Modern Language Association
Special Session:

Language and Human Rights:
Rhetorical Acts, Material Consequences

December 2005
Washington, D.C.

Session Chair: Amy Kaplan, University of Pennsylvania

"Representational Practices in Human Rights Fiction and Fieldwork," James Dawes, Macalester College (

"Imagining the Enemy as Rhetorical Strategy in the U.S. Black Freedom Movement," Alisse Portnoy, University of Michigan (

"Health and Human Rights: A More than Rhetorical Approach," Priscilla Wald, Duke University

Respondent: Steven Mailloux, University of California, Irvine

What are the material consequences of language? How do symbolic acts affect material conditions, generate material results? Since the linguistic turn in the humanities and social sciences, scholars have attended to the ways language functions as more than a means of representation. Language shapes and reshapes identities, exigencies, and the ways people experience the worlds in which we live. Even as these acts are symbolic, they have material consequences. In the domain of human rights, those consequences may be life-altering, if not live-saving--or life-ending.

In this panel, we feature rhetorical approaches to human rights texts. We highlight the material consequences of language use within humanitarian organizations and human rights fiction, civil rights movements, and health crises provoked by emerging infections. Simultaneously, we argue for increased attention to rhetorical studies among literary critics, and also for an integration of methods that broaden the ways we understand intersections of language and power across a variety of objects of study.

Two of the five participants on this panel self-identify as rhetorical theorists or critics; the other three participants deploy what many rhetorical and some literary critics would call rhetorical approaches to language study--with differing degrees of conscious appropriation and also differing levels of resistance to the "rhetoric" label. Yet each of us recognizes the need for increased dialogue between rhetorical and literary critics. We intend for this panel to serve as just such an opportunity.

The first presentation reveals the inner workings and cultural significance of what James Dawes calls the emerging global genre of human rights fiction and provides a theoretical analysis of the communicative challenges that human rights workers face in the field. Dawes argues that fieldwork and literary analyses not only are mutually illuminating but also are mutually dependent. Three recurring thematic features in human rights fiction, for instance--the plot of deferral, the problem of empathetic eclipse, and the formal parallel between aid worker and torturer--resonate with patterns that emerge in personal narratives of humanitarian workers. Dawes concludes that works of fiction dramatically amplify submerged ethical conflicts in the representational practices of human rights organizations, and case studies in humanitarian work help explain how and why forms like the novel have begun to change in response to new cultural pressures.

The second presentation focuses on constructions of the enemy in the United States black freedom movement. Alisse Portnoy attends to what she identifies as a powerful function of civil rights rhetoric: naming and defining one's enemies. Black freedom advocates frequently deployed contradictory constructions of movement enemies. Although they were grounded in shared perceptions of, for instance, conservatives such as Alabama governor George Wallace or mainstream politicians such as Lyndon B. Johnson, these competing imaginings of the "same" enemy nevertheless contributed to divisions within the movement. More significantly, however, they dramatically increased the means by which movement leaders could, and did, argue for large-scale sociopolitical change. These constructions had to appear real, Portnoy explains, to be powerful; so constituted, these imaginings of movement enemies crucially contributed to the results of the U.S. black freedom movement.

The third presentation examines the effects stories, languages, and images have in health crisis outcomes. Priscilla Wald discusses emerging infections and the ways one can change the outcome of an emerging infection by changing the stories people tell about it; in fact, Wald argues, in many cases one only can change the outcome if one changes the story. Conventional accounts of emerging infections frequently obscure--and reproduce--the source of the problem: poverty. Wald argues that telling--or retelling--the story of emerging infections helps us to understand how social and economic rights are human rights. Thus, Wald concludes, it changes the way we understand the language of human rights.

In his response to the three panelists, Steven Mailloux will focus on what the talks together say about language and human rights and about intersections between discursive acts and their material consequences. He also will highlight the rhetorical approaches employed in each talk, calling attention to the ways such approaches illuminate the powerful effects of language and how these approaches increasingly might be integrated into literary theory and criticism.

For more information, please contact Alisse Portnoy at
Most recent update: May 25, 2005.