Victorian Human Rights: Bruce Robbins "On the Non-Representation of Atrocity"

By Hadji Bakara

Literature and Humanitarianism

Genealogies of human rights and human rights studies have a vexed relationship with the Victorian era and the nineteenth-century more generally. While the “rise and rise” model tends to envision an ancient seed that takes root in Greek and early modern political and legal thought and finally, and dramatically, breaks the surface in the Republican revolutions of the universalizing eighteenth-century, even the most sympathetic accounts of this long history have a hard time locating the moments of human rights efflorescence in the nationalizing nineteenth-century. Indeed, from Hannah Arendt to Samuel Moyn, the nineteenth-century –– defined by national sovereignty on the one hand and liberal empire on the other –– frequently acts as evidence of the fragmented and discontinuous history of universal human rights, which was by no means fated to triumph (however briefly) at the end of the twentieth-century. One potential riposte to the image of the Victorian era as devoid of human rights thinking has been the historical genealogy of the category of “atrocity,” which begins to take on its modern valances towards the end of the nineteenth-century. Wasn’t it the specter of slavery and the Belgian Congo that brought about the first transnational culture of human rights activism, directed against acts of violence that struck at the core of universal human values?

To get at a more thorough evaluation of the nineteenth-century as a vector in the genealogy of human rights, historians might do worse than look to emerging work in the field of Victorian literary studies, and the work of the V21 Collective, whose annual symposium, “Presentism, Form, and the Future of History” was held at the University of Chicago in the Fall of 2015. In his keynote address, Bruce Robbins delivered a lecture on the problem of assessing atrocity as a working category in nineteenth-century culture. The lecture, titled “On the Non-representation of Atrocity” will be of interest to human rights historians and theorists across disciplines.