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Particularizing the Universal: Dave Eggers Writes Human Rights



This article examines the ways in which two literary texts by the American author Dave Eggers, his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002)11. EGGERS, Dave. (2002) You Shall Know Our Velocity (San Francisco, CA: McSweeney's).View all references and his short story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” interrogate the abstract humanism that underlies universalist rights and explore the reasons for their ineptitude at effecting their promise of universalism when faced with the particularity of individual cultures. Thematically, Eggers's stories test the limits of promoting rights on the basis of an innate shared humanity by exposing how such a basis easily slides into other universalist practices such as those of neocolonialism and neoimperialism. At the character level, these narratives consider the possibilities for meaningful cross-cultural relationships within the context of these discourses, revealing the ease with which they in turn can slip into hierarchical relations that reaffirm existing divisions. In doing so, they also engage and challenge the conclusions of cosmopolitan thinkers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah or Jürgen Habermas who have influentially proposed cross-cultural dialogues as a means of overcoming the tension between universalism and particularity. Interestingly, then, even as interdisciplinary research on literature and human rights has begun to etch out the coalescence of the two, Eggers provides an important example of how literary texts can also critique human rights discourses and can explore questions pertaining to their global reach.
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Journal of Human Rights
ISSN: 1475-4835 (Print) 1475-4843 (Online) Journal homepage:
Particularizing the Universal: Dave Eggers Writes
Human Rights
Sean Bex
To cite this article: Sean Bex (2016) Particularizing the Universal: Dave Eggers Writes Human
Rights, Journal of Human Rights, 15:1, 79-97, DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2015.1062725
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Particularizing the Universal: Dave Eggers Writes
Human Rights
This article examines the ways in which two literary texts by the American author
Dave Eggers, his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) and his short story “Up
the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” interrogate the abstract humanism that
underlies universalist rights and explore the reasons for their ineptitude at effecting
their promise of universalism when faced with the particularity of individual cultures.
Thematically, Eggers’s stories test the limits of promoting rights on the basis of an
innate shared humanity by exposing how such a basis easily slides into other
universalist practices such as those of neocolonialism and neoimperialism. At the
character level, these narratives consider the possibilities for meaningful cross-
cultural relationships within the context of these discourses, revealing the ease with
which they in turn can slip into hierarchical relations that reaffirm existing divisions.
In doing so, they also engage and challenge the conclusions of cosmopolitan thinkers
such as Kwame Anthony Appiah or J
urgen Habermas who have influentially proposed
cross-cultural dialogues as a means of overcoming the tension between universalism
and particularity. Interestingly, then, even as interdisciplinary research on literature
and human rights has begun to etch out the coalescence of the two, Eggers provides
an important example of how literary texts can also critique human rights discourses
and can explore questions pertaining to their global reach.
In Dave Eggers’s short story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” a young Ameri-
can woman, Rita, rushes down from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in a dismayed and
shocked state after being confronted with the death of several Tanzanian porters
employed by a tourist company to carry her hiking gear: “She makes it down to the high
camp, where the porters made her dinner and went to sleep and did not wake up. This
cannot be her fault. ... How could she be responsible for this kind of thing?” (2005a:
198–199). Rita’s question about her own responsibility is both a rhetorical rejection of
responsibility and an open-ended question asking how she can take responsibility for the
porters’ deaths. Her response, a reflection of her thoughts rendered in free indirect speech
and steeped in a newfound yet reluctant responsibility for disempowered others whom
she had been unwittingly exploiting, is emblematic of a well-established but unresolved
Sean Bex graduated as a Master of Arts in English Literature and Linguistics (Ghent Univer-
sity, 2012) and is currently reading for a PhD in English literature at Ghent University as part of a
project supported by the Flemish Research Council (FWO). His dissertation explores the intersec-
tion of cultural memory and human rights through the lens of the oeuvre of American author Dave
Address correspondence to Sean Bex, CMSI: Cultural Memory Studies Initiative, Department
of Literary Studies (English Studies), Ghent University, Blandijnberg 2, 9000 Ghent, Belgium.
Journal of Human Rights, 15:79–97, 2016
Copyright Ó 2016 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1475-4835 print / 1475-4843 online
DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2015.1062725
Downloaded by [Ghent University], [Sean Bex] at 01:15 24 May 2016
tension within human rights culture. How can rights that are distributed unequally in some
places or not at all in others be made to live up to their proclaimed universality? Indeed,
as Samuel Moyn explains in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, rights refer to a
set of “indispensable liberal freedoms” supposedly already possessed by all, as well as to
“the most elevated aspirations of both social movements and political entities” (2010: 1).
The issues that come with the aspirations of expanding rights beyond the Western culture
that spawned them has been the subject of much debate in recent years, particularly
amongst cosmopolitan theorists. In light of this, one can understand Rita’s epiphany
firstly as a cosmopolitan reco gnition of her own status as a rights-bearer within a world of
disenfranchised others and secondly as a stark realization of the consequences of rampant
inequality. Her difficulty in coming to terms with the responsibility this entails to rec-
ognize the disenfranchised and to act upon their suffering reveals the fact that up until
this point in the story, even though she hails from an American rights culture that pro-
claims those rights on the basis of a shared humanity, she was unable to confront the ten-
sion between the unequal distribution of rights and their proclaimed universality.
Eggers’s work can be read as part of an alternative cultural narrative to those univer-
salist rights discourses that Wendy Brown argues have become problematically tied up in
political space with “liberal imperialism” and “global free trade” (2004: 461). In this arti-
cle, I explore the way s in which two literary texts by Eggers interrogat e the abstract
humanism that underlies universalist rights and I explore the reasons for their ineptitude
at effecting their promise of universalism when faced with the particularity of individual
cultures. Eggers ’s writing also engages and challenges the conclusions of cosmopolitan
thinkers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah or J
urgen Habermas who have influentially pro-
posed cross-cultural dialogue as a means of overcoming the tension between universalism
and particularity. These piec es of literature effectively critique both the restricted reach of
the rights regime in relation to their proclaimed universality as well as the most conce rted
theoretical effort at remedying their seeming incongruity with particular cultures. I argue
that Eggers’s novel You Shall Know Our Velocity and his short story “Up the Mountain
Coming Down Slowly” lay bare some of the pitfalls that have plagued and continue to
plague attempt s at universalizing human rights. Interestingly, then, even as interdisciplin-
ary research on literature and human rights has begun to etch out the coalescence of the
two, Eggers provides an important example of how literary texts can also critique human
rights discourses and can explore questions pertaining to their universalist rhetoric.
In order to make this point, I discuss how these works explore issues of cross-cultural
interpersonal empathy through an engagement with the particularity of the disenfran-
chised. I discuss these narratives in the context of universalism and cosmopolitanism
because they both confront the issue of rights-bearing Americans venturing beyond their
Western rights culture to encounter the disempowered who live in parts of the world rife
with rights violations. The specific issue to consider in You Shall Know Our Velocity is
the checkered experiences of its protagonists in establishing meaningful cross-cultural
relationships whilst engaging in charitable activities. In my analysis of “Up the Mountain
Coming Down Slowly,” I develop these stunted relationships against the background of
neocolonial power relations and restricted empathy.
Thematically, Eggers’s stories test
the limits of promoting rights on the basis of an innate shared humanity by exposing how
such a basis easily slides into other universalist practices such as those of neocolonialism
and neoimperialism. At the character level, these narratives consider the possibilities for
meaningful cross-cultural relationships within the context of these discourses, revealing
the ease with which they in turn can slip into hierarchical relations that reaffirm existing
divisions. The troubled relationships that Eggers describes tend to fail despite the best
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intentions of his protagonists because the tremendous socioeconomic difference
between characters is implicitly glossed over in favor of a putative bond grounded in a
common humanity and is made explicit through the theme of charity. The recurrent evo-
cation of these faltering interp ersonal connections dovet ails with the conclusion drawn by
cosmopolitan scholars that a shared humanity in and of itself is an inadequate basis for
global solidarity.
