“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958)
I want to start off my time here at the lounge by sharing some thoughts on the relationship between theoretical reflection, jurisprudence, and legal history. I want to do that because I just got back from a conference where this relationship was the topic of much discussion(Legal Theory and Legal History: A Neglected Dialogue? Queen Mary, University of London, April 12-13, 2013), and one particular entry into these discussions and others like them struck me as warranting further exploration.
And that is the work of Christopher Tomlins, with whom I had the pleasure of an all too brief (at least for me) conversation about his reading of Walter Benjamin, and in particular, his effort to imagine and practice a materialist (and because materialist a post-critical) study of the law. Tomlins, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Irvine, has for some time been urging scholars across a variety of related fields to move beyond the model of scholarly practice associated with Critical Legal Studies, its equivalent in what Tomlins calls Critical Legal History, and the broader, basic idea that the job of the historian is to historicize- to situate chosen objects of study within an ever-multiplying series of contexts that are declared by the historian or other self-proclaimed critical scholar to be specific, plural, and complex, and only responsibly understood as such. The effect of this kind of practice is to neutralize the political potentiality of the material at hand, and it has been part of Tomlins’ project to suggest that this has to do with the ideological situation of the historical profession- it is in the interest of a historian to show up and say “no, no, its more complicated than that,” to display their specialized erudition, and to pave the way for a practice explicitly limited to the further extension of the complicating, contextualizing work that only we critical historicists are equipped to carry out. For Tomlins, I take it, this enlists the historian in the perpetuation of Benjamin’s “empty and homogenous time,” the result of which is a historical profession that constructs a celebratory, progressive, and ironically uncritical narrative of itself as doing the necessary work of recovering other contexts, other voices, other agencies, and other identities, and we can be assured, so the thinking goes, that this is self-evidently politically efficacious in and of itself.
Against critique and contextualization, Tomlins presents Benjamin’s concept of constellation: “There could be no apter evocation of the disquiet that marks the beginning of any critique of history worthy to be called dialectical, which must renounce a calm, contemplative attitude towards its subject to become aware of the critical constellation in which precisely this fragment of the past is found with precisely this present.”(1) The goal here is to build a relationship to the past that is aware of just why this particular thing is before us to consider at this particular moment- in short, what its doing here, and how should we understand the fact that it is here- as Benjamin elsewhere writes, of how this fragment of the past flashes up in the moment of danger in which we find ourselves. Cultural history, Benjamin writes, “may increase the burden of the treasures that are piled up on humanity’s back. But it does not give mankind the strength to shake them off, so as to get its hands on them.” (2) The historical practice of actualizing constellations is explosive- it remembers and recovers something, a fragment of the past that punches through the bounded character of the present. Tomlins is currently moving beyond the expansiveness of his incredible recent book, Freedom Bound, and focusing on Nat Turner and the 1831 slave revolt that he led in Virginia. In our own moment of the confrontation of liberalism’s self-understanding with theological and political violence, Turner explodes the image of the American past as the perpetually expanding demand for and use of the language of liberty, even as that image includes the history of active resistance to slavery. Like John Brown, there is something unclassifiable about Turner- you cannot understand him simply by describing the context or contexts in which he acted, social, linguistic, or otherwise, if you can hope to understand him at all, and in this age of creating and recovering multiplying alternative agencies and identities there is something profoundly discomforting about that. To speak of redemption in this case is to blow open what we would mean by redemptive constitutionalism.
I hope I have done justice to the arguments Chris Tomlins has been making. Where he and I touched bases was on the mutually felt need for historians in particular to attend to the conditions of their own intellectual practice, and to do so, in part, by attending to the history of intellectual practice. Quite simply, we need to “think what we are doing,” to use the words of another reader of Benjamin’s (I don’t know how much use Tomlins would have for Arendt, but the fragment I’ve provided here seems apt).
Tomlins’ both historical and more explicitly methodological work has been provocative for me, and I want to just note some of my reactions to it as a way of opening up space for future thinking. I cut my teeth, or am still cutting my teeth I suppose on a civically and historically conscious approach to legal and political thinking in time that we can see mot significantly (for me) in the work of J.G.A. Pocock. For Tomlins, I take it, “Cambridge” historiography has become conventional and is reaching a point of diminishing returns- a kind of conservative philosophical version of the critical historicism practiced by CLS and CLH. There is a minor point to be made that I don’t think there is a unitary school beyond what we generally call Cambridge school history of political thought, but the larger point I want to make is that it is difficult to actually rethink one’s practice without confronting conditions of historicity and plurality, although that does not stop us from trying. I take Pocock’s Gibbon project, soon to be consummated in a sixth volume of Barbarism and Religion, to be evidence enough that there is quite a bit to be done with the history of thinking and writing in contexts. An even more important point is this- a study of the past that is aware of the conditions of its practice will be one drawn into confronting histories of thinking and acting differently as a crucial part of any effort to do the same in the present. Benjamin’s constellations are still critical, and it might be said that this time of multiplying and reverberating fundamentalisms can ill afford to an age after critique, howsoever we might reimagine the method and locations of critical activity.
What I take to be at issue here is the contested nature of the common Nietzschean inheritance to the metatheoretical and metahistorical project of Tomlins and the genealogical, historical, and sometimes archaeological project (think of Foucault) that Tomlins is trying to get out of or away from. But that is a discussion for another time. Chris Tomlins’ evocation of Benjamin’s unique materialism is the place from which thinking about law and legal history has to begin today- and that is because by materialism Benjamin meant not just Historical Materialism but the actual stuff we use to make a world. Benjamin’s writings invite a history of thought, and in particular, a history of legal thought that is attentive to the material and revolutionary dimension of practice. This would be a history of fragments, of texts and their readings and rewritings, of materials and their collection and recollection. It would be a history of law, but it would also be a history of the uses to which the material of that history is put. When everyone is an originalist of one kind or another, perhaps it is this emphasis on materiality itself, the idea of getting one’s hands on the law, that flashes up as a memory fragment for our own moment of danger.
In a few future posts, I’ll be discussing my own work on Jefferson and the history legal and political thought, and how that fits into this, among other things that pop up.
1. Benjamin, “Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” One-Way Street and Other Writings, Jephcott and Shorter, trans. (Verso, 1979), p. 351.
2. Ibid, p. 361.