“The Politics of Comparison”

Course Description: In 2019, amid a humanitarian crisis growing at the Southern border of the United States, a newly elected Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously announced, via the social media platform Twitter, that “the U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border.” Twitter, which, since 2016 had become a fully virtually official conduit for formal political statements, decrees, and announcements of Executive policy, immediately buzzed in response with a debate over the accuracy and appropriateness of the comparison. Was the comparison appropriate, or was it appropriation? And who had the authority to decide?

Course Narrative: This course will look at the evolution of a post-1945 discourse of human rights and the vision, and challenges of creating a universal, trans-temporal, and transnational framework for recognizing, and responding to, atrocities committed within a localized, specific, and individual context of human rights violations. We will look at the legal, political, and cultural friction between singularity and comparison, focusing on the theoretical and historical context for comparison within cultural and legal discourse.

Course objectives: This course will combine an inquiry into the aesthetic representation of historical conflicts from around the globe with a theoretical investigation into the philosophies of history, narratology, and legal theory of comparison. We will especially look at the relationship between comparison and political capital, and the stakes of a comparative framework for human rights, particularly for groups that have been historically marginalized, or who have historically lacked representational means for articulation. Finally, we will consider the possibilities for—and the consequences of—comparison as the basis for thinking about human rights. Blending legal documents, theories about the nature of comparison, political discourse, historical texts, and aesthetic forms, we will consider the interplay between culture, politics, and law in the context of human rights.

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