative study explores the tension and paradox inherent in the relationship between technology and human rights by focusing on the complex dynamics of cultural expressions of protest and spoken words of poetry. She considers how social media allows global visual protest art and spoken word poetry to transcend and extend the moment and space of the protest with a technological afterlife. She argues that the voices of these artists and spoken word poets adopt clever plays of coded language, including satire, humor, irony, and neologisms that offer compelling expression to human experiences and struggles in spaces at risk of compromise by technological surveillance. At the same time the sharing of their work via social media employs a subversive yet powerful use of technology to tell the stories of human rights.

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