“Distant Suffering”

Course Description: The radical premise of human rights is that human lives are human lives, anywhere and everywhere. To this end, the idea of universal human rights demands a global response to violations that cause human suffering or endanger these human lives. In a world of universal human rights, what is our obligation to such suffering and such lives? What does it mean for a United body of Nations to maintain a global standard of human rights, and how does this global standard ask us to recognize, and to respond, to suffering that occurs far away, in places and to persons both distant and different from us? How can we imagine the pain of others unlike ourselves, and how far beyond ourselves can we stretch the bonds of empathy? What are our ethical and legal obligations to imagining as we can newly access, visualize, and know suffering that exists elsewhere?

In this course, we will look at texts that take up the ethics and the aesthetics of imagining distant suffering. We will read texts that call upon—and perhaps question—the idea of universal human rights as a way of responding to suffering in a global world, in which distant suffering calls for response from across the globe. We will especially think about how imaginary representations—especially fiction—may enable or perhaps block possibilities of suffering imagining the pain of very remote others. In this course, the idea of “distance” will take on a number of meanings: distant suffering can imply a geographical remoteness or a historical remove; it can also imply the idea of “otherness,” the distance of radical alterity. As such, the question of how we regard “distant suffering” in the context of human rights means questioning the assumed distances between the human and the non-human, as well as the singularity of a universal “human.”

How can we conceive of suffering that exists beyond our scope of vision, beyond our scale of imagining, and beyond our interventional reach? How does literature—and the decisions we make about how to read it—change our understanding of what it means to regard that pain? Does form, or narrative stylization, genre, and language, enable or perhaps block our capacity to read and apprehend the pain of others?

We will read texts from across the globe, and texts that create crossroads between time and space. We will additionally read texts that confront the limits of human rights as such standards may allow and enable suffering for lives of those considered non-human. Requirements will include: active participation, several short response papers, and a seminar paper. Likely readings will include (but will not be limited to) Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others, Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic, Gayatri Spivak Can the Subaltern Speak, Jamaica Kincaid A Small Place, Caryl Phillips The Nature of Blood, JM Coetzee The Lives of Animals, M. NourbeSe Philip Zong!

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