Modern Euro-American law operates by fashioning legal persons as creatures endowed with rights and responsibilities. This figurative process of personification is a means of emancipation. Indeed, the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution laid the legal groundwork not only for recognition of the full legal personality of ex-slaves; it also “emancipated” the business corporation, which possesses legal rights and responsibilities by way of analogy to the human, figured as a metaphorical assemblage of human body parts.
A perverse version of that analogical operation also sits at the bottom of international human rights law. Technically speaking, international law seems to protect the rights of the human, through the figure of the international legal person, by way of analogy to the human being itself. However, Joseph Slaughter argues that some of the qualities of international legal personhood that we now think of as properly belonging to human beings first appeared in the form of colonial charter companies. In this talk, Joseph Slaughter examines the rhetorical magic of modern law that populates the social world with personified legal fictions that may “resemble us too much” by reading international human rights law alongside and through early Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola’s enchanting The Palm-wine Drinkard.
Joseph Slaughter is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University in the City of New York.
Gerry Simpson is a Professor of Public International Law at LSE.
This event is the Annual London Review of International Law Lecture supported by the SOAS Centre for the study of Colonialism, Empire and International Law.
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Podcast & Video
A podcast and video of this event are available to download from Images that Resemble Us Too Much: natives, corporations, humans, and other personified creatures of international law.
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