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Literature's law.

One of the remarkable outcomes of the growth in literary theory in recent scholarship has been the productive crossing of the disciplines of law and literature. For the most part, however, this crossing has been articulated mainly in one direction.(1) Assuming that both law and literature must work via the indeterminate nature of language, many literary and some legal scholars have for at least a decade been turning to literary theory for analytical tools that, in sum, bring to the surface of legal argumentation the inherently "literary" moment of the law and expose the various rhetorical strategies by which the law represses its figural fluidity in its attempt to appear objectively fixed.(2) The reverse of this direction, the analysis of an implied moment of the law in literature has been less well articulated. In this current crossing of disciplines, literature has had much to say to the law but the law has not had much to say to literature.

The problem with tracing the law's interpenetration with literature, or even in seeing that there might be such a possibility, is in many ways hard to see once one has accepted the enabling assumption of the irreducibly figural nature of language on which this recent crossing of disciplines depends. This assumption-that language is indeterminate - situates the law as a more or less coherent series of narratives endlessly open to interpretation and redefinition, subject to the prejudices and desires of judges, juries, or some relevant interpretive community. Yet this assumption of endless figurality itself ought not to go unexamined. Simply put, even if we accept the premise of indeterminacy, the assertion of language's indeterminate figurality is itself a grounding gesture, a moment of saying what is in fact the nature of language; that is, the assumption of indeterminacy paradoxically acts as the unmoved mover - the "law" - that enables this particular mode of discourse. Or in other words, even given its figural dimension, the law still functions in some sense as authority; it functions, ill or well depending on one's viewpoint, to regulate behaviors and enable some practices while it prohibits others. In the same way literature, too, has its moment of authority, its moment of "law" in which it instantiates itself within a horizon of practices that are thus given disciplinary legitimacy and authority. In fact, the current debate over the crossing of law and literature is an instance of what I mean: if the figurality of language marks the parameters of the conversation between the two disciplines of law and literature, then consequently, the "literary" can be said to have set the rules or given the "law" to this particular exchange. Certainly in this brief space I cannot hope to do more than merely point to a reproductive possibility, yet I hope to suggest that law does indeed inhabit literature and that, perhaps, authority, ethics, and justice are not confined to the horizon of the law. Indeed, the exploration of the possibility and perhaps even of the necessity of law within literature is suggested by the enabling conundrum of their disciplinary crossing.


1 See for example Levinson and Mailloux. This excellent collection of essays on the whole brings together literary and legal scholars under the aegis of law as literature, privileging the literary over the legal.

2 Scholars in the Critical Legal Studies movement have done much of this work. One of the most recent articulate voices extending this critique is Drucilla Cornell. See also Cornell, Rosenfeld, and Carlson. Another good example of this line of argument is Douzinas, Warrington, and McVeigh.


Cornell, Drucilla. The Philosophy of the Limit. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Cornell, Drucilla, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, eds. Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Douzinas, Costas, Ronnie Warrington, and Shaun McVeigh. Postmodern Jurisprudence: The Law of Text in the Texts of Law, London: Routledge, 1991.

Levinson, Sanford and Steven Mailloux. Interpreting Law and literature: A Hermeneutic Reader. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.
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Author:Britt, Theron
Publication:College Literature
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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