L.A. has a reputation for being a cultural and intellectual wasteland, but at the 8th Annual West Coast Law and Literature Conference, held January 13 by USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture and Department of Comparative Literature, I found a welcome oasis. I came across it by accident; I happened to be in town, I knew one of the professors participating, and parking was provided (probably the deciding factor). Since the papers were accessible online, I already knew that the panelists – Bernadette Meyler of Cornell Law School, Julia Lupton of UC Irvine, and UC Berkeley’s Victoria Kahn – would be presenting work on topics ranging from England’s 1660 Act of Oblivion to joint-stools, Hannah Arendt, and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. I was anxious to find out just how all this (most pressingly, the joint-stools) could be connected under the proclaimed theme of “Early Modern/Post-Modern: Inventing the Political Subject.”
For some, the field of Law and Literature is symptomatic of the American university’s fetishization of interdisciplinarity, geared more towards marketing appeal than genuine intellectual inquiry. Depending on your perspective, it’s a way to make literature more relevant by relating it to the outside world, or a way to pretend to be engaging with the outside world while still remaining comfortably ensconced in academia. Debates over intellectual jurisdiction often ensue.
To my relief, the presenters at the one-day, single-panel conference didn’t waste time making the case for Law & Lit, opting instead to close-read and cross-examine each other’s arguments. All three panelists questioned the emphasis placed on “historicism” – briefly, the idea that texts should be understood in their historical contexts – and what the over-determined and often undermined term even meant. At one point, Kahn wondered whether “thinking with Shakespeare,” the project proposed in Lupton’s book of the same name, could really be called “historicist,” or if it could better be called simply “thinking.”
The relevance of this particular disciplinary intersection – between early modern law and literature and post-modern law and literature – was perhaps most aptly articulated by Kahn, who, in discussing her paper on “Political Theology and Liberal Culture: Strauss, Schmitt, Spinoza and Arendt,” posited that because early modern texts created the conditions for modernity, looking back on these texts can help us diagnose contemporary problems and give rise to alternative modes of thinking about the present. We might not be so flummoxed by current crises of political theology, from Islamic jihadism to Christian fundamentalism, if we paid better attention to how influential writings on the topic have been read and misread in the past.
The event’s format deviated from the norm of scholars reading their papers and fielding audience questions. Each of the three papers, copies of which were available at the conference, was introduced by another panelist’s commentary, to which the author could then respond; additional comments from other legal and literary scholars followed before the forum was opened up for questions. While feedback was delivered mostly as prepared remarks, the proceedings were enlivened by a spirit of collaborative openness. Kahn’s discussion of Lupton’s paper noted the early modern simultaneity of common law – in which the wife was considered her husband’s property – and canon law, under which a suitor must earn a woman’s consent through courtship. Using this legal lens, Kahn proposed, could lead to an alternative conception of Kate’s personhood in The Taming of the Shrew. Lupton said she found this idea useful, but pointed out that canon law didn’t necessarily endow women with any real agency: a “woman’s consent” to marriage often had little to do with the woman herself, but was instead used as a rhetorical strategy by men (like when Capulet waxed moralistic about his daughter’s consent in Romeo and Juliet).
I didn’t quite follow all this, and I’ve probably grossly misrendered whatever problematic was being (re-)problematized. But I did get the impression that the attendees were really, for the most part, engaging with each other. As someone new to the conference circuit and still at sea in my own field, I found the conversational, mutual-presentation format extremely conducive to, well, not zoning out during talks. No matter how eminently readable, the most riveting arguments can be difficult to follow when recited in monotone; by the time a paper is deemed worthy of sharing, I’ve sensed, the author is already weary of it. Having someone else explain, or question, what the papers were about kept things fresh for both the authors and the audience. For those who hadn’t read the material beforehand, the co-panelists’ commentary – which included both summary and critique – helped both focus the articles’ salient aspects and make them accessible to a diverse audience. I study French and English literature, and I attended the conference with my mother, a recent American History PhD and recovering lawyer, and we both came away invigorated by fresh ideas – this despite her wariness of Comp Lit jargon and my usual response of catatonia when confronted with legalese.
I hope to attend more conferences that work like this: interactive and well-organized, interdisciplinary but intellectually focused on the timely and the timeless, putting literature in conversation with politics without putting it on trial. Though I admit, I never quite figured out how the joint-stools fit in.