Course Description

Human rights law is encoded in the spare language of treaties, but human rights practice comes alive in the materiality of daily life. After a quick tour of human rights law, we will devote our energies in this coordinated studies program toward understanding how human rights accrue force and meaning insofar as they are embedded in cultural practice, and specifically in cultural practices of representation. Our inquiry will be guided by these questions: How do human rights frameworks prevent or redress human wrongs (including atrocities such as torture and genocide)? What leads some people to abuse human rights, and other people to respect them? How are human rights struggles pursued using modes of visual and textual representation? What role do cultural forms such as film, literature, and public memorials play in either fostering or hindering respect for human rights?

In the fall quarter, our mode of inquiry will be primarily textual. Even as we study film, photography, new media, public monuments and memory projects, that study will be accomplished by reading theoretical accounts of rights and representation. We will also read historical accounts of the rise of human rights frameworks, and we will consider a variety of critiques of human rights. Students will build a strong foundation in the theory of human rights, as well as in theories of visual and textual representation. A typical week’s work will include a film screening, lecture, and seminars. Students will write two long essays, several shorter pieces, and a prospectus for a winter quarter project.

In the winter quarter, we will continue to read and seminar as a group as we expand our focus to include literature. We will read Arendt by way of concentrating our inquiry around questions of judgment, we will read Dawes by way of focusing on problems of narrative, and we will take up the case study of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility on the tenth anniversary of its opening. Students will also pursue projects. Depending on student background and interests, these projects could result in a traditional research paper or in a more practical implementation of the theory they’ve learned (for example, a new media project).