CFP: “Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth,” March 16-18, 2012

The University of Virginia Department of English Graduate Conference seeks paper proposals from graduate students in all disciplines. Featured speakers will be Lorna Goodison and Jahan Ramazani. Abstracts are due January 21, 2012.

“Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth”

March 16-18, 2012

Borders abide and abound—between disciplines, between languages, between periods, between persons, between genders, between communities, between generations, between the self and the world. They define us in both liberating and limiting ways. This conference will investigate how borders and barriers are made, broken and refashioned, giving special attention to individual and national identities and the mythologies that inform them. Just how impermeable are such borders? Is there an unshakeable human drive to draw them?

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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.


National Security Law Student Note/Essay Competition

From the editors of the William Mitchell Law Review:

The William Mitchell Law Review is conducting a nation-wide student note competition.  Students are invited to submit case notes or essays on any subject related to national security.  The Law Review staff will evaluate all the submissions, and one winning entry will be published in the forthcoming issue.  All entries must be received by December 1, 2011.

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The ‘Spatial Turn’ in Law: June 2011 Issue of Law, Culture, and the Humanities

The latest issue of Law, Culture, and the Humanities contains several articles relating to legal geography, space, and territorialization. Law joins, of course, a variety of other disciplines in taking this “spatial turn.”

Here are the titles and abstracts:

Law’s Spatial Turn: Geography, Justice and a Certain Fear of Space” by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos

Abstract: This is a critical reading of the current literature on law and geography. The article argues that the literature is characterized by an undertheorization of the concept of space. The focus is either on the specific geography of law in the form of jurisdiction, or as a simple terminological innovation. Instead, the article suggests that law’s spatial turn ought to consider space as a singular parameter to the hitherto legal preoccupation with time, history and waiting. This forces law into dealing with a new, peculiarly spatial kind of uncertainty in terms of simultaneity, disorientation, materiality and exclusionary corporeal emplacement. The main area in which this undertheorization forcefully manifests itself is that of spatial justice. Despite its critical potential, the concept has been reduced by the majority of the relevant literature into another version of social, distributive or regional justice. On the contrary, if the peculiar characteristics of space are to be taken into account, a concept of justice will have to be rethought on a much more fundamental level than that.

Cuts, Flows, and the Geographies of Property” by Nicholas Blomley

Abstract: How is property geographical? The making of liberal property, I argue, relies upon a topographical logic, premised on the production of bounded, coherent spaces, through which the individuated subjects and objects of property can be rendered legible. Such a spatialization helps sustain the territorialization of property, in which the government of space becomes a means for the enactment of property. The production of such spaces requires conscious ‘cuts’ in the processual networks through which social spaces are produced. As such, property should be seen as a conditional achievement, ever threatened by unwanted relationality and boundary crossing. I draw from Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River to explore property’s spaces, and their ambivalent ethical and practical work.

The Constituent Power of Architecture” by Lior Barshak

Abstract: The claim that law is grounded in representations of authority hardly requires justification. The article outlines one view of the power of representations of authority to subject society to the law, and attempts to shed light on the social significance of architecture as a medium of such representation. I will argue that representation sets apart the realms of the living and the dead while sustaining a complex relationship between the two realms. It houses the dead in a separate realm where they exercise authority over the living. Monumental architecture founds the authority of law, and the entire realm inhabited by the living, by relegating the dead to a separate sphere where they assume the position of ancestral lawgivers. Architecture can separate the living from the dead and anchor the rule of law by virtue of its claims to perpetuity and aesthetic form.

‘Passing through the Mirror': Dead Man, Legal Pluralism and the De-territorialization of the West” by Ruth M. Buchanan

Abstract: The failures of Western law in its encounter with indigenous legal orders have been well documented, but alternative modes of negotiating the encounter remain under-explored in legal scholarship.The present article addresses this lacuna. It proceeds from the premise that the journey towards a different conceptualization of law might be fruitfully re-routed through the affect-laden realm of embodied experience—the experience of watching the subversive anti-western film Dead Man. Section II explains and develops a Deleuzian approach to law and film which involves thinking about film as ‘‘event.’’ Section III considers Dead Man’s relation to the western genre and its implications for how we think about law’s founding on the frontier. Finally, the article explores the concept of ‘‘becoming’’ through a consideration of the relationship between the onscreen journey of the character Bill Blake and the radical worldview of his poetic namesake.

Law and the Foucauldian Wild West in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gateby Diana Young

Abstract: Classic western films often conceive of the west as existing in a legal void, where the central conflict is a binary one between lawlessness and legalization. The law is a monolith, and the legalization process is linear—a narrative of the west’s inexorable evolution toward a modern state governed by the rule of law. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate presents a more postmodernist, pluralist conception. There is no grand narrative of legalization; the film envisages a discourse of justice emerging from the interaction of a variety of discourses, and which appears to be a unity only from the vantage point of history.