Eggers’s narratives thus make use of fiction to conduct a worthwhile thought experi-
ment. You Shall Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly put
rights discourses based on an innate humanity to the test by imagining a form of cross-
cultural cosmopolitanism that engages with the particularity of the disenfranchised. In
terms of human rights, the texts criticize the idea of promoting human rights as an exten-
sion of Western rights discourses and as incorporating the disempowered into Western
society, arguing instead for a more open cosmopolitan outlook that would accommodate
their particular histories. This cosmopolitan outlook would seem akin to what J
Habermas theorizes in The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory in that it
acknowledges how “the equal respect for everyone else demanded by a moral universal-
ism sensitive to difference thus takes the form of a nonleveling and nonappropriating
inclusion of the other in his otherness (1990b: 40; italics in original). Rather than simply
acknowledge and reiterate the cosmopolitan need for a cross-cultural dialogue, however,
Eggers’s imaginative work also raises questions with regards to the feasibility of the cos-
mopolitan project and explores some altogether less-promising engagements with others
in his works. Thus, he stresses the need for universalizing rights whilst also interrogating
those solutions that propose to sensitize universalism to cultural differences.
In You Shall Know Our Velocity, one of the protagonists, Will, narrates a travel-quest
he undertakes together with his friend Hand in the wake of their mutual friend Jack’s
death. The stated aim of their trip is to dispense with a large sum of money through chari-
table giving in the Global South. As I show, the novel tells the story of two characters
who are both unwilling and unable to confront others in a cross-cultural dialogue and are
therefore incapable of answering the call of others to recognize their particular suffering
and pain. Even though the call of others’ suffering sounds louder and louder as their trav-
els continue, the narrative nevertheless increasingly folds in on itself to question its own
fictionality and uneasily directs both the reader and the protagonists’ attention away from
a meaningful cross-cultural dialogue with the disenfranchised. The novel effectively
invites the reader to question the validity of the central assumption of universalist rights
that acknowledges sameness and then suggests that these rights could be rolled out across
the globe through cross-cultural encounters. Eggers’s stories make this point by exploring
the defects of such superficial relat ionships, a point made even more strongly in “Up the
Mountain Coming Down Slowly.” In this story, the suffering of others the Tanzanian
porters is initially screened from both reader and protagonist when the protagonist’s
altitude sickness causes her to hallucinate and therefore remain blind to the dying porters.
This allows her to continue to the top of the mountain in ignorance and abscond from any
responsibility for the porters, just as the other paying hikers choose to do. The concluding
epiphany at the mountaintop is the moment when she recognizes her responsibility
towards the porters as individuals and breaks through the discourse of sameness to feel
personally accountable for the porters’ deaths. At this point, the protagonist’s outlook
shares one of the characteristics of the cosmopolitan perspective described by Appiah as
one in which “we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human
lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them signifi-
cance” (2006: iv). It is, however, the imagining of the journeys Eggers’s characters
Dave Eggers Writes Human Rights 81
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undergo and the obstacles they face in negot iating cross-cultural encounters that underline
the importance of considering literary texts in critical debates on human rights and their
calibration of universalism and particularity.
Universalism, Human Rights, and Cosmopolitanism
The development of Eggers’s oeuvre is critical to understanding why it makes sense to
read You Shall Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” from a
cosmopolitan perspective within the context of the tension between unive rsalism and par-
ticularity. Firstly, his oeuvre is characterize d by a marked development of an increasingly
transcultural outlook and reach. Having established his authorial persona in his debut
autobiography A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), he has sought to raise
awareness for rights issues from a cosmopolitan perspective by using his authorship to
engage the voices of the disenfranchised. His collaborative testimonies What Is the
What (2006) and Zeitoun (2009b) have already attracted critical attention for their
intriguing instances of literary ventriloquism in representing rights abuses in ways that
challenge traditional understandings of subaltern rights abuses.
His activism reflects a
similar ambition. He is cofounder and coeditor of an oral history project, Voice of Wit-
ness, that seeks to promote an empathy-based understanding of human rights crises across
cultures by collecting victim’s testimonies from disparate cultural contexts across the
globe. His fictional works, however, remain understudied in this respect, despite the pro-
vocative ways in which they imagine in detail the possible relationships between Western
protagonists and the disempowered. Secondly, read within this wider understanding of
the broadening scope of his oeuvre, the specific problem of engaging particular victims in
a universalist project of rights comes to the fore. One of the ways in which You Shall
Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” brings this into focus
is by using the theme of charity to question the tension between the humanitarian impulse,
universalizing rights, and cross-cultural solidarity between particular individuals. In this
sense, the fictional world becomes part of a thought experiment designed to interrogate
aspects of both the human rights project and its critics. These concerns resonate beyond
the fictional world as they also reflect fundamentally on Eggers’s own project as an
author, editor, and activist trying to give a more prominent place to the voice of the disen-
franchised within his sociocultural struggle for human rights causes. Sarah Brouillette
(2003) has already argued that You Shall Know Our Velocity can be understood as Eggers
agonizing over his own position as an author within the cultural field.
I go further in my
analysis to suggest that the novel also speaks to his key interest as an author and activist
in involving the disempowered in his efforts to raise cross-cultural awareness for human
rights issues.
This tension between universalism and particularity is also at the heart of human
rights discourses and forms an important starting point to framing a close reading of these
works within Eggers’s project and position as an author and activist. Broadly speaking,
rights declarations ranging from the eighteenth century up until the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 have proclaimed rights on the universalist basis of a
shared humanity, while recent scholarship on human rights has tended to portray rights
discourses rather as a product of a largely Western cultural history and sees their
establishment and validity as negotiated through various complex sociopolitical pro-
Conceiving of rights as gradually brokered and extended makes it possible to
understand why human rights, regardless of their declarations’ repeated claims to univer-
sality, are still not enjoyed by everyone. From this latter understanding of rights comes
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the call for a balanced cross-cultural dialogue to address that restricted reach. This issue
is taken up most forcefully by proponents of cosmopolitanism such as Kwame Anthony
Appiah, J
urgen Habermas, and Seyla Benhabib. In “Cosmopolitan Patriots,” Appiah
argues that universalist claims are insufficiently attentive to cultural difference and do not
guarantee the protection of those living outside of the hegemony:
Liberals take it to be self-evident that we are all “created equal” and that we
each bear certain “inalienable rights,” and then seem almost immediately to
become preoccupied with looking after the rights of the local branch of the
species, forgetting this is a cosmopolitan critique that their rights matter
as human rights, and thus matter only if the rights of foreign humans matter
too. (Appiah 1998: 93).
In order to overcome the infamously problematic discrepancy between the belief in
universal rights on the one hand and empathic parochialism on the other, Appiah posits
conversations between peoples as an intuitive “engagement with the experience and the
ideas of others” (Appiah 2006: 85 ). He suggests that this would make “real and present”
the otherwise imaginary stranger to whom we are meant to feel connected (Appiah 2006:
99). Furthermore, he argues, this would lea d to an engaged global conversation that
would help create an understanding of how shared “thin” universal values (e.g., “good
parenting”) can find “thick” particular but diverging cultural applications (“how to be a
good parent”) (Appiah 2006: 45–50). Appiah and other cosmopolitan thinkers may offer
differing versions of cosmopolitanism, but they do tend to agree on the importance of
relinquishing entrenched national identities in cross-cultural dialogues of mutual under-
standing so as to expand the global reach of human rights.
Instead of Appiah’s intermittent cross-cultural encounters, Habermas proposes a
rational-critical debate in a more structured global public sphere in which everyone ide-
ally participates as equals. Comparing these two cosmopolitan thinkers, Michael Scriv-
ener explains that they share a belief in the cosmopolitan urgency to combat global
disenfranchisement but differ once Habermas elaborates on the need for a rational persua-
sive critical debate (Scrivener 2007: 24).
Habermas describes the terms for his public
forum as fourfold: (1) “nobody who could make a relevant contribution may be
excluded”; (2) “all participants are granted an equal opportunity to make contributions”;
(3) “participants must mean what they say”; (4) “communication must be freed from
external and internal coercion” (Haber mas 1990b: 44). In Moral Consciousness and Com-
municative Action, he explains that only when norms and values are debated within such a
public forum can they achieve universal validity and recognition (Habermas 1990a: 65–
67). The emphasis is on the presumed rapprochement between diverging cultures that
could be achieved through a cross-cultural dialogue. This distinguishes Habermas’s think-
ing from monological conceptions of universal rights as articulated by contemporary the-
orists such as John Rawls or the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, to which
Habermas and Rawls are both indebted.
