The Force of Law and Literature: Critiques of Ideology in Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu

By Leckie, Barbara | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Force of Law and Literature: Critiques of Ideology in Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu


Leckie, Barbara, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


When Victoria Kahn evaluates the law and literature nexus in terms of its "contribution to the critique of ideology" (22), she identifies a key focus of the critics who have recently turned to these two disciplines to address the questions that they find most urgent and compelling. In particular, "critique" is productive of social and political change in a manner that appeals to materialist critics of culture. Marx's familiar definition of critical philosophy as "the self-clarification of the times about its own struggles and wishes," for example, carries a revolutionary impulse consistent with social transformation. Seyla Benhabib glosses Marx's definition as follows: "Critique which seeks to clarify a given society about its own struggles and wishes must show that these struggles and wishes, created by current conditions, also anticipate radical transformation" (60). Critique, in these senses, is intimately caught up in the law and could be understood in terms of what Jacques Derrida calls a "critique of juridical ideology" ("Force" 13). Just as the legal structure both legitimates and defines the residing social order, so social change itself must come to grips with this legal structure to identify, and effect, a desired outcome. While the role of law in such social transformation has tended to be clear, the place of literature is less immediately apparent.

Kahn concludes that because the law and literature nexus is too thematic and Critical Legal Studies too insular, these particular interdisciplinary intersections are unable "to provide a strategy for political change" (33). Instead, she argues, "we need to develop a mode of analysis that will allow us to address issues of substantive and not merely formal equality before the law. This task will require other methods than those offered by deconstruction or critical legal studies" (34). In recent debates, however, law and literature have begun to intersect on a ground that specifically takes the contested space of the literary institution as its point of inquiry by considering the exclusionary matrixes through which some voices and questions are heard and others are not. Rather than looking elsewhere to find strategies for political change as Kahn suggests, then, I want to consider another approach that couples law and literature with deconstruction and reflexive sociology.

To address the fraught and often contested terrain of law, literature and social change as it relates to exclusionary practices, I will interrelate the work of two theorists, Pierre Bourdieu and Derrida, both of whom have written essays on the law with strikingly similar titles: Bourdieu's "The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field" (published in English in 1987), and Derrida's "Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority'" (published in English in 1990.) Although there are differences in their approaches, Derrida and Bourdieu share a twofold concern of crucial significance to the law and literature nexus: they are both interested in the categories and institutions of law and literature, and in the performative structures and power relations through which these categories and institutions logically cohere. This double emphasis meets Kahn's call for "substantive" change, for it produces readings of social and political issues that extend beyond "formal equality" and the critiques of ideology that are, for the most part, currently conducted in the law and literature arena.

Before turning to Derrida and Bourdieu, I want to consider the link that Brook Thomas makes between critiques of ideology and exclusionary matrixes in his important and provocative "The Law and Literature Revival" (1991). The treatment of exclusionary matrixes through which some voices (and questions) gain credibility and force while others are consigned to the margins of social intelligibility or silenced entirely is perhaps the most consistent locus for critiques of ideology in the law and literature nexus.

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