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Literature, Rights, and Imagined Communities

This project foregrounds the important but often overlooked connection between rights, literature, and the way in which communities imagine themselves. In what ways do literary texts in English contribute to, shape, and interrogate broad conceptions of, for example, intellectual rights and copyright, human rights, civil rights, and animal rights?

Portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Project guest in 2019 Photo: Danny Da Costa

About the Project

Rights are always conceived – positively or negatively – against the background of national, ethnic, or international communities. Since the groundbreaking work of Benedict Anderson, these kinds of social structures have often been conceived of as imagined communities, that is, as communities bound together by imaginative structures such as metaphor, symbolism, and narrative. Much of the existing discourse on national and extranational communities sees them as dependent on imaginative and linguistic structures that they share in common with works of literature.

Our research investigates these structures, and explores the ways in which literature frames conceptions of rights, including the way that literary texts make visible the connections between modes of imagining social belonging and modes of securing and apportioning rights.

Literature, Rights, and Imagined Communities studies the relationship between conceptions and practices of rights, forms and habits of imagining community, and the structure and practice of literature. The project’s approach is a broad one, both historically, stretching from the Renaissance and early modern period to the present, and conceptually, examining the notion of rights from a number of different political, intellectual, and gendered perspectives.


As a group, we are interested in the relationship between literature in English and broad conceptions of human rights, intellectual rights and copyright, civil rights, biopolitics, and posthumanist critiques of of rights discourse. Our research considers these relationships in light of the way literature interrogates and shapes different forms of imagined communities. We pay special attention to questions of inclusion and diversity, both critiquing the exclusions at work in traditional assignations of rights and investigating the way in which more expansive communities of rights can be built on shared environmental, social, and cultural concerns.

The research project surmounts traditional disciplinary academic boundaries by coupling literary studies with topics and methodologies drawn from the research group’s fields of expertise, including cultural studies and critical theory; African American studies; women’s and gender studies; animal and animality studies; rhetoric and communication; book history and the “imagined communities” of authors, printers, booksellers, and consumers in the literary marketplaces in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Louisa Olufsen Layne (DPhil English Literature, University of Oxford, 2017) 

Interview about the Harlem Renaissance (at 40:00 --) NRK P2 Studio 2, July 30, 2020

"Everyone digging their jazz was not enough": project interview


PhD Research Fellows (2016-19)

Alba Morollón Díaz-Faes - Queer(ed) Fairy Tales. Public dissertation defense

Belinda Molteberg Steen - The Poetics of Imagined Communities at War: Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England. Public dissertation defense

Published May 22, 2015 9:56 AM - Last modified Aug. 1, 2020 3:54 PM