On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.


Law, Culture & the Humanities Graduate Student Workshop

From the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities:

The Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities (ASLCH) welcomes applications for its first ever Graduate Student Workshop, to be held March 15, 2012. The half day Workshop immediately precedes the ASLCH Annual Meetings, to be hosted by Texas Wesleyan University School of Law March 16-17, 2012. Applicants can be graduate students from any discipline or law students with scholarly interests in Law, Culture, and the Humanities.

The Workshop’s aims are to promote the future development of the field of Law, Culture and the Humanities through the development of our junior colleagues by bringing together graduate students and established scholars in Law, Culture, and the Humanities. During seminars, panel discussions, informal conversation, and shared meals, we will discuss scholarly work, give feedback on student research projects, address issues pertinent to professional development, and facilitate scholarly networks between graduate and faculty colleagues by encouraging intellectual community.

The Graduate Student Committee of ASLCH for 2011-2012, who will be planning the Workshop, includes Paul A. Passavant, Chair (Department of Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges), Austin Sarat (Departments of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought and Political Science, Amherst College), Stewart Motha (Kent Law School, University of Kent), Marianne Constable (Department of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley), and Ravit Reichman (Department of English, Brown University).

ASLCH will subsidize the participation of up to 15 successful graduate student applications. The deadline for applications is Friday December 2, 2011. Applications should be sent electronically to Professor Paul A. Passavant, Department of Political Science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Passavant [at] hws.edu).

Applications should include a Curriculum Vitae (CV), the title and abstract of the student’s proposed paper for the ASLCH Annual Meetings March 16-17, 2012, and a letter not longer than two pages describing the student’s status in graduate school, the student’s dissertation or significant interest in Law, Culture, and the Humanities, and what the student hopes to gain from attending the Workshop.


Law, Language & Culture Reading Lists from Osnabrück Summer School

Many thanks to Director Peter Schneck and the faculty of the Summer School for giving permission to share these valuable reading lists.

The reading list for Workshop 1, entitled “The Complex Relation between Culture and Law: Methods, Concepts, Approaches,” was posted earlier.

Detailed workshop descriptions can be found here (scroll down for links).

Workshop 2: From Human Rights to Civil Rights to Cultural Rights

Convened by: Helle Porsdam & Cindy Holder

  • Anaya, S. James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Read p. 129-48.
  • Jones, Peter. “Human Rights, Group Rights and Peoples’ Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 21.1 (1999): 80-107.
  • Porsdam, Helle. “Divergent Transatlantic Views on Human Rights: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.” From Civil to Human Rights: Dialogues on Law and Humanities in the United States and Europe. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009. Read p. 92-113.
  • —. “Divergent Transatlantic Views on Human Rights: The Role of International Law.” From Civil to Human Rights: Dialogues on Law and Humanities in the United States and Europe. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009. Read p. 114-35.
  • —. “Transatlantic dialogues on copyright: cultural rights and access to knowledge From Civil to Human Rights: Dialogues on Law and Humanities in the United States and Europe. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009. Read p. 136-64.
  • Raz, Joseph. “Rights and Individual Well-being.” Ratio Juris 5.2 (1992): 127-42.
  • Reidel, Laura. “What are Cultural Rights: Protecting Groups with Individual Rights.” Journal of Human Rights 9 (2010): 65-80.
  • Supreme Court of Canada , R v Van der Peet [1996] 2 S.C.R. 507

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Storytelling and Human Rights: Osnabrück Summer School Keynote Available Online

Kay Schaffer’s keynote lecture, “Revisiting Human Rights and Narrated Lives: Aims, Methods, Contexts,” is now available online.


Osnabrück Summer School on Law, Language & Culture: Methodology Reading List & Keynote Talk

Greetings from Osnabrück, Germany, where I am attending the International Summer School on the Cultural Study of the Law, this year themed “Correlations: Law, Language and Culture.” The program is an annual, two-week series of workshops for graduate students and new scholars, taught by faculty from various disciplines. I am grateful to Professors Peter Schneck and Sabine Meyer (and their staff) for organizing the Summer School, as well as to DAAD, Osnabrück University, and the other organizations that fund the program.

The opening workshop took place over two days and concerned methodological problems in interdisciplinary study of law, language, and culture. Workshop convenors Kay Schaffer and Martin Zeilinger compiled this reading list for participants (shared with permission):

  • Brown, Wendy. “‘The Most We Can Hope For’: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 103.2/3 (2004): 451-63.
  • —. “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory and Event 7.1(2003): n. pag.
  • Coombe, Rosemary J. “Contingent Articulations.” Law in the Domains of Culture.” Ed. Austin Sarat, Thomas R. Kearns. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. 21-64.
  • Holder, Cindy. “Culture as an Activity and Human Right: An Important Advance for Indigenous Peoples and International Law.” Alternatives 33 (2008): 7-28.
  • Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Read Chapter 3: Individual Rights and Collective Rights; p. 34-48 and Chapter 5: Freedom and Culture; 84-101.
  • Mezey, Naomi. “Law as Culture.” Cultural Analysis, Cultural Studies, and the Law: Moving beyond Legal Realism. Ed. Austin Sarat, Jonathan Simon. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 37-72.
  • Olson, Greta. “De-Americanizing Law and Literature Narratives: Opening Up the Story.” Law and Literature 22.1 (2010): 338-64.
  • Porsdam, Helle. From Civil to Human Rights: Dialogues on Law and Humanities in the United States and Europe. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2009. Read Chapter 8: Transatlantic dialogues on ‘law and literature’: from ‘law and literature’ to ‘law and humanities’; p. 165-81.
  • Schaffer, Kay, and Sidonie Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004. Read p. 35-53; 123-52.
  • Thomas, Brook. “Reflections on the Law and Literature Revival.” Critical Inquiry 17.3 (1991): 510-39.

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