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Culture and Human Rights


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Agnes Woolley
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

This module offers you an advanced introduction to the literary-cultural significance of humanitarianism and human rights. The course focuses on key points of intersection between the arts, discourses of human rights and humanitarianism and instances/contexts in which rights are asserted or under threat. We will examine how writers, artists and filmmakers have represented, and engaged with, human rights issues, as well as how humanitarianism has itself emerged as a cultural concept in the post-war period.

Beginning with the emergence of rights discourses in the eighteenth century, we will then focus on twentieth and twenty-first-century theoretical and creative interventions into human rights issues, touching on the fields of postcolonial theory, neuroscience, ecocriticism and political science. We will consider a diverse range of forms, from memoir, testimony and the literary essay, to film and virtual reality, asking: how effective is empathy in engendering action on behalf of others? What is the relationship between fiction and testimony in the context of rights advocacy? Can art really change anything?

Indicative module content

  • Introduction: interdisciplinarity, theory and practice, the subject of rights
  • Declarations: declarations of rights French/US/UNDHR; lives of slaves
  • The (Rise of the) Novel: literature and empathy, rise of the novel, the individual and society, Bildungsroman
  • Hannah Arendt and the Subject of Rights: citizenship and statelessness, refugees and rights
  • Disaster and Development: Who is human? Animals, universality and the particular
  • Fact, Fiction and Testimony: testimonio, memoir, authenticity and affect
  • Memory, Justice, Rights: memory and memorialisation; art and justice
  • The ‘Ultimate Empathy Machine’: VR and the ‘ultimate empathy machine’, the empathy museum, neuroscience
  • The ‘Writer-Activist’: Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, the literary essay
  • Art and Action: Can art change things?, ‘compassion fatigue’ and irony

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • engage critically with artistic representations of, and engagements with, human rights issues
  • analyse the relationship between a variety of artistic forms and different cultural and socio-political contexts
  • demonstrate an understanding of the cultural politics of humanitarianism and human rights as well as key concepts like ‘empathy’, ‘imagination’ and ‘activism’ as they relate to both the arts and human rights discourses
  • critically engage with evolving theorisations of contemporary humanitarianism in relation to the literary and cultural texts on the module
  • critically appraise the roles of fiction and testimony in the context of rights.