Benjamin Mangrum, assistant professor of literature at MIT, has been awarded the 2023 Levitan Prize in the Humanities. This award, presented each year by a faculty committee, empowers a member of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) faculty with funding to enable research in their field. With an award of $30,000, this annual prize continues to power substantial projects among the members of the SHASS community.
Mangrum will use the award to support research for his upcoming book, which is a cultural and intellectual history of environmental rights. In the book, Mangrum discusses the cultural structures that have helped link rights language to environmental concerns. Mangrum plans to use the funding from the Levitan Prize for research into a chapter involving literary personhood.
“Assertions of environmental rights are typically the result of pragmatic or strategic alignments between, say, naturalists and labor organizers or indigenous communities and governments,” he writes. “My book examines the compromises and conceptual negotiations that occur for ‘environmental rights’ to be a workable concept.”
The notion of environmental rights can refer to the right of citizens to live in a healthy environment, but it can also include the attribution of rights to nonhuman entities. Such designation received increased attention when New Zealand gave the Whanganui River a legal identity, bringing the longest-running litigation in New Zealand history to an end. India has named rivers legal entities and Bangladesh has given all its rivers legal rights.
“Personhood status was a compromise between the government and a group of Māori tribes who demanded recognition for the river based on past treaties,” Mangrum writes. “I’m interested in how these very different kinds of discourse — political rights, environmental science, indigenous culture, public health — have come together during the 20th and 21st centuries.”
For the chapter, Mangrum explores the argument made by legal theorist Christopher Stone in “Should Trees Have Standing?” First published in 1972, Stone’s essay is a foundational argument in environmental law. Stone maintains that natural objects can be given legal personhood, an argument that is often cited in legal framings of environmental rights. Mangrum explores the literary dimensions of legal personhood.
“I argue that the intellectual and cultural history of legal personhood shares unacknowledged debts to the evolution in theories of literary personhood,” Mangrum writes. “A reader’s attribution of personhood does not serve the same social and moral functions as the attribution of personhood to corporations and other nonhuman entities. However, I argue that modern ideas about literary personhood are cognitively homologous with legal personhood: despite serving different functions, these conceptions of personhood share conceptual structures and intellectual origins.”
In one recently published article, he examines the language used by Rachel Carson and others in the nascent environmental movement. In 1963, Carson testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the threat of pesticides. It was considered a watershed moment for environmentalism, but notable also for intellectual history. Her use of the vocabulary of rights and her advocacy for environmental regulations in a public forum were significant forces in the institutionalization of environmental rights.
Mangrum notes Carson’s claim of “the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.” Carson uses the language of rights to introduce environmental concerns within the public sphere, but this language also has implications for how we understand our relationship to the nonhuman world.
Before arriving at MIT in 2022, Mangrum taught at the University of the South, the University of Michigan, and Davidson College. He is the author of “Land of Tomorrow: Postwar Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism” (Oxford 2019), which examines 20th-century literary fiction and popular philosophy to understand shifts in American liberalism after World War II. He received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.