For information on Post45, a collective of scholars working on American literature and culture since 1945, visit this website: http://post45.research.yale.edu/
Georges Bidault, the French foreign minister, in London for the first United Nations General Assembly meeting in January 1946, looked around the room and noted his surprise at “the extent to which Europe is absent.” A few months later, Gilbert Murray, who was a supporter of the League of Nations and a prominent internationalist, touched on the same theme. In an article entitled “Retrospect and Prospect” on the shift from the League of Nations to the United Nations, he wrote that we need to restore Europe to restore civilization: “Some great movement for unity and constructive reconciliation in Europe is an absolute necessity for civilization…. Of course Europe is not everything. There are other continents.”
From one viewpoint, the years from 1945 to 1948 can be seen as a story about European reconstruction; from another, they emerge as the opening chapter of decolonization. Putting these two stories together raises the question of how Europe’s relations with the world changed in these years and, in particular, how contemporaries thought about Europe’s changing place in the world. This in turn was bound up with the ways in which they read the war and how the experience itself shaped their sense of Europe’s relationship with the world. This helps explain both Bidault’s surprise and Murray’s anxious discovery that there are other continents.
See also: Slavoj Žižek, A Leftist Plea for "Eurocentrism" ·
For Palestine, there is almost no debate about when a new era in the lives of its people began: it was in 1948, with the shattering of Palestinian society and the expulsion and flight of more than half of the country’s Arab population of nearly 1.4 million. What has been inscribed as the catastrophe, nakba, for Palestinians since immediately after the events in question,1 is marked by Israelis as the independence of their national state. For Israelis, 1948 provides a similarly decisive turning point in their history and national narrative, albeit one with a totally different valence than the same date, indeed the very same events, for Palestinians.
I want to explore whether this rupture in the lives of Palestine’s people, which still marks eight to ten million Palestinians to this day, has significance beyond them, their Israeli neighbors and colonizers, and the region they live in. If it has any such broader valence, what does it tell us about Palestine, and, more importantly, what does it tell us about such seminal ruptures that mark the beginning of a new era?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in 1948 by the then-member states of the United Nations. In the absence of an established international apparatus of enforcement, various means were implemented in order to make the language and principles of the declaration well understood and widely known, if not enforceable. The declaration, though proclaimed as universal, could not be disseminated, internalized, and regarded as universal without extensive educational efforts promoting these particular kinds of rights. The document itself was carefully designed to echo the official, minimalist design of other binding agreements such as charters and other declarations. To promote the declaration, photographs of people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, a well-known and respected figure, and pictures of anonymous people attentively reading the publicity poster for the declaration were produced together with photos of heads of state signing the document. The UDHR was intended to provide a moral and legal basis for national constitutions, statutory laws, and regulations, as well as for the United Nations’ own investigations, monitoring, reports, peacekeeping operations, economic and political sanctions, and international tribunals.
The text of the declaration itself discloses very little of the prevailing conception of human rights—or of the violation of such rights—at the time or of the orchestrated campaign to change this conception and educate the public in the new discourse of rights. This campaign employed a variety of means to illustrate and concretize the rather abstract language of rights and to develop a new sensibility toward the violation of such rights. In order to inculcate this new language and cultivate appropriate feelings of indignation, the campaign exposed the public—directly, though tours and expeditions, and indirectly, through verbal and visual representations—to scenes of the violation of human rights that had taken place in different contexts. At the same time, those actions that fell outside the UN’s frame for understanding the violation of rights faded from public view.
In the course of 1948, debates around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to be ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in December of that year, gained some traction in European public consciousness. Human rights did not become so prominent as to define any live public option for politics in either the domestic or international spheres; notably, no movement self-consciously constructed in the service of human rights within or across borders appeared. But it is true that some people noticed the concept. One was the great German classicist, professor at the University of Hamburg, Bruno Snell.
When revising an essay for its inclusion in The Discovery of the Mind (one of the most celebrated books of the mid-century humanities across the Atlantic world), Snell added the following remarkable passage: “Euripides, in his Medea, is the first to portray a human being who excites pity by the mere fact of being a human being in torment…. As a barbarian she has no rights, but as a human being she has. This same Medea is also the first person in literature whose thinking and feeling are described in purely human terms…. No sooner does man declare his independence of the gods, than he acclaims the authority of the free human spirit and the inviolability of human rights.”
See also: Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral?