To come back to an earlier point then, Haberma-
sian cosmopolitanism is also determined to define universal rights as debated and agreed
upon rather than innately human. This is an important distinction, as Habermas himself
explains in The Postcolonial Constellation, because clinging to “the metaphysical
assumption of an individual who exists prior to all socialization” undermines the neces-
sary communitarian effort required to recognize intersubjective rights (2001: 125). What
makes this particularly relevant to a discussion of Eggers’s narratives is that, as Daniel
Levy and Natan Sznaider point out in Human Rights and Memory, extending rights on
Dave Eggers Writes Human Rights 83
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the basis of the universality principle may even preclude participation in a meaningful
and mutually instructive cross-cultural dialogue (2010: 6) in that it glosses over existing
inequalities and therefore, one might add, never fulfills the four requirements set out by
Habermas for an open and persuasive debate in a cosmopolitan public sphere.
The failed
cross-cultural dialogues imagined by Eggers as I read them, moreover, would seem to
reflect more fundamentally on the attainability of these requirements in the first place
given the entrenchment of its protagonists in various other global practices. This
entrenchment is made explicit in the stories by restricting the characters’ relationships
with the disempowered as a result of hierarchy reinforcing humanitarian impulses and an
insurmountable rootedne ss in colonial discourses. Indeed, colonialism and imperialism
are both practices that rely on obscuring the particularity of others, making them mutually
exclusive with a cosmopolitan dialogue and anathema to the universalization of rights.
This question of a limited participation in a global debate on universa l human rights
invites comments from a third cosmopolitan theorist. In Another Cosmopolitanism: Hos-
pitality, Sovereignty, and Democratic Iterations, Seyla Benhabib posits that cosmopolitan
norms could circumvent restricted access to the global public sphere by endowing
individuals rather than states and their agents with certai n rights and claims” (2006: 15;
emphasis in original). Earlier, in The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens,
she posits that only through ongoing negotiations between individuals from different
backgrounds is it possible to “render distinctions between ‘citizens’ and ‘aliens’ ... fluid
and negotiable” and allow “cosmopolitan solidarity” to take hold (Benhabib 2004: 21).
This is not, however, a move towards abstract universalism at a transnational level. She
starts from what Habermas calls the “Janus face of the modern nation,” meaning that
“modern democracies act in the name of universal principles, which are then circum-
scribed within a particular civic community” (Benhabib 2006: 32). In other words, uni-
versal norms and values work by negotiating legitimacy within a particular group of
individuals. The cosmopolitan move is once again to imagine this group as crossing cul-
tural boundaries not necessarily along the lines of existing states in its understand-
ing of how they wish to particularize a certain universal norm.
In discussing this
process, she echoes Habermas’s insistence on equal access to a global debate when she
insists on cosmopolitan justice as a vision that incorporates just membership rather than
simply just distribution (Benhabib 2004: 3; emphasis in original). This way of thinking
of the universality of rights is also quite strongly reminiscent of the relationship between
“thin” and “thick” rights described earlier by Appiah. Nevertheless, even though Appiah,
Habermas, or Benhabib never suggest that their envisioned cross-cultural dialogues and
cosmopolitan outlook are easily achievable, they spend more time explaining what a cos-
mopolitan public debate might look like and how it would work than discussing the
obstacles and problems cosmopolitanism faces when engaging with the practical applica-
tion of universalizing rights. How do these processes play out against the backdrop of the
legacy of imperialism? What impact do the remnants of colonialism and colonial ideol-
ogy have on cross-cultural encounters? How do these questions affect the position of
rights-bearers and disempowered others in the conversation? And how can advocates for
the universalization of human rights respond adequately to those who criticize its dis-
tinctly Western origins? Answering these questions would show sensitivity to Judith But-
ler’s pertinent claim in Frames of War that “we must be wary of invocations of ‘global
responsibility’ which assume that one country has a distinctive responsibility to bring
democracy to other countries” (2009: 37). It would also take into account the issues she
takes up in Precarious Lives concerning the precariousness of those lives existing outside
of the hegemony (Butler 2006). Both of these issues come to the fore in an analysis of
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Eggers’s narratives, who plays out relationships with the disenfranchised both inside and
outside of the fictional world. Indeed, this is where literary texts can contribute to our
understanding of this issue, in that they can imagi ne different forms of cross-cultural
encounters and throw the debate on universalism, particularity, and cosmopolitan
responses into sharp relief. It is in this light that the missed or failed encounters that run
through Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain Coming Down
Slowly” become particularly illuminating.
Imagined Encounters: You Shall Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain
Coming Down Slowly”
Before analyzing the motif of missed encounters and failed cross-cultural dialogues, it is
vital to understand how You Shall Know Our Velocity is structured as well as how the two
main characters relate to one anoth er. Th e novel follows childhood friends Will and Hand
in their ambitious travels across Africa and parts of Europe in a single week with the aim
of giving away $32,000 to the disenfranchised. Along the way, the no vel provides a win-
dow into the minds of its protagonists as they struggle to cope with the death of their
friend Jack, who dies shortly before the novel’s inception. The scene-setting cover of the
first edition published by McSweeney’s in 2002 (reprinted as the opening page in later
editions) reads: “Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I
drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare river ... It was a clear and
eyeblue day, that day, as was the first day of this story” (Eggers 2002: 1, all caps in the
original). Because of the paradoxical nature of this initial statement, in which Will, the
narrator, proclaims his own death at the end of the events he is narrating to the reader,
any positive outcome for this restorative tale is preemptively quashed.
The down beat
tone on the first page contrasts rather sharply with the energetic and vibrant spirit of the
protagonists throughout the novel. It also sours the upbeat final scene that reintroduces
the initial depressing state of affairs far more positively as Will and Hand enthusiastically
leap into a pool in the Mexican city of Cuernevaca.
In the Vintage edition of You Shall
Know Our Velocity, Eggers (2009a) inserted a chapter titled “An Interruption” (not
included in the original McSweeney’s edition) in which Hand bursts into the novel at the
halfway point as a competing intradiegetic narrator. Hand’s interruptive chapter com-
ments on their failed attempt at ameliorating in any way the poverty they encounter whilst
still stressing the need for our empathic, economic, and political engagement to extend
beyond the parochial: “There’s nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple
documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it set s a bad example. Every time some-
thing is observed and not fixed ... there is a lie being told. Friends, I urge you to find us
[Will and Hand] hopeful. I urge you to find that we tried something, knowing nothing of
the results” (Eggers 2009a: 134). Crucially, however, he also aims to correct what he
claims are errors in Will’s story. In his chapter, Hand denies the very existence of Jack
whom, he claims, Will invented as an “amalgam of a bunch of people we know” (Eggers
2009a: 52) and focuses on the restorative nature of the story by explaining that the
charity-travel plot is also a way for Will to come to terms with himself (Eggers 2009a:
67). Indeed, he adds that “Jack is there so Will could write about pain” and work through
his anger at the death of his mother (Eggers 2009a: 131). In both versions, therefore, the
journey is understood as a means for Will to work through his traumatic loss and to reach
emotional stability, with the humanitarian impulse made subservient to the emotional
needs of the Western protagonist . Additionally, because the characters end up fighting
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and overcoming practical rather than emotional obstacles, the restorative nature of the
quest narrative is confounded.
Their onerous travels, despite their stated intent, never truly provide any opportunity
for the protagonists to reflect on their emotional turmoil or to make a lasting impact on
anyone’s lives. The narrative initially has the characters caught up in overcoming practi-
cal complications such as which countries require visas or which travel path will allow
them to traverse the world in one week (Eggers 2002: 4–8). As such, the novel immedi-
ately disrupts the read er’s expectations: Whereas the cover (or first page in later editions)
informs readers of Jack’s tragic death and introduces Will as the narrator testifying to his
processing of this event, the opening section of the novel is entirely and notably exag-
geratedly devoted to considering and reconsidering the travel route for Will and
Hand’s trip instead of expanding on the facts surrounding Jack’s death or the protago-
nists’ emotional state. These pages are filled with potential travel routes such as the
So first:
Chicago to Saskatchewan to Mongolia
Mongolia to Qatar ...
