Fictions of Personhood: Writing Torture in Law and Literature

January 05, 2017

Wendy McMahon

Thursday, January 5, 6:00PM–8:00PM, Room 7000, SFU Harbour Centre

Sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 the White House’s legal counsel provided a case for the limited legal permissibility of torture, forbidden under international law, by creating new legal conditions through rewriting and reinterpretation. This has resulted in the unravelling of one of the least controversial legal principles, the right not to be tortured, regarded by international law as jus cogens. The rule of law as it is understood is facing deep challenges as the law itself has been used to defend and define rather than challenge the executive powers of the state in order to strengthen its authority in the name of a state of emergency brought about by a perpetual state of war. To write torture into law is to erase the human as a possessor of inalienable rights. The law is commonly imagined as world-making and person-making since it creates the conditions for social existence and the legal fiction of the individual rights-bearer but by writing the conditions for torture the law becomes world-destroying. Literature too is an act of world-making, and like the law it is a matter of language constructed through judgment and value. Yet, it is literary narrative that has consistently exposed torture as a dark paradox of the democratic tradition and a practice that has always been a fundamental part of the ‘civilizing’ process and it is literature that has sought to create a poetics of personhood which resists legal reduction and dispossession by the state. This talk will explore the importance of literature in human rights discourse in the twenty-first century and how writing negotiates the tangled temporalities of legal personhood which create current conditions of negation. 


Wendy McMahon is a Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Wendy specialises in modern and contemporary hemispheric literatures and human rights. She has written on a number of Caribbean, Latin American, and U.S. authors and is currently working on two projects; the first is a study of contemporary U.S. literature and human rights in the twenty-first century and the second is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded interdisciplinary investigation into the literature, narrative, and resilience to volcanic hazard in the Eastern Caribbean.