A Power to Do Justice: Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law

By Majeske, Andrew | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Power to Do Justice: Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law


Majeske, Andrew, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


A Power to Do Justice: Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law, by Bradin Cormack. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp xiii + 406. Hardcover $55.

Bradin Cormack' s A Power to Do Justice is an important study of an all too neglected area of jurisprudence, jurisdiction, in the context of its relation to culture - in this case Renaissance English literature. Cormack' s book constitutes a substantial reworking of his dissertation of substantially the same name, with the subsequent addition of new material in chapters 2 and 6. Extant reviews of this book have labeled it as "brilliant" (Carla Spevack) and "big and bold" (Carolyn Sale). Fran Dolan, who wrote a more extended and penetrating review essay addressing this and another book, fashions it "boldly conceived."

What these reviews fail to emphasize, however, is the extremely ambitious and admittedly controversial nature of Cormack' s work. Cormack denies categorically the very "idea of a discursive position beyond the law" (2); he asserts that a life "beyond law" is merely a "phantasm" (2). In essence he is claiming that when studying the era, at least from the perspective of the productive study of law and literature - and probably more broadly than this - there is no use in looking beyond "free national or civic identity," because "subjection to one or another jurisdiction was in fact the source of historical rights and privileges" (2). Expanding upon the admittedly provocative position that aesthetics is essentially a "political mode," Cormack further radicalizes this stance by subordinating the political to the legal via the mechanism of jurisdiction (5). Thus, Cormack establishes that all literature is political, and, by his expansion on Rancière, subsumed within the legal sphere.

Cormack distinguishes his work by elevating process over substance and procedure over doctrine. This realignment allows him to engage the "shifting jurisdictional realities" and the "complex but nonopositional relation" of literature and law in early modern England, and to avoid what he considers to be the "tenacious binaries" of much law and literature scholarship (2). Cormack' s language frequently defies paraphrase, so I will use his own words to describe his overall purpose as well as his chapter arguments. Cormack asserts that a "governing thought in this book is that jurisdiction and literature both evade easy analysis because they open the culture in which they function onto more complex orders than those through which they seem to do their work" (12). Cormack "ventures to show how deeply engaged early modern literature was with the technical production of legal order, and to define the ways in which jurisdictional topics provoked a metacritical perspective on the management of legal meaning and literary meaning both" (12). More elusi vely, Cormack remarks that the "various and provisional literary subjectivities indexed in this book, obliquely rather than directly reactive to the state, are not so much subversive of their juridical-political counterparts as continuous with it: at once by-products, vivid supports, and dialectical partners of the political in formation" (42). Cormack, perhaps realizing how difficult at times his book can seem, rhetorically poses the question why someone would "write a book on the legal and literary negotiations of jurisdiction," a question to which he "punningly" replies:

In cultural history and political theory alike, jurisdiction has been overlooked as merely a technical matter. …

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