The next one, with adjustments:
Chicago to San Francisco to Mongolia
Mongolia to Yemen
Madagascar to Greenland. (Eggers 2002: 5)
As characters, Will and Hand consistently avoid talking about the impact of Jack’s
death on their lives throughout their journey. Projecting his grief for Jack onto his adver-
tising money, Will experiences his newfound wealth as an encumbrance and decides that
his earnings “[have] to be disseminated” (Eggers 2002: 2) amongst the disenfranchised in
order to shed the burden. The cross-cultural move in undertaking this global quest is not
motivated by a cosmopolitan desire to engage with the subaltern but rather by the protag-
onist’s assumption that giving away money abroad bypasses the need for precisely such
an engagement. Will’s explicit explanation to this effect goes as follows:
Since I got a little money, this was a constant struggle, the frustration with
people and their coupons , people and their dirty clothes, families from El Sal-
vador living in the basement of the church around the corner ...and my urge
to buy things for them, even just their food, and my inability, due to the imag-
ined and impossible barrier between myself and these strangers with fumbling
hands, to engage them and fix things. (Eggers 2002: 15)
As the story progresses, the reader becomes acutely aware that Will sees his travels
as a symbolic journey (Eggers’s draft title for the novel was in fact Sacrament) both to
cleanse himself of the trauma as well as those soured relationships he leaves behind in
order to forge new meaningful ones outside of the United States. However, the internally
focused symbolism of overcoming trauma is soon externalized in the form of a charity
quest plot. This allows the traumatic opening of the novel to be replaced by touristic
enthusiasm for the upcoming charitable stint and also embeds that charity within a self-
serving logic of personal healing. As they reflect extensively on possible travel routes,
Will comments on a particular route with particular relish: “That one had everything.
Political intrigue, a climactical buffet” (Eggers 2002: 6). As such, they divert attention
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away from Jack’s death, but also trivialize the dire plight of those countries and people
they intend to visit and help (“intrigue” and “buffet”) so as not to dampen this newfound
positive spirit. In other words, Will decides that he will break the negative spiral he has
been in since Jack’s death solely by sharing his money rather than his story, frustrating
the restorative potential of the narrative by transforming a spiritual crisis into a material
quest. The reader is later made to feel the futility of this faux humanitarian impulse when
their charity ends up reinforcing socioeconomic privilege rather than bridging the North-
South divide in terms of wealth and power felt by the protagonists.
For Will, his trauma becomes a guarded secret throughout the trip, and he avoids any-
one who might have a story of their own to tell and therefore prompt him to divulge his
own. The trip thus essentially becomes a series of missed and avoided encounters, as nei-
ther protagonist is either willing or able to engage in a mutually beneficial cosmopolitan
cross-cultural dialogue. Imagining and stressing these failed encounters, however, neces-
sarily forces the reader to consider their potential significance compared to the chaotic
and ineffective monetary charity pursued by Will and Hand. The two protagonists consis-
tently try to find a means of giving away money without actually having to meet the peo-
ple to whom they are giving it. Perhaps the most absurd example of this is their idea of
taping several thousand dollars’ worth of traveller’s checks to a donkey: “As we drove,
hair still wet, we looked for donkeys standing alone so we could tape money to their sides
for their owners to find. We wondered what the donkey-owners would think. What would
they think? We had no idea. Money taped to a donkey? It was a great idea, we knew this”
(Eggers 2002: 94). Note how they are reduced to wondering what the finder will think,
what their story might be, whether they have truly helped them or not, and what an
encounter with this person may be like. Imagining the encounters their donation schemes
are designed to avoid becom es an increasingly important motif in the novel. As the narra-
tive progresses, Will reveals that he conducts silent internal dialogue s with people whom
he feels have traumatic pasts to share.
These are notable in two respects. Firstly, Will
explains that he has imagined such dialogues since Jack’s death, thus linking them to his
own traumatic state of mind as well as exposing an underlying need to talk about his
trauma in order to work it through. The fact that these dialogues are silent once again frus-
trates that ambition, however, in that they become an unproductive circular repetition of
his trauma. Secondly, during thes e dialogues the charitable relationship between the pro-
tagonists and the disenfranchised is shown to be problematic. Indeed, as the silent dia-
logues provide more and more information about Will’s own state of mind without a
similarly informative response from the disempowered, the emptiness of their monetary
charity is further laid bare. Early on, Will comments on how he hopes to replace these
silent interactions already a surrogate for actual engagement with something that
would uncomplicate the complexity of cosmopolitan engagement: “I wanted agre ement
now, I wanted synthesis and the plain truth without the formalities of debate. I wanted
only truth, as simple as you could serve it, straight down the middle, not the product of
dialectic but sui generis: Truth!” (Eggers 2002: 27; emphasis in original). As a result,
readers are left to fill in this space themselves by imagining the potenti ally productive
nature of these missed encounters or are forced to witness Will’s reluctant imagining of
such a response. Both of which merely serve to stress the ways in which the fear of
engagement combined with a purely material exchange undermines the cosmopolitan
project invoked by the silent dialogues.
Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the following silent conversation between
Will and Dennis, an impoverished Dakarian man who helps the protagonists find their
way back to their hotel. Having seen Hand give money to his brother Pierre, Dennis
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expects almost demands a similar donation in return for his help. Consider the fol-
lowing silent exchange:
You throw me, Dennis’s brother. You make us sad.– My job is not to make
you happy.... You [Will and Hand] do more harm than good by choosing
recipients this way. It cannot be fair.– How ever is it fair?– You want the
control money provides.– We want the opposite. We are giving up our con-
trol.– While giving it up you are exercising power. The money is not yours.–
I know this.– You want its power. How ever exer cised, you want its power.
(Eggers 2002: 117–118)
Commenting on the charitable scheme more generally, Hand no tes in the added chap-
ter “An Interruption” that they naively thought it “all would be somehow rectified” if they
blindly gave away money to strangers (Eggers 2009a: 71). What exactly the confused
protagonists are hoping to rectify be it the reso lution of their own traumas or the gap-
ing inequality that their trip highlights remains ambiguous because nothing is actually
achieved. As more of these types of encounters take place, the protagonists find that their
charity has made it almost impossible for them to develop meaningful relationships with
anyone they encounter. As such, the strictly material nature of the charity quest is empha-
sized and evacuated of its cosmopolitan potential to facilitate meaningful encounters with
disenfranchised others as well as lead the protagoni sts to come to terms with their trauma.
Consider in this respect Will’s observation that “Every act of charity has choice at its
core” (Eggers 2002: 242). That choice lies with the protagonists who are in the socioeco-
nomically more powerful position of giving, thus consistently causing them both to high-
light and to fix the recipients’ state of disempowerment. Both the rights-bearing
protagonists and the disempowered others’ position within the cosmopolitan dialogue
made central by the motif of silent dialogues is therefore compromised. Moreover,
because Hand denies the fundamental fact of Jack’s death entirely, the spiritual crisis at
the heart of the novel is also perpetuated for the reader, as it is impossible to ascertain
whose version of events is true. You Shall Know Our Velocity thus subverts what is ini-
tially set to be a restorative narrative (later reiterated by Hand in his chapter) by empha-
sizing and prolonging the spiritual crisis at its core rather than narrating Will and Hand’s
resolution of it into emotional stability and forging meaningful cross-cultural ties based
on mutual recognition and understanding.
From this compromised position, the characters fall into increasingly outlandish sit-
uations and interact with a whole host of indivi duals each disenfranchised in some par-
ticular way. The novel has at this point already exposed, however, that neither Will nor
Hand is ready to engage in a productive cross-cultural dialogue in which they could share
Jack’s death, partly because of their charitable mission and partly because Will especially
is not yet able to talk about Jack. Instead, in a key scene in which the protagonists become
involved in a seemingly innocent basketball match with a group of young Dakarian boys,
a potential encounter turns into a nasty competition, a form of sports diplomacy gone
wrong, because Will and Hand project their own trauma onto the scene. Indeed, given
that Jack is described as a gifted basketball player “Jack was the best pure player our
school had ever seen” (Eggers 2002: 113) and that the basketball court with its
unhinged backboard and uneven rocky terrain typifies the poverty of the local village, the
court becomes the stage for a competition of traumatic pasts and presents. Will explicitly
comments on how the game gradually becomes an unfriendly and embarrassing contest:
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I got the hang of the court, its concavities and dust, and soon it was a game, us
against them.... Hand knocked the ball from the younger kid’s hand and
scored over him without apology. It was not cool.... The game got closer.
