Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Inventing Human Rights: A History

In Inventing Human Rights: A History (2008) [272pp] Lynn Hunt explains the history and development of “self evident” and “natural” human rights.  She proposes that cultural change in the second half of the 18th century in Europe and the colonies made practices such as judicial torture and brutal executions, exemplified by the Jean Calas affair (Toulouse 1762), unacceptable.

Jean Calas on the wheel, Toulouse 1762
Lynn Hunt argues that cultural change related to the birth of human rights was tied to the boom of the epistolary novel in the 1740s.  Readers cultivated a sensibility of equality as they empathized with the “ordinary” main characters of novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) in which the protagonist is a maid and her employer tries to seduce her, and Rosseau’s Julie (1761) in which a middle class woman tries to overcome her passions and lead a virtuous life (See Hunt 41-59).  In Dennis Diderot’s eulogy for Samuel Richardson “Eloge de Richardson” published in 1762, Diderot explains how Richardson’s writing caused him to identify deeply with the central character:

O Richardson! Whether we wish it or not, we play a part in your works, we intervene in the conversation, we give it approval and blame, we feel admiration, irritation and indignation. How many times have I caught myself, as happens with children being taken to the theatre for the first time, shouting out: Don't believe him, he's deceiving you ... If you go there it'll be the end of you.  My heart was in a state of permanent agitation. How good I was! How just I was! Wasn't I pleased with myself! When I had been reading you, I was like a man who had spent the day doing good.

18th c. physionotrace sihouette
According to Hunt, 18th century fiction writing laid foundations for a new political and social order. Additionally Hunt proposes that attitudes toward the body were also changing and the body was increasingly seen as more self-contained than it had been previously.  Privacy became more of an issue and there was more of a separation between public and private practices.  Public urination, spitting, eating out of a common bowl, sleeping in a common bed and blowing one’s nose in one’s hand, to give a few examples, became taboo (See 81-84 for more examples).  Furthermore, Lynn Hunt argues that common people began to represent themselves as unique and distinct individuals with self portraits and the physionotrace (1786), an apparatus invented in the 18th century and used for producing profiles and silhouettes (See 83-85).

These new attitudes toward the body also changed perceptions toward bodily pain.  Whereas pain had previously been seen as reparation for social harm and as compensation for crimes and sins, in the 1760’s and 1780s pain and cruelty, especially as a public spectacle, barbarized rather than reaffirmed society.  Between 1760’s and 1780’s lawyers denounced Jean Cala’s 1762 conviction and judicial torture was no longer held to be an acceptable test for truth (101).  Pain, in Italian jusrist Cesare Beccaria's analysis for example, could not be “the test of truth, as if truth resided in the muscles and fibres of a wretch in torture” (Hunt 101).

In sum, Lynn Hunt proposes that natural and self-evident human rights were discovered in the 18th century.  She attributes this shift after the 1760’s to underlying cultural and social change (epistolary novels and new attitudes toward the body and individual identity); the enlightenment writers of the 18th century built on these cultural shifts (112).  

**Additional notes in doc file

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

In analyzing the “pictorial turn” in his book Picture Theory, Mitchell begins by raising important questions about how images reference t...