Sovereignty and the Cinematic Image: Gary Snyder, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the Witnessing of Jurisdiction

Article excerpt

Categorizing the purpose and methodology of the interdisciplinary sub-field of "law and literature" with any consistency is a thorny venture. From Jane Baron's early work on the topic, naming humanism, hermeneutics, and narrative, as the three strands around which law and literature studies were performed, to Julie Stone Peters' more recent article revisiting these three "projects" of the law and literature "movement," scholars continue to explore the way disciplinary edifices both respond to each other and resist interactive morphoses. Yet, despite the limits of the cultural studies methodology we have often employed to understand the field of law and literature--a method largely responsible for the prevailing mode of descriptive observation signaled by the way we now begin and litter many of our papers with "the way in which"--studying law and literature alongside one another enables us a glimpse at how discrete textual and discursive forms meet to contribute to our tacit embrace of seemingly fixed and unyielding concepts. Thus, examining legal doctrines alongside literary texts in a sociohistoric context provides us the opportunity to grasp a more coherent, albeit not necessarily uncomplicated look at the ways cultural notions are generated and disseminated within and across localities and nations.

This article will look particularly at three forms of text--literary, legal, and cinematic--to study the way the cultural idea of "sovereignty" has evolved through a mingling of disciplinary narrative images. Examining one particular decade, the 1960s, and one particular anchor, the United States, this essay will examine environmental writer Gary Snyder's 1960s literary work Earth House Hold, the legal text of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the cinema of the 1960s pertaining to the Vietnam War, to ponder how conceptions of sovereignty have been developed in the cultural imaginary. As this essay will discuss, when read together these discrete disciplinary forms provide an interpretive collage which illuminates how sovereignty became aestheticized as an interconnected process of constant activity--a dynamic subject to continual transformation rather than static being. This dynamic, continually transforming subject influenced not only the 1960s and the United States, but conceptions of sovereign systems, people, and nations across the globe for decades following.

The 1960s--a decade when national identification was so intimately linked with geographical deployment in and beyond the United States--offer us a snapshot of the ontology and operations of jurisdiction and sovereignty. The numerous permutations and rewritings of legality, counter-culture, and geographic identifications makes this decade ripe for exploring the ways texts unearth the complexities of personal and national sovereignty. Given the preoccupation with determining America's geographic and ideological location--where it was and should be in the late 1960s, as well as how and where to find the idea of America and "its enemies"--it is less than accidental that texts that invoked geography became fundamental parts of counter-cultural production. They participated in an ongoing consideration of individual and state relationships to geographic and ideological American space. Both legal discourse, and literary narratives worked in the late 1960s to reformat American legal subjects' relationships to their land, sense of nation, and racial affiliations domestically and globally. Particularly, Gary Snyder's Earth House Hold and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 use geography to reveal the complexities of personal and national sovereignty, which still haunt us today. There is perhaps no greater American impulse than that of the negotiation of the contradictory channels of sovereignty. From the construction of the classic liberal subject free to exercise his own volition over himself, to the American denial of "personhood" to slaves until the mid 1800s, to the exercising of First Amendment Rights to speak oneself, to the restrictions on speech designed to limit words designed to incite violence, the United States has been grappling with how to balance acknowledging the ideal "sovereign" individual body with the ideal national "sovereign" since its inception. …