I tried to switch teams, to relieve the nationalistic tension, but the boys
refused.... It went dark. We called the game. (Eggers 2002: 112–113)
Hand’s interruptive chapter in the later edition of the novel makes a strong correction
in this respect when it emphasizes that, contrary to Will’s apprehension in the main narra-
tive, they actually “wiped that dusty court with eight of them at a time” (Eggers 2009a:
78). This would only serve to heighten what Will describes as the “nationalistic” tension
between the two parties as well as sour the idea of these wealthy Westerners giving away
money to these token poor people. As the narrative progresses, Will and Hand are indeed
increasingly perceived by those they encounter as abstract representatives of the powerful
West, despite their own misgivings about the Western society they leave behind. Consider
the following reflection on the nature of their charitable scheme, which reveals how giv-
ing money only ends up underscoring the difference betwee n the moneyed West and the
impoverished rest: “These guys [the disenfranchised] know they need it [money] and that
we can afford it. They’re not taking it from a neighbor, they’re taking it from people who
it means, you know, next to nothing to” (Eggers 2002: 99). The underlying idea is that
Will and Hand despite the accidental and temporary nature of their wealth still live
within a different socioeconomic reality to those they encounter. By insisting on giving
money to anyone they problematically deem “wo rthy,” they undermine the potential for a
positive relationship based on equal participation before it gets a chance to develop, by
introducing a socioeconomic hierarchy. One of the more poignant examples of this comes
at the start of their journey in Senegal when an old man helps Will and Hand repair their
car at the beginning of their journey: “When the job was done the old man turned and
looked at my face and smiled and walked away. He still hadn’ t said anything” (Eggers
2002: 96). Rather than allowing this to be a case of one person selflessly helping another,
the pair decide to pay the man for his services: “I ran after the man.... I smiled and
handed him a stack of bills.... He waved the money off. I took his hand and put the bills
in his palm and closed his fingers, dry and ringed like birch twigs, around them. He said
nothing. He took the bills and walked off” (Eggers 2002: 97). As such, their relationship
to this man is moved closer to that of client-contractor than on e of mutual acknowledg-
ment and cosmopolitan solidarity.
The lack of meanin gful engagements throughout the novel causes both the protago-
nists and those they encounter to remain fixed in a state of sustained crisis, with neither
contributing to the formation of a cosmopolitan group that could debate and secure
each other’s rights. Indeed, whereas this narrative is formally a travelogue and quest nar-
rative, it constantly problematizes the protagonists’ relationship to disenfranchised others
as well as their subsequent inability to imagine themselves as connected to those
others as part of an inclusive cosmopolitan rights community. What Will in particular
imagines instead is an unsatisfactory silent dialogue that retraumatizes him and further
alienates the disempowered. As this analysis of Eggers’s first novel shows, the lack of
engagement with the particular histories of the characters prevents them from beginning
the narrative arc of bare human individual turned rights-bearing citizen-subject because it
reveals the potential probl ems inherent to the assumption that any form of dialogue with
others draws individuals into a global rights society. Whether it be the repetition of his
traumatic loss for Will (and Hand to a lesser extent) or the more general disconnect from
Western rights discourses through lack of meaningful cross-cultural engagement for the
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disenfranchised, their particular histories remain disengaged as a result of the charitable
hierarchy imposed by the quest plot. What You Shall Know Our Velocity thus show s is
that charity, combined with an unwillingness to recognize or share one’s own story
effectively, is not a sufficient basis for a meaningful encounters with the other, risks pro-
moting competitive exchanges of traumatic pasts and counteracts the benefits of cross-
cultural exchanges in promoting human rights by trapping the protagonists in hierarchy-
enforcing charitable rather than cosmopolitan relationships. In this sense, Will and
Hand’s failure to relate to disempowered others reveals the limitations of the cosmopoli-
tan ideal that travel and cross-cultural encounters in and of themselves further the univer-
sal enjoyment of rights.
Competing Practices: Cosmopolitan Dialogues Versus Neocolonialism
Whereas You Shall Know Our Velocity indirectly bares out the necessity to engage disen-
franchised subjects on their own terms on an equal footing, the short story “Up the Moun-
tain Coming Down Slowly” explores the barriers posed by an existing transnational
practice (neo)colonialism to achieving that goal (Eggers 2005a). It follows the
climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro of a group of paying American hikers and the local
men hired to carry their gear. In focusing on the group dynamics both within the tourist
group and between the Americans and the Tanzanians, the narrative shows the detrimen-
tal effects of adhering to a (neo)colonial logic by revealing how it restricts the circle of
individuals who are recognized as worthy of empathic engagement. This issue is essen-
tially the starting point for Judith Butler’s discussion in Frames of War, which argues that
thinking in terms of race and hierarchy does not yield the “analytic vocabularies” to think
about “global interdependency” in a way that would allow everyone to count as a griev-
able subject (2009: 31). These colonial resonances manifest themselves in two specific
ways in the narrative, the first being in the mind of the protagonist, Rita, at the beginning
of the story, the second in the interactions between the paying hikers and the Tanzanians.
Both of these are underscored by the extensive use of internal focalization in the narra-
tive, which grants the reader access to Rita’s particular impressions throughout the jour-
ney. In one of these many passages of the narrative that are internally focalized, she
reflects upon the (for her, unexpected) poverty in Tanzania upon her arrival there and
compares it to her thoughts about Jamaica, another formerly colonized country she once
This country is so poor. Poorer than any place she’s been. Is it poorer than
Jamaica? She is not sure. Jamaica she expected to be like Florida, a healthy
place benefiting from generations of heavy tourism and the constant and irra-
tional flow of American money. But Jamaica was desperately poor almost
everywhere and she understood nothing. (Eggers 2005a: 146)
In this excerpt, one finds clear traces of the colonial civilizing mission as well as con-
temporary United States interventionist policy as Rita is shocked to fin d American
involvement in these poor countries has not brought peace and prosperity. Moreover, in
the preliminary stages of the trip, she explicitly allows her imagination to conjure up an
image of Tanzania as a colony, with the porters taking on the role of colonial subjects in
an exotic place of beaut y: “It was midnight and she was very awake as they drove and
they had driven, on the British side of the road, in silence through rural Tanzania” (Eggers
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141–142) and “[s]he has a sudden vision of servants carrying kings aboard gilt thrones,
elephants following, trumpets announcing their progress” (Eggers 2005a: 152). The latter
image turns into a motif throughout the initial climb: “Frank [the guide] is walking very
slowly. Rita is behind him, his pace is ele phantine (Eggers 2005a 157). In a similar way
to Will and Hand, this initially establishes a hierarchical relationship of wealth and power
versus poverty and powerlessness that prevents any meaningful engagement with the
Tanzanians in the group.
As the paying hikers bond over their various aches and pains as the climb progresses
—“they are all sharing food and needed articles of clothing and medical aid” (Eggers
2005a 174) their relationship with the porters becomes one of silent charity that leaves
the hikers unaware of the hardships suffered by the porters or the reason they are under-
taking what is for them a dangerous climb. Indeed, the porters who outnumber the pay-
ing hikers six to one take precisely those risks in climbing the mountain that the guide
is at pains to avoid any of the payi ng hikers taking. While one hiker, Grant, is scolded for
bringing a simple army tent unable to keep out the cold (Eggers 2005a: 171–172), several
porters freeze to death on the penultimate day precisely because their equipment is lack-
ing. Similarly, unlike Rita, the porters wear simple sneakers rather than climbing boots,
prompting Rita to enter into the same silent charity with the porters: “Rita decides that
Kassim is her favourite porter and that she’ll give him her lunch. When they reach the
bottom, she’ll give him her boots” (Eggers 2005a: 182). Neverthel ess, Rita briefly man-
ages to develop a more personal connec tion with Kassim in addition to the charitable one
to which the other hikers restrict themselves. In this brief moment, when she thinks about
giving him her boots, they also engage in a short conversation in which she asks for his
name, turning him into an individual rather than a part of the collective of servants carry-
ing their bags (Eggers 2005a: 182–183). In this short passage, she moves beyond simple
donations and enters into a brief dialogue while they drink from a mountain stream, which
triggers an emotional response akin to Will’s silent conversations in You Shall Know Our
Maybe he has kids. He can give the shoes to the kids. It occurs to Rita then
that he’s at work. That his family is at home while he is on the mountain.
