"Essentially Contested": Law, Literature, Postcoloniality

By Suzack, Cheryl | ARIEL, January-April 2004 | Go to article overview

"Essentially Contested": Law, Literature, Postcoloniality


Suzack, Cheryl, ARIEL


  There are no easy conventions for the creation of meaning.
  Robert Cover, "Nomos and Narrative" (25)

In writing this introduction to "Law, Literature, Postcoloniality" I borrow the term "essentially contested" from W.B. Gallie's Philosophy and the Historical Understanding as a resonant concept with which to mark the interlocking terrain addressed by these ten essays. (1) Gallie's analysis of essentially contested meanings privileges concepts emergent within a field of social engagement that give rise to conflicted sets of social values and divergent practices of interpretation which fail to achieve resolution through imposed principles of universal judgement. His examples of such terms include "art," "democracy," "religion," and "social justice" (157), but the broader reach of his argument extends to the practical realm of human social activity in which these disputes vary according to their contested meanings. As he states, "concepts which are essentially contested [are] concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users" (158). For Gallie, the apposite role of social criticism is to distinguish these terms as sites of communal interaction that by their very nature are irreducibly different from each other and cannot be resolved through the application of universal principles. As he explains, "if the notion of logical justification can be applied only to such theses and arguments as can be presumed capable of gaining universal agreement in the long run, the disputes to which the uses of any essentially contested concept give rise are not genuine or rational disputes at all" (183). What resonates as the force of the social in essentially contested terms is their ability to articulate the "essential contestedness [of] our basic moral notions and principles," which matter to us, as Gallie claims, insofar as they designate conflicts that gain their oppositional force in their "wide bearings upon human life" (190).

To consider the terms law, literature, postcoloniality as essentially contested according to Gallie's definition necessitates a reassessment of these concepts in their broader engagements with social sites of discrepant meaning-making. Given the array of cultural and political issues addressed here, these essays signal the urgency and significance of such an undertaking. On the one hand, these papers challenge the interrelationships between law, literature, and postcolonial analysis through their engagements with contemporary issues that represent formative sites of contemporary cultural conflict. They examine issues generated in the encounter of law with indigenous cultural practices (Bracken, Cheyfitz, Karno), law in its manifestations through colonial governance (Mawani, Reichman), and law at the intersection of postcoloniality, violence, and legal ethics (Findlay, Gottlieb, Fitzpatrick). Their attention to law's generative capacities signals the inescapability of law's continuance at the "forefront of that very relation" in which the "West's relation to its 'other'" gets constituted and critically explored through the terrain of the postcolonial (Fitzpatrick and Darian-Smith 4). Yet, these essays also examine the inescapable violence of colonial conflicts by asking what form postcolonial legality might take in generating fundamental human rights and social justice. They address the uneasy relationship between human rights violations and colonial-imperial legacies to articulate the "becoming-time" of a postcolonial future that has yet to take shape (Patton, Ratti).

On the other hand, these essays also participate in a broader critical practice that may be characterized according to the "world building" capacity that Robert Cover identifies with law's social and normative functions. For Cover, the legal system's "professional paraphernalia of social control" represents but a small part of the wider legal habitus that articulates the "prescriptions," "narratives," "meanings," "constitutions," "epics," and "scriptures" of the "world in which we live" (4-5).

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