Law, Culture & the Humanities 2012: Panel on “Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject” 1


The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna.

This past weekend in Fort Worth, TX, I was pleased to be part of the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. This year’s theme was “Representing Justice.” Tweets can be found at #ASLCH.

Audrey Golden, Nicolette Bruner, and I formed a law and literature panel called Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject, graciously chaired by Marc Roark of The Literary Table. Here are the paper abstracts:

Translating the ‘Self’ from Central and Eastern Europe: Putting Theory to Practice thought the Works of Aleksandar Hemon and W.G. Sebald by Audrey Golden

The second half of the twentieth century has borne witness to forced migration and statelessness in numbers previously unimaginable within modernity. Through the works of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American émigré writer, and W.G. Sebald, a second-generation German novelist, this paper looks to the narratives of displaced persons and questions the role literary theory might play in imagining the processes of transnational movement and of internal “self-translation” that emigrants must undertake. This paper conceives a broader and more abstract model of “translation” that looks beyond natural language to include a cultural self-translation, and then asks if such a process is fraught with previously unimagined identity problems, or whether, although stemming from acts of violence, translating oneself might have ameliorative qualities for an individual caught between places, or in “nowhere” spaces.

Corporate Citizenship as U.S. Empire in Richard Harding Davis’s Soldiers of Fortune by Nicolette Bruner

Published in 1897, Richard Harding Davis’s novel, Soldiers of Fortune, describes the travails of a mining company that operates in the fictional Latin American country of Olancho, a thinly-veiled version of Cuba. The hero, filibustering engineer Robert Clay, facilitates the success of the corporation through military and financial interventions in Olancho. Meanwhile, Clay romances and marries Hope, the young daughter of the sole owner of the company’s stock. In this paper, I examine how Davis complicates the boundaries between corporate employer and human employee even as he glorifies the deeply unequal relation between U.S. corporations and the countries they exploited for profit. Corporate imperialism, as represented by the incursion of the U.S. citizen stockholder and his employees upon Latin American territory, becomes more than a matter of domination, but also an illustration of the complex interdependencies between business, storytelling, and violence in the fin de siècle.

Another Vietnam: War, The Archive, and the USS Kirk by Mai-Linh K. Hong

In late 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a special series about the USS Kirk, a U.S. naval ship that was sent during the fall of Saigon to rescue the “remnants” of the South Vietnamese navy. The rescue was accomplished partly by transferring the Vietnamese ships’ sovereignty to the U.S. through a change of flags, a peaceful, quasi-legal transformation that dislodges the conventional Vietnam War narrative of violence and moral failure. Placing this “never before told” redemption story in the context of today’s U.S. war in Afghanistan, my project examines NPR’s historical revisionism and its production of a new visual iconography for the war that has haunted all later U.S. wars. I argue that, with “the archive” a site of suspense in the Wikileaks era, the rewriting of Vietnam must be understood as a response to contemporary anxieties about American imperialism, militarism, and national identity.

Magic and Muggle Toys as Metaphors of Translation: How Harry Potter makes a case for Literature inclusion in the legal curriculum Reply


Last week, Warren wrote about the blessings of reading as a dialectic navigating imaginations within the law school curriculum; and I wrote two pieces describing how at least one short story could be used to better explain property — See Devil and Tom Walker I and Devil and Tom Walker II.  Today I want to draw on metaphors from Harry Potter to further this case that the law curriculum needs literature infused within it.

Throughout the Harry Potter series there is divide between muggles, muggle things, and the magical world.  For example, the ministry of magic has an office for the misuse of muggle artifacts in which muggle things are confiscated when they have been bewitched.  Similarly, muggles (or non magical folk) are not permitted to use magical things, at the cost of having their memories wiped in the event they do stumble onto magical things.  And yet, despite these stark separations, we see instances in which muggle things are used in the magical world.  Radios are used to communicate with members of the order in the final book to advance a magical agenda.  The passage way to one’s magical education begins at a muggle train depot (King’s Cross), though again with a separate platform secured behind the veil of a wall.  And Magical folk wear muggle clothes, in different degrees of success to blend into the larger  muggle culture.  See for example, Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the last film, compared with Bob Ogden, the ministry official from the chapter House of Gaunt in the Half Blood Prince.

Whatever these various commingling are in the series, they stand as tools of translation between two different groups that respect divisions, even though individual members might prefer toleration.  What exactly is to be translated?  John Granger suggests that the magical world helps translate for the reader (ironically a muggle world) the basic and transcendent characteristics of love, mercy, forgiveness, fear, etc…).  JK Rowling made this point in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution when she said Witchcraft is just a metaphor for this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach. As said by one Harry Potter Commentator,

This is a summary of a central premise in Granger’s work, that the “symbols, themes, and meaning touch the human heart with eternal verities and realities for which contact the human heart is designed and hungers” (234). I think you can understand the idea pretty easily. Harry Potter gets to some kind of Truth (Love, forgiveness, fear, etc) that we are all designed to long for.

Two worlds normally separated are joined by their ability to translate through the various interactions that do not necessarily involve their individual members.