This is what she misses so much, coming home to those kids. The noise!
They would just start in, a million things they had to talk about. She was inter-
rupted all night until they fell asleep. They had no respect for her privacy and
she loved them for their insouciance.... Kassim finishes, his vessels full, and
so he stands, waves goodbye, and jogs back to the cam p. (Eggers 2005a: 182)
By at least imagining Kassim’s person al story during this brief exchange of words
rather than silently sympathizing with him from a distance as an impoverished human
being, Rita takes the first step towards becoming aware of the reality of the porters’ situa-
tion: being forced into undertaking this dangerous journey in order to ensure the survival
of their families and missing their families in a way not too different from the way Rita
misses hers.
Nevertheless, a clear “us” and “them” distinction still dominates the relationship
between the groups in the narrative as a whole and therefore precludes the cross-cultural
dialogue and empathy that is the crucial prerequisite to the global extension of human
rights. While during their first encounter Rita purports to understand that Kassim is work-
ing as a porter whereas she is climbing the mountain as a tourist, at this stage she at no
point reflects on the position of the disempowered Tanzanians she meets. This manifests
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itself in the text through the motif of parenting. As the above quote shows, her interac-
tions with Kassim are framed by the narrative in terms of her own desire to adopt two
children to which she had been a foster parent. This adds to the reader’s pity for the West-
ern protagonist as the story explains earlier on that this adoption was thwarted by her
parents who had “beaten her to it” and adopted them instead (Eggers 2005a: 147). The
issue of misdirecting the reader’s empathy is made even more explicit in the narrative
when the motif is used to build up a contrast between the porters and Michael, a young
American hiker who suffers from altitude sickness and is eventually forced to return
before reaching the summit.
Michael’s slow deterioration severely impacts upon the
group of paying hikers, particularly his father, and as a result he is a constant subject of
monitoring, care, and empathy. His eventual decision to give up the climb affects every-
one and ruins the experience for his father. By contrast, when some of the unnamed por-
ters freeze to death d uring the penultimate night of the climb, the hike carries on
regardless the next day, with most of the paying hikers barely noticing the missing por-
ters. The son’s ordeal manipulates the reader’s expectations in that it directs their atten-
tion towards the severity of Michael’s condition and the relationship between the
Western characters more broadly and away from the precarious position of the porters.
The reason for this almost dismissive attitude to the porters’ deaths is that, whils t their
loss is pitiable on a general level as a loss of human life, their individuality has consis-
tently remained obscure to the group and therefore remains unavailable for empathetic
engagement. As African individuals, the nongrievability of their lives to use Butler’s
terms is predetermined by their existence outside of the hegem ony.
In other words,
whilst their humanity is recognized on an abstract level, actual solidarity based on an
engagement with their particular disempowered reality and suffering is forestalled at the
level of narrative and in terms of the reader’s expectations.
Rita only vaguely notes the death of the porters having suffered from altitude sick-
ness hers elf on the night they died and joins the hikers in reflecting triumphantly on the
achievements of the group once they reach the summit: “Now, she thinks, seeing these
views in every direction, and knowing the communion with the others who have made it
here, she would not have let anything stop her ascent” (Eggers 2005a: 197). Crucially,
however, Rita breaks free from the restricted framework created by the neocolonial rela-
tionship between the porters and the paying hikers at the very end of the narrative. When
a fellow hiker, Shelley, informs Rita of the porters’ deaths once they have reached the
top, Rita becomes disgusted by the idea that the hike continued regardless. When Shelley,
enjoying the view, remarks “I’m glad everyone decided to push through, because this is
worth it, don’t you think?” (Eggers 2005a: 198), Rita rushes down, dismayed and angry,
only to find that there is nothing left for her to do but sign the book of international tou-
rists who made it to the top. Her panicked response to the porters’ deaths gains further
meaning when contrasted with the short story’s title “Up the Mountain Coming Down
Slowly.” Rita’s frantic sprint down the mountain stands in stark contrast to Grant’s deci-
sion to turn back after the porters deaths, presumably to help with the slow decent back
down with the bodies. While she initially condemns Grant for choosing to go down even
though “he was strong enough to make it” (Eggers 2005a: 197), she later finds that his
decision to go down accentuates her own guilt over continuing to the top (Eggers 2005a:
199). More broadly, therefore, this narrative shows how the neocolonial assumptions of
the paying hikers form an insurmountable barrier to a productive cross-cultural dialogue
in that they make it impossible for them to empathize with or even recognize anyone out-
side of the Western hegemony. These assumptions prove so powerful that they effectively
cancel out the relevance of Rita’s epiphany at the end, which ultimately comes too late for
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it to mean anything to the porters. What makes this conclusion resonate so particularly
strongly with the contrast between ineffective charity and cosmopolitan engagement is
the fact that the protagonist ends up giving the boots she intended to give to Kassim to
another young boy (Eggers 2005a: 199), presumably because Kassim is amongst the por-
ters who died on the mountain.
An analysis of Rita’s narrative development within this story reveals that she actually
completes a journey of increasing sensitization: Rita begins the journey in a self-absorbed
state of distre ss as part of a group of similarly self-involved Am erican tourists, but the
climb subsequently allows her to wrench herself free from her limited empathetic frame-
work to include those excluded by the hegemony. Rita’s development here thus seem-
ingly serves to extricate the protagonist from the restrictive Western discourse that
extends rights only to those incorporated within that society rather than affirming the indi-
vidual’s place within it, as has traditionally been the case.
Nevertheless, the narrative
also shows that development as taking place after the fact, once the porters have already
died, thus cancelling out any uplifting readings of Rita’s evolving empathy. Additionally,
the development of the protagonist has been adapted by Eggers in this case to criticize
the univeralist underpinnings of rights discourses in that it shows how simply acknowl-
edging the porters’ humanity in the way the paying hikers do in no way guarantees actual
solidarity with their suffering or a deeper understanding of the inequality that denies
them their human rights in the first place. Rather than explore a new set of failed cross-
cultural dialogues, therefore, Eggers confronts a second obstacl e to the cosmopolitan pub-
lic forum in this short story. Indeed, this narrative, by stressing competing and more detri-
mental global practices such as neocolonialism that preclude meaningful cross-cultural
encounters, shifts the focus away from the disenfranchised towards studying the stance of
the rights-bearing Westerner in the rights dialogue. While You Shall Know Our Velocity
exposes the difficulty of giving the disenfranchised an equal role in the conversation, “Up
the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” explores the formative arc Rita herself must
undergo in order to even become receptive to a meaningful cross-cultural conversation.
Rita’s outrage at the end of the story is presented as a belated first step towards breaking
through that restrictive narrative of sameness that forestalls solidarity or understanding.
The recognition Rita offers the porters in this final moment is nevertheless significant in
light of Judith Butler’s argument in Precarious Lives: “To ask for recognition, or to offer
it, is precisely not to ask for recognition for what one already is. It is to solicit a becoming,
to instigate a transformation, to petition the future always in relation to the Other” (2006:
44). In cosmopolitan terms, therefore, it is a step towards engaging the disempowered in
an open dialogue of mutual recognition that can transcend entrenched and restrictive posi-
tions of cultural and national identities. Within the context of the narrative and there-
fore within the reader’s understanding of the suffering of the porters the epiphany is a
stark reminder of the type of suffering that goes un recognized as well as of those who
remain disengaged from the global conversation about universal rights.