Law and Society Panel on Legacies of Colonialism in Indigenous Communities

My other favorite panel from the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting was Narratives of Il(legality) in Liminal Indigenous Locations, held Friday. The panel included four very moving, thought-provoking presentations on the ways colonialism and legal and cultural oppression impact North American indigenous communities today.

The first three presentations dealt with legacies of Canada’s residential schools policy, which forcibly removed aboriginal children from their homes and raised them (if you can call it that) in conditions of abuse, deprivation, and denigration.

Carole Blackburn spoke on Blackwater v. Plint (2005), which arose from widespread sexual abuse at one church-run residential school. The government and church were held liable, but liability was mitigated because the court found school officials had no actual knowledge of abuse—despite the fact that several children reported the abuse to police and nurses. Blackburn examines the cultural conditions that made abuse of aboriginal children invisible to the defendants and the court. Lack of “actual knowledge,” she argues, is really a willed “ignorance that requires active dissociation” from injustices committed against the children.

Justice Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice spoke on his experiences as a rotating judge in the Gladue Court that handles sentencing of aboriginal criminal offenders, who are overrepresented in prisons by a factor of seven. While the Court carefully considers mitigating factors specific to aboriginals, Justice Green was very forthcoming about the Court’s limitations. Sentencing, after all, is the “tail end” of the process and earlier interventions are needed. Disparities in crime and imprisonment rates are part of “an inheritance of unbridled colonialism”; they result largely from “cultural genocide” propagated by Canada’s residential schools policy.

Jane McMillan’s paper concerned unintended consequences of the Residential Schools Settlement agreement of 2007, which compensates aboriginal Canadians who can prove they went to a residential school. Part of the claims process requires victims of abuse, many of whom are traumatized and have never spoken of their abuse, to detail their experiences in writing and undergo a hearing in order to receive extra compensation. (The seventeen-page form includes an appalling page of checkboxes listing various acts of sexual abuse and how many times they were done.) This culturally and psychologically insensitive process, while cathartic and healing for some, is for others a re-victimization.

Finally, Ann Tweedy traced the racialized notion of “self-defense” in U.S. jurisprudence to illuminate current problems with Indian sovereignty and gun control. Tweedy argues that stereotypes of Indians as “savage ignobles” (which arise, ironically, from Indians’ own efforts at self-defense against white settlers) have led to a long history of curtailing Indian sovereignty. The result has been widespread lawlessness on reservations due to Indians’ inability (and U.S. Attorneys’ refusal) to effectively prosecute crimes, particularly rape of Indian women by non-Indian men. At the same time, the right to bear arms must be understood in the context of white settlers “defending” themselves against what Justice Kennedy, only a few years ago, called “Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that.”


Law and Society Association Conference Update: Panel on the War on Terror

First, I am very grateful to the organizers and faculty of the Law and Society Association’s Graduate Student Workshop, which wrapped up on Wednesday. It was a terrific and inspiring program—I highly recommend it to other graduate students who do what I will affectionately call “law-and-blank” research.

Second, I attended several great panels during Days 1 and 2 of the LSA Annual Meeting (see Twitter at #LSA2011), but will detail just one of my favorites for now. Yesterday’s panel Exploring the Discontinuity in the War on Terror at the Margins and Beyond featured exciting papers by Paul E. Amar, Asli Bali, Darryl Li (a.k.a. @abubanda), and Wadie Said, with commentary by Sudha Setty.

Bali presented “Subordination by Law? Discretion and Discrimination against U.S. Muslims beyond September 11th,” which argued that since 9/11, executive branch powers have expanded alarmingly to create a de facto preventive detention system for Muslim Americans, dodging anti-discrimination laws. Bali described, among other things, two supermax-style prisons that hold terror suspects, 95% of whom are Muslim. (The rest are called “balancers,” meaning they are there to prevent—laughably—suggestions of religious or ethnic profiling.) She also points out that counterterrorism laws have effectively added aggravating factors to many minor crimes solely because the offender is Muslim; credit card fraud, for instance, has a tendency to become a terrorism-related felony if committed by a Muslim.

Li’s paper, delivered by Bali in his absence, examined “Global Civil War and American Power.” Li argues that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) operates largely outside the existing law of armed conflict, constituting a sort of “global civil war” in which US power is projected through weaker states and non-state actors. He eloquently refers to this as a “haunting of sovereignty” that does not fit traditional paradigms of either international or non-international armed conflict. Li’s evocative language and creative analysis can also be seen in his recent article, “Hunting the Out-of-Place Muslim,” which demonstrates how Muslims’ physical mobility is constructed as threatening and aberrational.

Amar’s paper, “The Human Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism,” traced the interplay between stereotypes of Arab “timebomb” masculinity and UN-style feminism up through the recent Egyptian revolution. Said’s paper, “The Message and Means of the Modern Terrorism Prosecution,” discussed the U.S. Supreme Court’s exceptional treatment of terrorism to contextualize Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2009), which codified a broad interpretation of the 2007 material support ban.


Daring Rescues, Dead Babies, and ‘Another Vietnam’

As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Bao Le, who died aboard the Kirk

The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.

It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.

NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.

We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.