Thursday, August 4, 2022

Mark Goodale's "Reinventing Human Rights"

Mark Goodale is professor of cultural and social anthropology and director of the Laboratory of Cultural and Social Anthropology (LACS) at the University of Lausanne. He is among a small group of scholars who are credited with the development of a distinct "anthropology of human rights," an alternative approach that emphasizes the relationship between human rights and praxis, affect, and cultural history. He is the author or editor of a number of other books, including A Revolution in Fragments: Traversing Scales of Justice, Law, and Ideology in Bolivia (2019) and Anthropology and Law: A Critical Introduction (2017).

Goodale applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Reinventing Human Rights, and reported the following:
Interestingly, the somewhat arbitrary Page 99 Test actually works beautifully in this case, in the sense that certain key qualities of the book are indeed revealed. Page 99 is the beginning of the all-important chapter in which I thicken what is probably the book's most radical argument: that a "reinvented" human rights must be grounded in an anthropological conception of pluralism rather than an outmoded philosophical conception of universalism.

In order to sensitize the reader to the kinds of pluralism I have in mind, page 99 begins with a haunting epigraph, an extract from the writings of the largely forgotten anthropologist Laura Watson Benedict, who conducted a pioneering ethnographic study on spirituality in the Philippines in the first decade of the twentieth century. She was also the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University, which she did in 1914 when she was 53 years old! In the extract, Benedict describes her research with an Indigenous population who believe that people have two souls—a right-hand, or good soul, and a left-hand, or bad soul. A boy of fourteen explains to Benedict that if he were to die, his right-hand soul would have to make a perilous journey to the Great City, but his "good" soul would not want to make this journey alone, so it would wait near his best friend and plead with his good soul to travel to the Great City with him, so that his right-hand soul wouldn't be so afraid. But as the boy tells Benedict, "if [my best friend] does not want to go with me, I do not force him, but I ask other friends—many."

So why begin the critically important chapter on "human rights otherwise" with an ethnographic vignette about a "people who have two souls"? I guess I would say that it is an admittedly obscure way to immediately confront the entire political, economic, and discursive history from which the idea of universal human rights emerges. What is the point of continuing to prop up the fiction of the universal human or the invented kinship category of the "human family"—as the Preamble to the UDHR puts it—in a world marked by deep and potentially emancipatory human and cultural difference?
Visit Mark Goodale's website and learn more about Reinventing Human Rights at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue