Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Tuning to a Key of Gladness

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Tuning to a Key of Gladness

Article excerpt

The author reflects on the significance of violence (the theme of the 1997 Law and Society Association's annual meeting) for sociolegal scholars, considering the changing landscapes of law and difference, especially in the contemporary United States, as well as issues of vocation and agency.

My theme is what Hannah Arendt called "gladness," her word for the pleasure of dialogue in a world of differences.l The dialogue I want to talk about is this annual meeting, this association. And I want to explore it in a particular way: not as a report or a prediction, an ethnography or a history-but as a speculation on its inner life. This said, it is never entirely clear what sorts of pronouns and verbs should furnish the space between celebration and aspiration, so I will use an optimistic present tense and an inclusive but indeterminate first person plural for whoever "we" are becoming.

What is it that brings us together under the theme of violence? A luncheon is not the time or place to talk about violence. This is our annual reunion, and my question is about our gathering: this time, we gather "in the name of each person's pain" (to borrow Martha Nussbaum's (1995:27) phrase). Twelve years ago, Marc Galanter (1985:552) invited this audience to contemplate what might follow from the "information explosion" about law, anticipating its impact on the law itself. Looking ahead, he said: "We can imagine that the second kind of legal learning [his phrase for law and society scholarship] might flourish in conjunction with a more responsive and more inquiring legal process." When he said this, it was not a prediction exactly, but a description of the imaginable. And here we are now, imagining violence.2

Can the theme of violence be anything other than irony for an association of scholars who daily labor under the banner of law and society? I will argue that it is something other than irony.

The gist of my argument is this: The contemporary facts and public meanings of violence have so refashioned the stakes of social knowledge that human science itself is no longer conceivable without affording violence a central place in our thinking.3 I refer to "human science" in the broadest possible sense here, not as a label for particular disciplines or methodologies but for the open horizon of scholarly interest in the worlds people make for themselves and each other; I mean it to include whatever it is that all of us here do.

For all of us, I will argue, violence is more than a topic, and more than an irony. It is a relation, a reason to communicatebetween researchers and the people they write about; between researchers and their audiences in the classroom, conference room, and in print; amongst themselves-ourselves-as colleagues. We have absorbed this relation-this need to communicate, rooted in our private certainty of vulnerability-from the world we inhabit and study; it is an ethical relation, and it involves real stakes. For example, "culture" and "ethnicity" are names for the benign academic attentiveness to people's celebrations and affirmations but also banners for genocide. "Community" names a collective aspiration for communication but also its exclusive refusal. And, closer to our theme, perhaps, "neighborhood" names the terrain of familiarity and exchange, but it also conjures fatal danger.

The public discourse of violence (which includes physical violence) is as if a human science turned inside out and against itself: the skinside outside, as it were. Are we here taking its measure and trying to make it right by making it a topic? Violence does enter our collective conversation as a topic, but it enters also, more fundamentally, as a commitment to "taking each person's pain seriously"-and as a commitment to taking our profession seriously, and ourselves in it.

I begin, then, with some observations on our common craft. Let us start with the notion of exactitude, since whatever work we do and however we do it, exactitude names a central value in our community of argument. …

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