Humanism's Pharmakon: Subalternity and Universality



Publication Details

Griffiths, M. R. "Humanism's Pharmakon: Subalternity and Universality." The social work of narrative : human rights and the cultural imaginary. Ed.G. Griffiths & P. Mead. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2018, 319-338.


When is it time for human rights? When do human rights begin? To ask this is to ask how human rights emerge when the idea of the human is conjoined with the protections of citizenship. If human rights emerge in the event of their declaration, the social work of narrative by which they are iterated also recodes them. Etienne Balibar (2012) has affirmed "a perfect adequacy between the capacities of the human and the powers of the citi­zen" that is performed in and through the events of "universality performa­tively enunciated in such emblematic texts as the classical Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" (207-08).1 Similarly, many would identify the French and US Declarations-the most often cited predeces­sors to the UN Declaration of 1948-as such foundational, modern per­formative utterances of human rights and their relation to the protections of citizenship. But when is the time of human rights?Z Is it to be found in such events of articulation, with their own blindnesses and limitations, their contextual exclusions of people of colour and women? Is the emer­gence of human rights nascent in its declaration as a concept or only given in the subsequent elaborations that insist on the incompatibility of such universality with such exclusion? This essay explores the temporality of hu­man rights through readings of Black Atlantic thought, most notably through sustained readings of a speech of Frederick Douglass and a poem by Derek Walcott, but also by deploying black feminist thought to recode the iterability of human emancipation beyond the declarations from which human rights emerged.

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