So what can we learn from this lesson of metaphor translation in the law school curriculum. Those of us in the law and literature movement have long thought about the process of learning law as a process of translation.  There is, though, a tendency to treat the leaning of legal skills as distinctive from the learning of perspective skills.  Most agree both are important — but not important enough to merge together.

One of the prevailing themes underlying law students’ entry to law school today is the unpreparedness to understand the art of translation.  The ability to identify metaphors in a text, understand their relevance to context and meaning, and then cull out the underlying authorial meaning is directly relevant to what we ask students to learn how to do beginning in their first substantive courses.  One way of helping students understand that the process is one that relates to their prior work is to include works of fiction in the substantive courses as a means of bridging their legal education with their undergraduate training. Thus, the process of working through a legal text draws upon familiar modes of interpretation that students have been exposed to prior to entering law school.

Likewise, many works draw implicitly on legal themes as underlying conflict in their stories.  Courses like Property draw on theories of possession and entitlement that did not first originate in law, but in philosophical texts — texts which were as influential in literature as they were in law.  History and context afford background materials for texts like William Gaddis’ A Frolic of his Own, which implicitly raise critiques of the torts system.  As Warren has written in the past, Roger Malvin’s Burial forces students to confront norms in a context outside of law — norms of fairness, just deserts, and equality.   In other words, fiction translates the law not only through process but through substance as well.

These materials may serve as means of translating dense subjects to students who are not yet prepared to translate law accurately.  Perhaps, muggle radios sending messages of magical occurrences could be just as helpful to transmit messages of legal translation.

Wrap up from ASLCH in Fort Worth 1


A few notes from this year’s conference.

  • The Association of for the Study of Law, Culture and Humanities Conference ended yesterday with a fury.   Table contributors Mai-Linh Hong from Legal Lacuna, and Marc Roark each presented papers and participated together on a panel titled Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject.  Mai Linh presented a paper titled Another Vietnam: War, the Archive and the USS Kirk.  Marc presented Re-Entering the Loneliness: Robert Penn Warren and the Exile.   Perhaps they will post a brief write up on their respective papers.
  • The folks at Texas Wesleyan were all incredibly hospitable.  I understand one faculty member bought lunch for several guests on Saturday.  Southern hospitality never gets old.
  • The keynote address was incredible.  Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis discussed their new book Re-Presenting Justice: Visual Narratives of Judgment and the Invention of Democratic Courts.  In the words of Austin Sarat, one of the respondents to the talk, the work represents “an audacious representation” and the “best for what we are attempting to do.”  I wanted to shell out $75.00 immediately.  The book looks incredible.  A Summary of the keynote was tweeted by Mai Linh.
  • If you were not following our TWEETS from the conference, you can access them here and here.  They are a little uneven, due to the depth of different talks.   Nevertheless, several were enjoyable.  I particularly enjoyed David Fisher’s Medea’s Laws: Reading Euripides’ Medea as Law and Literature.
  • This year’s conference was well done. Kudos to Linda Meyer and her organizing committee.  Next year’s conference is in London.

The Devil and Tom Walker: A Property Tale — Part II: Property as mediator of human conduct 1


In my first post, I described how the landscapes shape the relationships in the Devil in Tom Walker.   Today, I am going to look at elements of the story that focus on the relationships of people to property.   To do so, lets pick up the tale where we left off.  In fact

As Tom returns from his encounter with the Devil, he reluctantly tells his wife of his encounter.  As we described in the first post, the relationship between Tom and his wife is centered around their individual quest to hoard property; there is no community action between the two.  What might seem to be an attempt to partner with her husband is really a selfish push to allow Tom Walker to absorb the risk of dealing with the devil for the mutual benefit of the gold.  But Tom remained determined to not “be damned to please her.”  The wife not to be deterred, attempts to negotiate with the Devil herself.   After her first attempt is unsuccessful, she returns offering all of their valuable chattels to the Devil — their silver teapot, silver spoons, and other belongings.  Later Tom, when he goes to look for her, discovers her apron with a heart and a liver tied in it.

As before, when the wife and Tom bickered over stashed items, Tom’s pursuit of his wife is more about retrieving the things she took than it is about retrieving her from Old Scratch.  Its even unclear whether Tom sought after her; though the author seems to believe he did.   Whatever the case, the story is clear that Tom was not remorseful for his wife’s loss.  “Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife; for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodsman, who he considered had done him a kindness.”  Notice how property in this last instance mediated the relationship (the broken relationship) between Tom and his wife.    Tom’s dissatisfaction of losing property is ameliorated by the loss of his wife — as if the spouse were another piece of property to be bargained away.

