This essay locates the subject of human rights in the narrative forms of J. M. Coetzee's novels Waiting for the Barbarians and Foe through an interpretation drawing on Jacques Rancière's theory of dissensus and tracing the novel's historical relations to the equitable and remedial common-law jurisprudence of habeas corpus. To flesh out this history, the essay analyzes as an instance of dissensus the famous Somerset decision of 1772 on a writ of habeas corpus by Chief Justice of King's Bench William Murray, Lord Mansfield, upholding the freedom of an escaped slave who had been detained by his master while resident in England. In its popular reception, the Somerset ruling initiated a series of both literary and legal precursors for Coetzee's narrator in Waiting for the Barbarians, a figure we can call the “chastened magistrate,” also representing the establishment under British colonial governance of common-law courts in South Africa. Bringing together Rancière's critique of Giorgio Agamben's theory of bare life and the exploration of the troubled judicial conscience of the magistrate in Coetzee's novel, the essay further argues that Waiting for the Barbarians calls into question Agamben's postulate concerning the evacuation of legality from the camp as state of exception through the magistrate's attempts to restore justice. The essay concludes that in Coetzee's later novel, Foe—which directly addresses the entwined histories of the English novel and the Atlantic slave trade—the subject of human rights appears in the mute slave Friday's dance while wearing the magistrate's scarlet robes of office and that, through such figures of politicization, Coetzee's novels offer responsibility and redress for the wrongs of empire.

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