Finding Stilts for Nonsense: Presentism, Revolutionary Origins, and the Problem of Human Rights History

Jeremy Teow, History

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:00pm
LAPA Conference Room, 348 Wallace Hall
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

RSVP requested - click here

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.

Abstract:  "How do we think about human rights, and why does that matter? If scholarship on human rights history has burgeoned over the last decade, debates have largely redrawn new lines in chronological sand. Only recently have historians begun to escape the hold of such 'origins stories'. Based on an article-in-progress, this talk attempts to reassess current presentist paradigms for studying human rights in the past—generally Whiggishly teleological or critically genealogical—by examining the aesthetic and epistemological understandings of their late eighteenth-century iteration. I explore how Enlightenment epistemologies of visuality and textuality intertwined in the French Revolution with an aesthetics of monumentality and a political culture of theodicy. Brought together with the ambition of declaring natural rights in a world of things, however, I also trace how an ensuing set of material problems unravelled the tightly-bound threads of the revolutionary project for a unified Declaration of Rights—sometimes to explosive ends. Themes explored include fantasies of utopian fixity, anxieties over the fabrication of 'fake rights', and the material possibilities of jurisgenerative protest. Concluding briefly with a few twentieth-century articulations of human rights epistemology, from the Universal Declaration of 1948 to more recent commentators, I hope to orient the session's discussion towards a larger question about the moral normativities at stake: may there not, after all, be other presentisms for human rights history?"

Jeremy Teow

Jeremy Teow is a first year PhD student in the Department of History. His work focuses on late Enlightenment France and the wider Atlantic age of revolutions across the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Currently, his research examines the aesthetics and epistemology of late eighteenth-century human rights, with tentative nods to their scalar dimensions and afterlives. His other interests bear on various rights-based practices and individual/state affinities more broadly.