Plotting the Human: Unsettling the Manichean Allegory in Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge and A Distant Shore


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This paper examines representations in the work of British writer Caryl Phillips of the lynching of African men as a punishment for their perceived connections to white European women. I argue that what makes Phillips’ work so compelling in terms of human rights is its attention to the human particularity of subjects historically fixed and made unrecognizable by their “types” and the conventional plots containing their association. Specifically, both novels juxtapose the narratives of a white woman and a black man—perhaps the most historically fraught convergence of subject positions in the context of race and human rights—in their historical contexts. The narratives mirror one another, reflecting and refracting the deep similarities between these subject positions which have been historically construed as irrevocably different and constructed as the stage for the violently dramatic tableaux of misrepresentations comprising miscegenation. This paper explores the potential of such narrative innovations to unsettle the Manichean Allegory articulated by Frantz Fanon in Black Skins White Mask, while also considering how Phillips’ work intervenes in later debates about the force of the Manichean allegory among postcolonial literary critics. Finally, I show how Phillips’ literary work contributes to recent theoretical work about cosmopolitanism as a philosophical underpinning to the contemporary human rights regime.


Arts and Humanities | Social History

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