Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mark Goodale's "Surrendering to Utopia"

Mark Goodale is Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Anthropology at George Mason University and Series Editor of Stanford Studies in Human Rights. He is the author of Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism (Stanford, 2008), editor of Human Rights: An Anthropological Reader (2009), and coeditor of The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local (2007).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his book, Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights, and reported the following:
Since I was invited to demonstrate the truth, or not, of Ford Madox Ford’s characteristically pithy remark, I am going to exercise a prerogative of a certain sort and quote from Page 98 (not 99) of Surrendering to Utopia:

The great value in the idea of human rights is that it implies a set of norms whose legitimacy depends on nothing more complicated than the simple fact of common humanness. Political entities (like the nation-state) will come and go; but the fact of common humanness, if true, both preexists these entities and will remain after they are gone. That is the real genius of the idea of human rights. It is also its greatest weakness, since it is when such a noble (if essentially speculative) idea is converted into the language of social and political practice—as it must necessarily be—that all the problems begin. Nevertheless, we must recognize that to be able to speak meaningfully of transnational human rights is to point to evidence that at least some of these problems—like the problem of culture—have so far not proven fatal.

The modern idea of human rights offers a radical theory of human equality and makes the equally radical suggestion that this theory should form the metric by which contemporary political, legal, and moral institutions are measured. What makes this idea so radical is that it emerged in its latest iteration from the ashes of the murderous paroxysms of the mid-twentieth century, which can be taken to represent the logical and tragic culmination of a centuries-long process of intellectual historical development (aka “modernity”). Yet if modernity reintroduced both the idea of radical human equality and its antitheses expressed in particular forms, what else could the mandarins at the newly created United Nations do but restate their absolute belief in radical equality even in the face of the murderous failure of this idea?

If Surrendering to Utopia is a reflection on the life of the idea of radical human equality in the contemporary world, it is a reflection grounded in the intellectual margins: it uses anthropology and cultural studies as primary sources of information and inspiration. It asks the question: How would the idea of human rights be understood if it were formed by bits and pieces of different ethical, religious, and legal systems around the world? The book is thus as much a reflection on moral knowledge and how we come to validate it as it is a book about human rights.
Read an excerpt from Surrendering to Utopia, and learn more about the book at the Stanford University Press website.

Visit Mark Goodale's webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue