American Literary Cultures: From Ethics to Rights to Justice


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This essay begins by tracking the contemporary history of ethics in literary criticism from its vaunted return in the late 80s with the fall of de Man to its post 2001 dissolution. The essay claims that the language and theory of ethics, which had been recuperated as a response to the putative nihilism of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, has been replaced by the language and theory of human rights, a burgeoning new subfield in US literary studies. We begin by surveying the contemporary “ethical turn” in American literary studies as they mirrored and helped to shape the multicultural and minority literatures movements of the 1960s – 1990s. Turning next to the interdiscipline of human rights and literature, we examine the embrace of comparativism and then transnationalism by American literary studies as they informed the development of human rights as an approach to literature, concluding with an analysis of the social justice critique of the limits of human rights discourse embedded in Percival Everett’s The Water Cure (2007).

Academic Division

Arts and Humanities


American Literature | American Studies | Human Rights Law

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