French 240: The Literary Construction of Human Rights in France

Instructor: Professor Susan Maslan

This course fulfills the Intellectual History or an elective requirement for the DE in REMS.

In 1789 the revolutionary French National Assembly drafted and promulgated the world’s first formal declaration of Human Rights. In this course we will think about the status of literature in an era before the category of human rights had emerged, when, that is, rather than representing violations of human rights, literature plays a crucial role in the development of human rights thinking. We are accustomed, in the age of trauma studies, to think that the role of fiction is to make readers feel the suffering of others, and this is no doubt true. But I want to explore to what extent literature has a more fundamental role in the establishment of the categories that make Human Rights thinkable. I want to explore whether and in what ways literature may create the mental habits and the conceptual categories required for a culture of rights. In other words, we are not considering a question of reflection but of production.

This course will focus on a variety of literary constructions of the figures of the human and of the citizen and of the different ways in which these two figures were related to each other. We will also question the notion of rights as a remedy for suffering. We will pay special attention to specific literary forms and techniques (epistolarity; the tale; irony; sentimentality, etc.) and their relation to the construction of human rights. We will also study the relation between literary discourse and other competing discourses of the self and society, especially legal and economic discourses. We will consider non-human animals as potential subjects of rights; we will consider how critical categories such as the Anthropocene and biopolitics intersect with the construction of human rights in the early modern era.

In addition to canonical literary texts, we will read  crucial primary and secondary historical texts and we will read a good deal of contemporary theoretical work on human rights by authors such as: Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Marcel Gauchet, Samuel Moyn, Jacques Rancière, and Slavoj Zizek.

Primary readings will include: Montesquieu, Les Lettres persanes; Montesquieu, L’Esprit des lois (excerpts) ; J.-J. Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité parmi les hommes ; Marivaux, « l’Ile des esclaves » and « La Colonie » ; Diderot, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville; Voltaire, Contes, Raynal, L’Histoire de deux Indes (excerpts).

Mon 1-4, 4226 Dwinelle, Class Number 31599

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes