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Human rights and solidarity in a postcolonial worldUCLA International Institute Associate Vice Provost David Kim. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Human rights and solidarity in a postcolonial world

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The work and teaching of David Kim grapple with the challenge of human rights in a post-colonial world, cosmopolitanism and solidarity, as well as an array of German authors.

UCLA International Institute, January 26, 2023 — “There is no way around thinking about solidarity nowadays. We live in a polarized society where opposing parties don’t know how to talk to each other, come to an agreement or have any kind of a meaningful negotiation,” says David Kim, associate vice provost of the UCLA International Institute and professor of European languages and transcultural studies.

“How can we interrogate the assumptions that we make in order to understand the perspective of others, so that we don’t demonize those who think differently?” he asks.

In part to answer that question, Kim is writing a book about the concept of solidarity in the writings of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. In fact, her work on the topic is the focus of his graduate seminar this academic quarter.

A recent German-funded Humboldt Research Fellowship enabled the UCLA scholar to spend considerable time at the German Literary Archive (Deutsches Literaturarchiv) in Marbach in 2021–22 (six months in 2021, three months in 2022), which holds the largest collection of Arendt papers after that held by the U.S. Library of Congress.

Hannah Arendt, 1958. Photo: Munich City Museum, Photography Collection, Barbara Niggl Radloff Archive; altered. CC BY-SA 4.0 ( “The key question Arendt wanted to think about was the sense of shame that human beings felt as human beings in the aftermath of the Holocaust, whereas other human beings did not feel so at all. Instead, they felt ashamed as, let’s say, members of a specific nation. She thought that that was very detrimental to the notion of international solidarity — that one had to feel as a member of humanity in order to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again.”

Kim sees a powerful lesson for our time in Arendt’s struggles to reconcile the notion of solidarity with movements and theories outside of her Anglo-European experience. “Arendt had difficulty reading non-white thinkers,” he says. “That was, in many ways, the reason why she had difficulty with coming to grips with the value of the civil rights movement and, once it turned more radical, with the Black Power movement.

“That’s one part of her life that I'm trying to work out: how her white Jewishness feeds into the white immigrant narrative of the time, and to what extent that framework erased, or effaced, the experience of former slaves and African Americans and Native Americans.

“She came from the European continent, which, from her perspective, consisted of discriminatory, imperialist nation-states. And in those nation-states, ethnic and religious minorities could really lose their citizenship rights. That was what happened to her, she became a stateless refugee.

“Whereas in the United States, which she thought was not a nation-state, but instead, a republic — a modern reincarnation of the Roman Republic — she thought that kind of a precarious fate could not happen to minorities.”

An expert on German literature and culture, Kim has published books on postcolonial theory, human rights and cosmopolitanism, together with countless articles in academic journals, including The German Quarterly, Monatshefte, Gegenwartsliteratur and Journal of Translation Studies.*

At UCLA, he teaches courses on Arendt’s political philosophy, cosmopolitanism, Kafka, literary theory and, most recently, transatlantic European studies with community engagement. Kim truly enjoys teaching and has a clear talent for it: he was awarded the UCLA Academic Senate’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award in 2020.

The UCLA professor has long had ties to the International Institute: as a member of the faculty advisory board to the global studies program, faculty affiliate of the Center for European and Russian Studies, interim faculty advisor to the UCLA International Education Office (2021–22) and, since July 2022, associate vice provost. In the latter position, he works to strengthen and enhance the institute’s academic programs and their respective course offerings.

As a scholar, Kim values a multidisciplinary approach, for example, looking at the impact of human rights on art and novels, and vice versa. “In the UCLA Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies, we all work across cultural, linguistic and historical boundaries, but at the International Institute, this work obviously takes place at an even grander scale.

“It’s really wonderful to have this opportunity to promote interdisciplinary work and teaching at a university-wide level.”

A global citizen if there ever was one, Kim had a peripatetic childhood with a father who was an international businessman. He was born and lived in Venezuela for five years, then spent three years in South Korea, followed by 10 years in Germany and two in Mexico — all before going to college.

His experience of the United States has been equally broad: he earned a dual A.B./B.S. at Duke University and an M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard, then taught at Michigan State University and, since 2014, at UCLA. To wit, he has lived in the South, Northeast, Midwest and now, West Coast.

“I basically spent my formative teenage years in Germany, so German culture and the German language were sort my mother tongue and culture in some ways,” he explains. He adds, “At home, we spoke Korean and all of my extended family are in South Korea now.”

Kim brings a wealth of lived transcontinental experience to scholarship and teaching that engage with notions of citizenship and cosmopolitanism in an era of growing populism and right-wing violence; how ideas of trauma and justice guide perceptions and understanding of both the Holocaust and of colonialism; and the meaning and application of human rights today, when the major global covenants on migration, asylum and human rights adopted by the UN after World War II are increasingly being violated by signatories and non-signatories alike.

“While studying in graduate school, cerebrally and intellectually, I came to grasp better what my own identity was,” says Kim. Although he disavows a narrow national identity, he notes, “Eventually I landed on the large topic of cosmopolitanism, and that really spoke to me. That’s how I came to think about human rights and global citizenship, which are very complex topics.

In 2022, the UCLA professor launched the International Institute’s newest summer travel study program, “The Global Governance of International Human Rights,” a four-week course of study in The Hague that focuses on the history and key issues of international human rights and involves visits to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

“Students understandably come to the topic with a very utopian conception of human rights. I explain to them, on the basis of history, how the promises that they associate with human rights at this very abstract level do not translate into reality. They also have to consider non-European perspectives on the ways in which we experience and talk about human rights.

“I have from the very beginning considered the works of postcolonial thinkers in order to complicate what we have inherited from European intellectual thought to see where the blind spots are.

“That’s how I bring in human rights discourse into my own understanding of the postcolonial world. Human rights make up a very interdisciplinary topic: you have to think about history, you have to know the theoretical issues, you have to consider the philosophical challenges, you also have to look at what legal scholars are doing.”

The works of Hannah Arendt, says Kim, “remind me of the importance of thinking capaciously, of interdisciplinary methods and our ability to access knowledge in many different ways.

“I believe that crossing boundaries, thinking multilingually and working in an interdisciplinary manner are absolutely natural; but the infrastructure of the university, divided into difference disciplines and departments, has created this kind of artificial skeleton for us.”


*Kim’s scholarly publications include the monograph, “Cosmopolitan Parables” (Northwestern, 2017), and the edited volumes, “Globalgeschichten der deutschen Literatur” (Metzler Verlag, 2022; co-edited with Urs Büttner), “Reframing Postcolonial Studies” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), “The Postcolonial World” (Routledge, 2016; co-edited with Jyotsna Singh), “Imagining Human Rights” (De Gruyter, 2015; co-edited with Susanne Kaul), and “Georg Simmel in Translation” (Cambridge Scholars, 2009).