The crux of the problem put forward by cosmopolitan theorists—the need to preserve and
engage the particularity of cultures within a universal conception of rights— gains an
additional dimension when looked at through the lens of Eggers’s stories. Indeed, You
Shall Know Our Velocity and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” explore issues of
global inequality and cross-cultural engagement, both of which are taken to be central to
the unequal distribution of rights within a discourse of universal rights. By tracing the
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motif of imagined encounters with disempowered others, it becomes painfully clear how
arduous and fraught the cosmopolitan path to the universalization of rights can be. Conse-
quently, studying literary engagements with these issues raises new questions for scholars
of human rights and cosmopolitanism to consider as they explore the praxis of cross-cul-
tural encounters within various contexts. Eggers’s fictional narratives address questions
concerning the global encounter between rights-bearing Westerners and the disempow-
ered, in their respective cultural particularity, primarily against the backdrop of colonial
pasts and presents. Looking for answers to these questions in Eggers’s representations of
the cross-cultural encounter, I have discussed the ways in which this clash of global prac-
tices cross-c ultural cosmopolitan engagement, neocolonialism, and problematic global
monetary charity play out as a series of unproductive tensions. These tensions are of
particular relevance to an author such as Eggers, whose cosmopolitan cultural projects
rely on finding productive ways of engaging the disenfranchised in cross-cultural
Even though my reading of Eggers’s texts both engages and critiques a central
assumption of contemporary rights discourses, it does not do away with the normative
idea of universal, and universally extended, rights. Indeed, both stories actively encourage
the reader to feel that human rights should be extended to the porters in “Up the Mountain
Coming Down Slowly” or the disenfranchised characters in You Shall Know Our
Velocity. They make the point that doing so on the basis of a shared humanity is problem-
atic for those to whom we as readers feel they should extend, whilst also showing that a
cosmopolitan stance of openness and dialogue towards others is likely to compete with
far less productive and more persistent transnational practices that undermine the envi-
sioned equality in a global public sphere. The main obstacles are relationships grounded
in charity for Will and Hand and neocolonialism for Rita. You Shall Know Our Velocity
touches on ways in which establishing a charitable association with the disempowered
can entrench both parties in an insurmountable hierarchical relationship that under mines
solidarity and engagement with one another’s particulari ty. What “Up the Mountain
Coming Down Slowly” shows is how easily the universal discourse of sameness elides
into (neo)colonial ideologies that not only forestall solidarity but allow rights abuses to
go unchecked and effectively counteract the extension of rights to those beyond Western
society. Nevertheless, Eggers’s imagined encounters lay bare these issues whilst simulta-
neously and resolutely bringing to light the necessity of incorporating both rights-bearers
and the disempowered into a more open cosmopolitan outlook and dialogue.
1. This short story is part of the short-story collection How We Are Hungry. This collection also
contains a short-story sequel to the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity titled “The Only Mean-
ing of the Oil-Wet Water” in which Hand and a friend, Pillar, meet up in Costa Rica (Eggers
2005b). The story maintains the motifs of self-absorption and emotive encounters, focusing this
time on the anticipation and resolution of the sexual tension between the two Western protago-
nists rather than their meeting of others.
2. See also Richard Rorty (1985) in “Solidarity of Objectivity” regarding the inadequacy of bare
humanity to generate solidarity and Pheng Cheah’s argument in Inhuman Conditions: On Cos-
mopolitanism and Human Rights that “the solidarity of world citizens grounded solely in the
moral universalism of human rights is too weak to generate the cohesion required for the imple-
mentation of global policies” (2006: 57).
3. Significant in this respect is Elizabeth Twitchell’s (2011) discussion of the ambiguous fictional
third voice in What Is the What that hovers between Eggers’s authorial voice and Valentino
Achak Deng, the testimonial subject. Twitchell’s analysis points to how this contributes to the
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text’s “mutual cross-cultural exchange” (2011: 638) and search for “a form of empathic
exchange ... that might be capable of refiguring the power relations that have so long bedev-
illed Western representations of Africans” (2011: 635). In “Humanitarian Narrative and Posthu-
manist Critique: Dave Eggers’s What Is the What,” Michelle Peek discusses how the narrative
“engages critically with humanism through its depiction of their [Eggers and Deng]
relationship” (2012: 118). Valorie Thomas, in turn, reads Zeitoun as part of Eggers’s preoccu-
pation with engaging the voice of those existing outside of the hegemony in order to further
cross-cultural empathy: “By making the telling of public stories of immigrant experience more
accessible to a broader audience, the narrative remix democratizes routes to inclusion and
agency by expanding public knowledge and dialogue” (2012: 272).
4. In “Paratextuality and Economic Disavowal in Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity,” Sarah
Brouillette reads the novel as “a text about Eggers’ career” designed “to police the reception of
future works and control the way we read Eggers’ position in the literary marketplace” (2003).
The central tension she describes centers around him trying to avoid being perceived as either a
hack working for profit or an author part of a cultural elite. This gains further importance for
Eggers, I would add, because neither are conducive to his work as an author-activist inviting
readers to join him in agonizing over how to engage productively with those to whom rights
are not yet extended or whose rights have been violated.
5. These historicizing studies do not, however, coalesce into a singular long history of human
rights. In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) and Human Rights and the Uses of
History (2014), legal historian Samuel Moyn argues that human rights in their current concep-
tion cannot be traced further back than the 1970s and takes issue with rival genealogies put for-
ward by, for example, historian Lynn Hunt (2007) who tracks their emergence to the rights
declarations of the late eighteenth century in Inventing Human Rights: A History.
6. Andreas Huyssen similarly critiques universalism based on the observation that “[a]ll individu-
ality is inherently social” (2011: 618). He argues that the liberal belief that understands an indi-
vidual’s autonomy as being innate denies the fact that it actually emerges “in reciprocal
recognition of citizens embedded in a culture and engaged in social and political relations”
(Huyssen 2011: 618).
7. Appiah, Scrivener argues, has “a Humean distrust of reason and a Rousseauvian trust in intui-
tion, but his narrative of social change omits rational moments” (2007: 24).
8. In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Habermas (1990a) criticizes Rawls’s
argument in A Theory of Justice for excluding citizens from the debate on the norms that govern
their society, placing it entirely in the hands of philosophers. For Kant, one could think primar-
ily of his essays “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective” (2006a) and
“Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” (2006b) in this respect, which posit the gen-
eral rules that would govern relationships within, between, and beyond states with a view to
ensuring universal peace and prosperity.
9. This glossing over is subtly found in the imagery of You Shall Know Our Velocity when Will
suggests that his newfound wealth leaves him feeling uncomfortable. His statement that he pre-
fers “living on the equator just above and below a zero balance” (Eggers 2002: 15) invites
comparison with people in the Global South and ignores the fundamental fact that the North/
South divide is about more than discrepancies in material wealth. This misunderstanding leaves
Will thinking that money would “bridge” the distance between him and those existing outside
of the hegemony, whereas his agonizing over potential interactions with those people reveals to
the reader the importance of overcoming what he describes as a “limitless and deadly” distance
(Eggers 2002: 15).
10. Benhabib stresses this need to balance the universal reach of rights with the particularity of cul-
tures: “It is important to respect the claims of diverse democratic communities, including their
distinctive cultural, legal, and constitutional self-understanding, while strengthening their com-
mitments to emerging norms of cosmopolitan justice” (2004: 3).
11. In the added separate chapter narrated by Hand, this paradox is explained: “Though the text as
printed before and after my interlude is as Will wrote it, there’s no way, of course, he could
have written that first page, being no longer with us, and therefore not close to a word proces-
sor. His manuscript was sent to the publisher before his second departure, for South America”
(Eggers 2009a: 136).
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12. The final lines read: “I jumped with my mouth so open, taking it all in ...and my heart froze....
It stopped for a minute I swear, but then the sound and pictures came back on and for two more
interminable months we lived!” (Eggers 2002: 350).
13. Whereas these silent dialogues are eventually imbued with additional meaning by both Will’s
own trauma and the disenfranchised position of the interlocutors he encounters during his trav-
els, the reader is explicitly made aware of the protagonist’s tendency of having unproductive
dialogues with strangers from the very beginning of the novel: “I argued with strangers con-
stantly.... The silent though decisive discussions were a hobby of my mind ... It helped me
work through problems, solving things, reaching conclusions final, edifying and even, occa-
sionally, mutually agreeable” (Eggers 2002: 26–27).
14. This is another example of a risk taken by the porters that the guide, Frank, tries to prevent the
hikers from taking. The hikers are told not to go up the mountain too quickly in order to avoid
getting ill (Eggers 2005a: 163), whereas the porters have to rush up and down between camps
in order to transport all of the hikers’ equipment (Eggers 2005a: 173).
15. See Butler’s explanation in Frames of War: “If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from
the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are
never lived nor lost in the full sense” (2009: 1).
