MLA 2020-Humanitarian Violence and the Ethics of Witnessing

deadline for submissions: 
March 28, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Bryant Scott, University of Miami
contact email: 

Seeking paper abstracts for the MLA Annual Convention in Seattle, WA, January 9-12, 2020.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western nations began to outline foreign policy by drawing explicitly on a language of human rights that promised to be untainted by geopolitical ambition. So pervasive did this human rights ethic become that critics Kay Schafer and Sidonie Smith refer to the 1990s as the “decade of human rights.” While many see hope in such a “humanitarian turn,” scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yen Le Espiritu, and Neda Atanasoski argue that human rights and the humanitarian discourses surrounding terms like “freedom,” “refuge,” and even “diversity” have perpetuated state violence in the post-Cold War era. As these and other scholars suggest, after anti-communism lost its value as justification for occupying the world’s more vulnerable nations, Western states began to authorize military aggression on humanitarian grounds.

This panel, which revisits some of the issues and themes of a special sessions panel organized for MLA 2019, invites papers that investigate how literature, broadly conceived, responds to and participates in debates about humanitarianism and human rights discourses and the violence they may or may not perpetuate. Paper proposals might address:

  • Human rights and literary forms
  • Citizenship and statelessness
  • Migration and the refugee
  • The ontology of the human rights/humanitarian subject
  • Politics of human rights before, during, and/or after the Cold War
  • Human rights and theories of the state
  • Human rights and liberalism and/or neoliberalism
  • Race and human rights
  • Temporalities of human rights
  • Geographies of human rights and humanitarianism
  • The ethics of witnessing in the era of Trump
  • Reimagining human rights
  • Radical alternatives to human rights
  • Human rights and the Humanities scholar

Please send 300-word abstracts and a short bio to Bryant Scott at by March 25, 2019.