2018-2019 Pembroke Research Seminar
"What Are Human Rights? Imperial Origins, Curatorial Practices and Non-Imperial Ground"
Seminar Leader Ariella Azoulay, Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media
"750,000,000 Clamoring for Human Rights " (DuBois, New York Post 9 May 1945)
The discourse of human rights and curatorial practices are two technologies that date back to the invention of the "New World." This seminar will develop a wide historical perspective and pose a set of ontological and political questions that deviate, on one hand, from a tradition that studies human rights as a distinct discourse with its own history whose origins are European and located in either the revolutions of the eighteenth century (Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière); the end of World War II and the foundation of the United Nations (Marc Mazower); or the nineteen seventies, with the proliferation of non-governmental organizations (Samuel Moyn) and, on the other hand, from the tradition that limits the study of curatorial practices to designated indoor spaces.
Exploring these technologies in the context of five hundred years of imperialism, we will ask how they were combined, and how their combination enabled and legitimized the invasion of other peoples' places and intervened in their systems of objects and the ways they organized their material and political worlds. Looking at the ways these two technologies were linked and entangled enables a shift from the visual or textual representation of human rights to their political ontology and opens up such questions as: What are rights? Where are they inscribed? Are they divisible or shared? Who is entitled to grant and receive them?
With the implementation of a "new world order" in the wake of World War II, the link between curatorial practices and the discourse of human rights has been consolidated in the international arena and within many individual states. The foundation of the UN brought with it the establishment of its educational, scientific, and cultural agency, UNESCO, which was responsible for the standardization of technologies of "rescue," preservation, display, and circulation of art, while the political bodies of the UN were responsible for reaffirming and standardizing the discourse and practices of self-determination and human rights. How are these two functions and their technologies connected? How are these technologies developed and deployed? What do they seek to institutionalize and what do they foreclose? How do they operate? What do they generate? What discourses and practices of rights and art were replaced?
This seminar will look beyond the usual canonical texts, treatises, and declarations that have been recognized as foundational for the discourse of rights and its histories. Instead, we will explore objects as part of the world of rights, identify and analyze different types of rights claims (strikes, sit-ins, squatting, the occupation of public spaces, and so on), and consider the work of thinkers who have not necessarily been considered part of rights discourse. Seminar participants will collaborate in developing a "non-imperial approach" to the question of rights, one that looks at rights in the context of worlds made of objects. Using multiple non-canonical sources and studying non-imperial rights claims, we will ask what becomes of human rights when "the many" (in Hannah Arendt's sense of this term) both articulate their human rights through the very practice of claiming them and reflect on their rights as a way to care for the common world. The seminar will seek to identify patterns of political imagination, aspiration, and rights claims of the millions of people who have been historically ignored or discounted and whose claims have been repressed. In the course of this work, we will question common definitions and formations of human rights along with their ontological, political, and legal presuppositions. We will ask how the current hegemonic discourse of human rights colonized, when it didn't fully erase, various now subjugated discourses and practices of rights. How were curatorial practices used to solidify this hegemony? How have rights continued to be claimed outside and against this hegemony? By who? And where? How might rights and their curation be used or understood otherwise?
Particular attention will be given to the ways in which these two technologies were linked, used, and disseminated at the end of World War II for preempting and repressing claims for reparations, indemnification, compensation, and equality, claims that were--and continue to be--voiced by people whose territories were invaded, colonized, and plundered. We will study a variety of calls for reparations and restitution together with the series of treaties, declarations, agreements, and exhibitions produced as part of the effort to neutralize these calls and effectively undermine the power to imagine political and civil formations that deviated from those dictated by the new world order that the Allies imposed.
Studying these technologies, their use and spread, we will also explore their potential reversibility through various attempts to preserve and generate non-imperial platforms, knowledge, and practices. What forms did such attempts take and what might they have been? Exercising a kind of counter-curatorial power, we will explore a variety of materials such as photographs, art objects, manifestos, founding documents, maps, manuals for curating visual content and preparing itinerant exhibitions, charters, and declarations, as well as such institutions as museums and archives. We will approach these objects of study as both sources and tools, we will experiment in undoing and reversing their meanings, and we will use them to narrate potential histories, reassess contemporary and historical claims for reparations, and imagine reversals of disenfranchisement and dispossession.
We invite applications from scholars working in all disciplines and fields, including political theory, visual culture, critical legal studies, African studies, diaspora studies, critical studies, crital race studies, anthropology, philosophy, literary studies, classics, history of art, cinema and media Studies, music, gender and women's studies, science studies, religious studies, and across all historical periods and traditions.
The Pembroke Research Seminar meets on Wednesdays, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm.
For more information contact: Pembroke_Center@brown.edu or phone 401-863-2643