Human. Humanity. Those words have talismanic significance in the current moment, as we turn to them to understand — and address — crises from the resurgence of militant nationalisms to the problem of climate change. This talk returns to the mid-20th-century moment with the emergence of the phrase “human rights” to understand the contemporary power of these words and the world view they signaled. While interest in that phrase typically focuses on the concept of rights it advanced, I attend to the word “human,” as it circulated through legal and political philosophy, science, and science fiction, becoming the watchword of powerful narratives of apocalyptic terror and hopeful internationalism. The impact of those narratives into the contemporary moment is the subject of this talk.
Priscilla Wald is R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English and Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form and Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative and is currently at work on a book-length study titled “Human Being After Genocide,” as well as two co-edited projects, “Twentieth/Twenty-First Century Literature and Science,” volume five of Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science, and “Keywords: Health Humanities.” She is co-editor of the journal American Literature and the NYU book series America in the Long Nineteenth Century.