Long Session Description

Welcome to the site we’ve created for our session. Read the detailed session description below, including an overview of the topics the roundtable participants will address briefly before we open the floor for discussion. Use the links at the right (or below, if you’re using a mobile device) to learn more about the session organizers and participants, view the materials participants have circulated in preparation, and contribute comments and questions. We look forward to hearing from you and seeing you in Vancouver!


Image credit: “Law Books in Compact” by Waikay Lau.

In an influential PMLA article in 2005, Julie Stone Peters posited that the legal narratology of the 1980s formed the third wave of law and literature scholarship. Peters’ vision of law and narrative, however, focused almost entirely on the narrativization of facts in a courtroom or brief, excluding the other ways in which narrative permeates legal practice. Yet law and narrative are ineluctably and richly intertwined; as Hayden White has suggested, “Where there is no rule of law, there can be neither a subject nor the kind of event which lends itself to narrative representation.” White’s observation challenges us to consider the law’s reliance on narrative in relation to narrative’s dependence on law.

This roundtable expands the definition of legal narratology by embracing the multiple forms narrative takes within the law. Six panelists will present five-minute position papers that together address how the law emplots, documents, and even embellishes or distorts its accounts of the world. In December, we will make these position papers available online. During the roundtable, panelists will present their papers, then engage in dialogue with attendees about how the interaction of law and narrative responds to aesthetic, political, and cultural imperatives.

The first two papers speak to the poetics of the law itself. As Peters’ article and work by Peter Brooks evinces, research on law and narrative tends to focus either on historicizing legal advocacy or on the narration of facts in a judicial opinion. The real events judged by the court are not, however, the only subjects narrated by the law. Andrew Bricker and Simon Stern will speak to the saturation of narrative in the structure of the law. Bricker notes that, because the common law’s legitimacy derives from precedents, the common law itself is a narrated histoire, somewhere between a history and a story. Stern, meanwhile, argues that analyses of points of law–rather than the facts of a case–are narratives, with doctrines as their protagonists. Both speakers draw attention to how judicial decisions emplot competing desires, outcomes, and doctrines. In this sense, law’s very structure depends on narrativization as much as does any prosecutor’s theory of a crime.

Legal narratives serve not only the law’s practice, but also extra-legal needs. The next two speakers argue that truth and justice are not the only ends of legal narrativization. Michael Bachmann and Kelly Rich will explore the retributive and reparative stakes of narrative after World War II. Bachmann, in the tradition of Catherine Cole’s work on truth and reconciliation trials, interrogates how “theatrical witnessing” negotiates tensions between documentary and testimonial narrative in the Eichmann trial. Rich looks to contemporary novelists such as Ishiguro and McEwan, whose fiction tries the past so as to achieve closure beyond the law. These presenters recognize that if, as Adorno suggests, writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, so too is the project of adjudication. Together, they question the limits of narratives, legal and otherwise, that attempt to contain or make reparation for historical trauma.

The panel will close with two presenters who examine the presumptions scholars make about the relationship between law and the contemporary nation-state in legal and literary narratives. Anglo- American law is the implied referent in most scholarship on law and literature. Yet exploring the legal systems of former colonies and the law among nations raises questions about the meaning of law and the geographical and cultural variability of law’s narration. Christopher Warren and Amanda Waugh take up this postcolonial and international perspective. Warren posits that the construction of international law depends as much on building international narratives as it does on creating a shared juridical reality. Waugh, by contrast, urges a rigorously local perspective that accounts for the historicity of legal actors. In postcolonial narratives, this vantage reveals the persistent legal imperative to narrate only in forms inherited from the imperial authority. The speakers ask us to attend to how geographical and cultural boundaries define both law and narrative.

While scholars of law and literature and narratologists form our core audience, our focus on poetics, testimony and trauma, and postcolonial literature will attract specialists in those fields. Addressing this diverse audience, our participants will interrogate what is at stake when we claim law is narrative and narrative is law. By attending to legal poetics, war testimony, and international law, the speakers all recognize that the relationship between narrative and law is not only mutually reinforcing, but also subtly disruptive.

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