Convergence or Collision – Human Rights with or without Cultural Studies

Professor John Erni considers the conditions of possibility for overcoming the apparent non-correspondence between critical cultural humanism and rights, or between culture and law.

In the persistent (re)turn to questions of representational, identity-based and political economic justice today, how will Cultural Studies make space for human rights as a global legal and humanitarian practice? Of late, the new and unremitting atrocities linked to state, inter-state and private violence have precipitated new social movements that act in concert with international human rights law. To these movements, Cultural Studies has had little dialogic or institutional connections.

In this address, Professor John Erni considers the conditions of possibility for overcoming the apparent non-correspondence between critical cultural humanism and rights, or between culture and law. He outlines a critical model of analysis that on the one hand incorporates insights of postcolonial legal theorists and jurists from the Global South and important cultural theorists from the North, and on the other hand, fuses a critical combination of law, social movements and modernity. This would entail a reconception of human rights and international public law – including the assumptions, institutions, geopolitical relations and grounded practices of the rights discourse, as it is imagined politically and legally – in order to remap the ethico-political commitments of Cultural Studies from within a “rights imaginary.”


Professor John Nguyet Erni

John Nguyet Erni (PhD – Illinois; MA – Oregon; LLM – HKU) is Chair Professor in Humanities and Head of the Department of Humanities & Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also serves as Adjunct Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, after having served as Head of that Department in 2010–13. Previously, he taught at the City University of Hong Kong, as well as the University of New Hampshire and the University of Wisconsin in the US. A former recipient of the Rockefeller Humanities Research Fellowship, he worked at Columbia University’s School of Public Health in the Program on Gender, Sexuality, Health and Human Rights. He is also an elected Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities. He has published widely on international and Asia-based cultural studies, human rights legal criticism, Chinese consumption of transnational culture, gender and sexuality in media culture, youth popular consumption in Hong Kong and Asia and critical public health. His books include Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong (with Lisa Leung, HKUP, 2014), Cultural Studies of Rights: Critical Articulations (Routledge, 2011), Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology (with Ackbar Abbas, Blackwell, 2005), Asian Media Studies: The Politics of Subjectivities (with Siew Keng Chua, Blackwell, 2005) and Unstable Frontiers: Technomedicine and the Cultural Politics of “Curing” AIDS (Minnesota, 1994). Currently, he is completing a book project on the legal modernity of rights.

Professor Erni was a Keynote Speaker at The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies 2015 (ACCS2015) in Kobe, Japan.

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