Power, Rights and Personhood: Who Gets to Be Human?

Caliban: Who Gets to Be Human?
Caliban from The Tempest

How do we know what a person is? What characteristics qualify someone for the rights and responsibilities that come with that status? What sets them apart from someone whose personhood is compromised or ambiguous, and why are those the differences that are important?

Ancient texts of many traditions describe human beings as creatures apart from nature, like gods or even themselves a kind of god. Yet alongside this notion of personhood as absolute, there has always existed a social reality of stratification: Some men feast while others starve in the street. In a world that responds so inconsistently to human suffering, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we take some people’s humanity more seriously than others’. How do we swallow this bitter pill? Narrative traditions address these patterns of systemic difference by reinforcing or challenging them (and often both simultaneously). We will look at classic and contemporary works that embrace this complexity, including animal fables, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and  Art Spiegelman’s Maus, an extraordinary graphic novel about his parents’ struggle to survive in concentration camps.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale in Who Gets to Be Human
From Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

Our readings will take us a step beyond the known world—into fantasy, myth, science fiction and horror—to consider the imaginative languages that equip us, for better and for worse, to differentiate ourselves from one another. Through our discussions, we will explore the terms on which personhood is conferred on (or denied to) particular kinds of people, and how the literary worlds we visit explain or enforce the social order that exists within—offering us, by extension, a fresh lens on our own world and a chance to consider whether we can change the terms.

To learn more, read Mandy’s blog post Strange Eyes for Strange Landscapes.


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Emanuelle Burton teaches and writes at the intersection of literature, ethics and the history of ideas. She is the organizer of Transformations of Canon, which brings together experts in religion and fandom to think about narrative transformations of canonical texts, and she is working with computer scientists on a science fiction–based ethics curriculum. In those pockets of spare time, she is writing a book on Aristotelian moral development in the Chronicles of Narnia for the University Press of Mississippi.

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
(The Arden Shakespeare, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1408133477

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley,
ed. J. Paul Hunter
(W. W. Norton & Co., 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-0393927931

The Sandman in the Golden Pot and Other Tales by E. T. A. Hoffman, trans. Ritchie Robinson
(Oxford World's Classics, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0199552474

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1996)
ISBN-13: 978-0679406419
(single-volume hardcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0679748403
(two-volume boxed set)

And several texts that can be accessed online; see registration materials for details.

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