16. In Human Rights Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, Joseph
Slaughter (2007) analyzes the problematic congruence of the formative plot so prominent in
Western literary history (Bildungs-plot) and the way in which it is taken as a template for the
incorporation of citizen–subjects into human rights discourses. See also Slaughter’s more gen-
eral remark in this respect: “Human rights are not yet the rights of humanity in general; they
are the rights of incorporated citizens” (2007: 89).
APPIAH, Kwame Anthony. (1998) Cosmopolitan patriots. In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling
Beyond the Nation, Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (eds.) (London: University of Minnesota
APPIAH, Kwame Anthony. (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London:
BENHABIB, Seyla. (2004) The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press).
BENHABIB, Seyla. (2006) Hospitality, sovereignty, and democratic iterations. Another Cosmopol-
itanism: Hospitality, Sovereignty, and Democratic Iterations , Robert Post (ed.) (New York:
Oxford University Press).
BROUILLETTE, Sarah. (2003) Paratextuality and economic disavowal in Eggers’ You Shall Know
Our Velocity. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 3(2). [Online]. Available: [15 August 2015].
BROWN, Wendy. (2004) “The most we can hope for...”: Human rights and the politics of fatalism.
South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2–3), 451–463.
BUTLER, Judith. (2006) Precarious Lives: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso
BUTLER, Judith. (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso Books).
CHEAH, Pheng. (2006) Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press).
EGGERS, Dave. (2000) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (New York: Simon and
EGGERS, Dave. (2002) You Shall Know Our Velocity (San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s).
EGGERS, Dave. (2005a) Up the mountain coming down slowly. In How We Are Hungry (London:
Penguin Books).
EGGERS, Dave. (2005b) The only meaning of the oil-wet water. In How We Are Hungry (London:
Penguin Books).
EGGERS, Dave. (2009a) You Shall Know Our Velocity (New York: Vintage).
EGGERS, Dave. (2009b) Zeitoun (San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s).
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Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (trans.) (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press).
urgen. (1990b) The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, Ciaran
Cronin and Pablo De Greiff (eds.) (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press).
urgen. (2001) The Postnational Constellation, Max Pensky (ed. and trans.) (Cam-
bridge, UK: Polity Press).
HUNT, Lynn. (2007) Inventing Human Rights: A History (London: Norton).
HUYSSEN, Andreas. (2011) International human rights and the politics of memory: Limits and
challenges. Criticism, 53(4), 607–624.
KANT, Immanuel. (2006a) Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan perspective. In Toward
Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace and History, Pauline Kleingeld (ed.)
and David L. Colclasure (trans.) (London/New Haven: Yale University Press).
KANT, Immanuel. (2006b) Towards perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch. In Toward Perpetual
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L. Colclasure (trans.) (London/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
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the What. Biography, 35(1), 115–136.
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and Cornel West (eds.) (New York: Columbia University Press).
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1776–1832 (London: Pickering & Chatto).
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... На відміну від наведених поглядів, автор вважає, що насправді такою особою був один із провідних фундаторів сучасного міжнародного права прав людини професор Герш Лаутерпахт [19]. Адже, як зазначалося вище, він ще влітку 1945 р. видав книгу під назвою «Міжнародний біль прав людини», VI розділ якої (під такою ж назвою) було викладено у вигляді міжнародно-правового акта з Преамбулою і кількома десятками статей і який було роздано усім членам згаданої робочої групи з рекомендацією: звернути особливу увагу на цей твір (цей факт, посилаючись на відповідні архівні документи ООН, згодом описав український професор В. Буткевич) [20]. ...
Translator's Introduction: This essay appears to have been occasioned by a passing remark made by Kant's colleague and follower Johann Schultz in a 1784 article in the Gotha Learned Papers. In order to make good on Schultz's remark, Kant wrote this article, which appeared in the Berlinische Monatsschrift late in the same year. This is the first, and despite its brevity the most fully worked out, statement of his philosophy of history. The “idea” referred to in the title is a theoretical idea, that is, an a priori conception of a theoretical program to maximize the comprehensibility of human history. It anticipates much of the theory of the use of natural teleology in the theoretical understanding of nature that Kant was to develop over five years later in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. But this theoretical idea also stands in a close and complex relationship to Kant's moral and political philosophy, and to his conception of practical faith in divine providence. Especially prominent in it is the first statement of Kant's famous conception of a federation of states united to secure perpetual peace between nations. The Idea for a Universal History also contained several propositions that were soon to be disputed by J. G. Herder in his Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity, leading to Kant's reply in his reviews of that work (1785) and in the Conjectural Beginning of Human History (1786). Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht was first published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift IV (November 11, 1784).
At the center of much of this chapter's disagreement with Jeremy Waldron is interpreting Immanuel Kant's doctrine of jus cosmopoliticum, which can be rendered into English as "cosmopolitan right" or "cosmopolitan law." Kant's doctrine of universal hospitality opens up a space of discourse. The discourse of hospitality moves from the language of morals to that of juridical right. No matter how limited in scope the right of hospitality may be, Kant's three articles of "Perpetual Peace," taken together, articulate principles of legal cosmopolitanism, according to which the individual is not only a moral being who is a member of a universal moral community but is also a person entitled to a certain status in a global civil society. Referring to "hospitality" as signifying all human rights claims that are cross-border in scope, may be more intelligible when viewed against the intentions of Kant's essay as a whole. © In this volume The Regents of the University of California 2006. All rights reserved.
In this timely study of the historical, ideological, and formal interdependencies of the novel and human rights, Joseph Slaughter demonstrates that the twentieth-century rise of world literatureand international human rights law are related phenomena. Slaughter argues that international law shares with the modern novel a particular conception of the human individual. The Bildungsroman, the novel of coming of age, fills out this image, offering a conceptual vocabulary, a humanist social vision, and a narrative grammar for what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and early literary theorists both call the free and full development of the human personality.Revising our received understanding of the relationship between law and literature, Slaughter suggests that this narrative form has acted as a cultural surrogate for the weak executive authority of international law, naturalizing the assumptions and conditions that make human rights appear commonsensical. As a kind of novelistic correlative to human rights law, the Bildungsroman has thus been doing some of the sociocultural work of enforcement that the law cannot do for itself. This analysis of the cultural work of law and of the social work of literature challenges traditional Eurocentric histories of both international law and the dissemination of the novel. Taking his point of departure in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, Slaughter focuses on recent postcolonial versions of the coming-of-age story to show how the promise of human rights becomes legible in narrative and how the novel and the law are complicit in contemporary projects of globalization: in colonialism, neoimperalism, humanitarianism, and the spread of multinational consumer capitalism.Slaughter raises important practical and ethical questions that we must confront in advocating for human rights and reading world literature-imperatives that, today more than ever, are intertwined.
This book explores the tension between universal principles of human rights and the self-determination claims of sovereign states as they affect the claims of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants. Drawing on the work of Kant's "cosmopolitan doctrine" and positions developed by Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib explores how the topic has been analyzed within the larger history of political thought. She argues that many of the issues raised in abstract debate between universalism and multiculturalism can find acceptable solutions in practice.
Twitchell's essay examines Dave Eggers's What Is the What (2006) in the context of recent international interest in the morality of uncertainty, a stance which looks to selferasure, not-knowing, and imaginative empathy as providing both the most humane response to trauma and a generative platform for cross-cultural understanding. Twitchell posits that this turn can be productively situated in relation to two seemingly unconnected "problem" genres of U.S. literature: representations of Africa and memoirs of suffering. By positioning What Is the What - the fictionalized autobiography of a reallife Sudanese Lost Boy written by a white American author - as the limit case for the imaginative representation of distant trauma, two distinct questions arise and converge: how did the fictionalizing of suffering become a means of rendering it usable, and what confluence of events has made it ethically possible for an American writer to offer a first-person account of African trauma? By sketching the recent critical histories of depictions of Africa and memoirs of trauma - each of which have been haunted by the specters of narcissism and fraudulence - Twitchell argues that two seemingly antagonistic cultural imperatives coincided at the moment of the novel's publication: the moral obligation to empathize with distant and dissimilar persons, and a skepticism about the morality of empathic identification itself. She suggests that Eggers's novel proposes a way out of this stalemate by offering a model for empathic response grounded in the ethical value of uncertainty and error, in which representations of Africa and memoirs of suffering function as privileged sites of cultural conversation not despite their inevitable inaccuracies but because of them.