Joseph Slaughter

Columbia University
Faculty / Academic Staff
Comparative Literature
Intellectual Biography: 

I am an associate professor of English and Comparative literature at Columbia University, working in the fields of postcolonial literature and theory, African, Caribbean, and Latin American literatures, narrative theory, and human rights. I did my PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in Ethnic and Third World Literatures (E3W). In relation to the theme of this workshop—global theory from the South—that training was formative; E3W styled itself in opposition to area studies programs, on the one hand, and to postcolonial studies (which was regarded as overly Eurocentric) on the other. I studied both Latin American and African literatures, a combination that was at the time illegible on the job market. The linkages that yoked the two continents together for me were issues of anti-imperialism, insurgency struggles, and human rights. My first book, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International (Fordham, 2007), reads novels from both Africa and Latin America to examine the shared assumptions that animate both the Bildungsroman (the coming-of-age novel) and international human rights law. I am interested in the ideological, formal, and historical intersections between human rights law and the Bildungsroman, especially in the relationship between the literary genre and the globalization and naturalization of the discourses and practices of human rights (and vice versa). In that project, I attempt to theorize the Bildungsroman from the Global South, and I examine the ways that both the novels and human rights law cooperate and collude to disseminate (for good and for bad) a culture of human rights. Human Rights, Inc. was awarded the 2008 René Wellek prize for comparative literature and cultural theory. I am currently working on two main book manuscripts. The first, “New Word Orders: Intellectual Property, Piracy, and the Globalization of the Novel,” explores the intersections of world literature and international intellectual property and cultural heritage law. It considers the role of plagiarism and other piratical textual practices in the development and diffusion of the novel form. Going beyond the traditional literary property concern with copyright, this project challenges the still dominant models of cultural globalization that map the world in terms of powerful, independent centers and weak, dependent peripheries by focusing on examples of transnational plagiarism, trademark appropriation, patent piracy, corporate (and state) secret espionage, and the emergence of cultural property/heritage law as a regime for making human rights claims. The second, “Pathetic Fallacies,” offers an account of the history of the emergence of international human rights law that challenges the standard story of the rise of the United Nations; working with literary and legal materials from West Africa (mostly Nigeria) I examine the roles that colonialism, corporations, and corporate personhood played in the establishment of an international legal order and the juridical categories that later made human rights possible. I am currently co-editing, with Kerry Bystrom, a volume of essays on the "Global South Atlantic," from which my proposed project of the workshop will be drawn.My publications include articles in Alif, Human Rights Quarterly, Research in African Literatures, The Journal of Human Rights, Politics and Culture, Comparative Literature Studies, and PMLA. I am a founding coeditor of Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development. I have been the recipient of a number of prestigious prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.

Presentation Title: 
Why Not the Global South Atlantic?
Diawara, Manthia. (1998). "Toward a Regional Imaginary in Africa." The Cultures of Globalization. F. Jameson and M. Miyoshi. Durham, Duke U P: 103-124. Pitman, Thea and Andy Stafford (2009). "Introduction: Transatlanticism and Tricontinentalism." Journal of Transatlantic Studies. 7.3 September: 197-207. Boelhower, William Q. (2008) "The Rise of the New Atlantic Studies Matrix." American Literary History. 20.1/2 (Spring/Sumer): 83-101.