International politics has taught us to regard all claims of universal truths with suspicion. This skepticism need not imply an automatic endorsement of cultural relativism, although it has the tendency of going in that direction—often with predictable outcomes—as evidenced by many of the debates on human rights since War World II and, most notably, by the Asian values debate since the 1990s. To the extent these discussions allow themselves to be shaped by the interminable play of contraries, it seems that universalism cannot but structure—and simultaneously be structured by—its opposites, be it cultural relativism, particularism, or any such terms. One is tempted to say that this is true of almost all arguments of universalism, and we can hardly adopt a stance against them without taking refuge under one of their contraries. Or can we? Even if there is no escaping the logic, the impasse should not deter us from raising a different set of questions. For example, what’s at stake when somebody decides to take up a cause for—or against—the universality of human rights?
The academic use of the term liberal has enjoyed considerable staying power and portability throughout the rise and transformations of the interdisciplinary field known as theory. Arguably, its key function is negatively to define what counts as radical or antinormative; in this sense liberal is used as shorthand for political frameworks that justify established forms of power and require negative critique. This usage spans the Marxist critique of liberal bourgeois ideology, the Foucauldian critique of the liberal state, and the poststructuralist critique of the liberal subject. One result of this broad field tendency, however, is a significantly diminished, and often distorted, understanding of actually existing liberalisms. In this essay, I explore the mid-twentieth century as a formative moment in the history of liberal and radical thought in order to challenge this overriding picture of liberalism. Focusing on the postwar era, I examine liberalism’s relation to a contemporaneous intellectual formation destined to have an enduring influence on aesthetic and political theory: the Frankfurt school. My more particular aim will be to elucidate the thought of Lionel Trilling through comparison with certain features of Theodor Adorno’s work. Both Trilling and Adorno display a governing bleakness of outlook that is best understood as a postcatastrophic response to the war, to fascism, and to the disappointment of the Soviet experiment. This convergence brings to light certain underrecognized elements of the liberal tradition, while the differences between the two underscore the complexity of postwar aesthetics and help to disclose what is distinctive about Trilling’s literary liberalism. After describing the broader context of postwar political thinking as well as the divergent aesthetic values of Adorno and Trilling, I will turn to Trilling’s 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, to show how Trilling adapts the novel of manners to explore the social life of political affiliation. Trilling’s thinking about liberalism prompted an understanding of the modern novel trained on the lived relation to ideas, in both its social and its existential dimensions.
Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (1948) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) share —with a great many other literary works in the Indian subcontinent—a date and place (places) central to their narratives: 15 August 1947, Independence Day in India (and Pakistan). Their convergence around this time-place is marked by a singular, defining spirit of the times.1 Comparing Hyder’s first novel, My Temples, Too with Rushdie’s early novel Midnight’s Children permits us some access to the multiple ways in which literature, the novel specifically, represents and shapes history, not only as narrative, but also in terms of what we might call the zeitgeist. Although the literary products/expressions of this zeitgeist may vary—the two texts in question are chosen precisely for the more obvious differences of genre, period, language, and gender of their authors—a certain spirit of 1947 was pervasive, indeed inescapable, in the political as well as cultural consciousness of the time in the subcontinent.
Focusing on 1948 gives us the opportunity to recapture the diverse and conflicting ways in which people at the time viewed their future possibilities. They did not know how things would turn out. What some people thought would be pathways to change ended up as blind allies; many ended up with what they could get, not what they wanted. Students of history—guild members and others—are often tempted to do history backwards, to write as if the present we have was inevitable, to construct a genealogy from where we are, to look for origins of what we now know, and to forget all the futures that people once imagined but did not get to see. We tend to look for the logic of a system, for the nature of a regime and fail to realize how contested and uncertain political and social arrangements were at any moment, especially at particular moments—including 1948.
In 1947, an Egyptian entrepreneur named Adriano Daninos published a proposal in a scientific journal in Cairo to build a new dam across the Nile. Placed upstream of a smaller masonry barrage built fifty years earlier by the British at Aswan, the new rock-filled structure would be so large that the reservoir it created would stretch more than five hundred kilometers to the south. “Daninos is a man with a mission,” reported an official at the World Bank in Washington, where Daninos later went to pitch his plan. The official noted that the scheme concerned not just the building of the dam but “land reclamation and irrigation connected therewith, production of power, and construction of plants to use that power in mining, making fertilizers, other manufacturing, and possibly iron and steel.” Before publishing his plan, Daninos had visited the Tennessee Valley Authority in the US and similar integrated hydroelectric, river control, irrigation, and industrialization projects in the Limousin in southwest France. These gargantuan schemes for reorganizing forces of nature, systems of agriculture, flows of energy, powers of labor, and material production were known as total development.
See also: R. John Williams, World Futures