Ironically, though Tom does not have trouble accepting the loss of his wife as a good bargain for property (thereby reducing her to property to be bargained), he finds the Devil’s suggestion that he engage in the slave trade to be distasteful.  Tom’s distaste is difficult to explain.  His willingness to part with his spouse for a few chattels suggests he has no problem equating humans with economic value — as long as those humans are as wretched as his wife.  Likely, Tom’s reluctance to engage in the slave trade is a commentary by Irving on the moral choices made by slave opposed states.   The story is set in Massachusetts and was written in 1824.   This  should not be taken that Irving was particularly opposed to slavery.  As Kenneth Reed has pointed out, Irving was rather agnostic towards the plight of African Americans, and often used them in stories as a means of pointing to fallacies in his white characters — like Tom Walker.   In this instance, let me proffer a theory.  Massachusetts, and Boston were the sources of many anti-slavery advocates, like William Ellery Channing, William Lloyd Garrison and David Walker, who published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829.  Though both Garrison and Walker come several years after the publication of the Devil and Tom Walker, there was brewing before that a sentiment that Boston was an anti-slavery society.

Much of the Bostonian view was symbolized in the preacher William Ellery Channing.   It is no accident that Irving has Tom Walker establish a usury business using pirate gold in Boston, and thereby become a respected member of the community, while refusing to take part on the tasteless activity of the slave trade.  Irving is pointing out the North’s hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to deeds that take advantage of others through ill-gotten or less-than-honorable means, while condemning the slave trade of the South.  In fact, we see as much glee in Tom Walker’s acceptance for opening a broker shop as a usury lender as he showed distaste for the slave trade.

“You shall open a broker’s shop in Boston next month,” said the black man.

“I’ll do it to-morrow, if you wish,” said Tom Walker.

“You shall lend money at two per cent. a month.”

“Egad, I’ll charge four!” replied Tom Walker.

“You shall extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy-“

“I’ll drive him to the d–l,” cried Tom Walker, eagerly.

“You are the usurer for my money!” said the black legs, with delight. “When will you want the rhino?”

“This very night.”

Tom Walker then finds a successful career as a money lender.   His success is built on the failure of others, collecting large sums against defaulting lenders.  More than a few commentators have found allusions to the world of Tom Walker and our current lending climate (or at least the climate a few years ago). For Tom, though, the gold shapes his interactions with his clients.  It affords him the opportunity to be lenient, which he refuses.  Likewise, it shapes his revival as he realizes his soul will be called shortly, much like the loans for which he is calling.

At this propitious time of public distress did Tom Walker set up as a usurer in Boston. His door was soon thronged by customers. The needy and the adventurous; the gambling speculator; the dreaming land jobber; the thriftless tradesman; the merchant with cracked credit; in short, every one driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices, hurried to Tom Walker.

Thus Tom was the universal friend of the needy, and he acted like a “friend in need;” that is to say, he always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. He accumulated bonds and mortgages; gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer; and sent them at length, dry as a sponge from his door.

As with the miserly house from the first part, Tom’s property begins to reflect the condition of his soul. Tom “set up a carriage in the fullness of his vain glory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it; and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screeched on the axle trees, you would have thought you heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.”
And Tom knowing the state of his soul does not seek mercy but seeks to best the Devil — yet another contrast to those in the social order that Tom is distancing himself from.   He attempts to out pious the pious and in fact leads them to believe he is more pious than they.  At the end of the day, its Tom’s failure to show mercy that warrants him no mercy from his own usury lender of the soul.
What is important from a Property perspective is the role that property plays in shaping the social relations around Tom Walker.  Property becomes the mediator between his wife and the devil; it becomes the mediator between illicit activities and Tom; and it becomes the mediator (or the stage) upon which Tom’s religion is played out.   In short, The Devil and Tom Walker illustrates the role of Property in shaping human interactions.
Here are some discussion questions like the last post.  What other questions would you raise?


Some Questions for Students Following Tom Walker:

Drawing on Justice Marshall’s opinion in The Antelope, how is Tom Walker’s moral position on slavery similar to Justice Marshall?  How is it different?

We talk about Property being primarily about “relationships amongst people to things;” is Property the primary tie between the characters?  Is there something else?

The Devil is primarily a bailor with respect to the pirate gold.  If Captain Kidd indeed never returned, should the Gold be treated as abandoned property?  Should it be treated as treasure trove?  Why?

Should we understand this story as a critique of the financial lending market?   Why or why not.

For more information See Kenneth Reed, Washington Irving and the Negro, Negro American Literature Forum (1970).

Live Tweeting from ASLCH Tomorrow #ASLCH Reply


 

Tomorrow and Saturday, myself (@warrenemerson) and Mai-Linh of Legal Lacuna (@legallacuna) will be live tweeting from the Association for the Study of Law Culture and Humanities.  Hashtag #ASLCH.  Follow us or come find us.  My offer still stands for a free drink to the winner.  

 

The Devil and Tom Walker — A Property Tale 4


I want to thank Warren, Patrick, Allen and Mai-Linh  for having me here at the Table.

Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker has been exemplified as a an example of Irving’s use of folklore in constructing narratives of context.  Most writers and commentators focus on the karma-istic nature of the story, the faustian detail (devil story), or the role of greed.   But the Devil and Tom Walker is a property story.  Yes — its about, at its core, the capacity of property to shape relationships amongst people.  A few areas of intersection emerge in a property world.    We see the conflict between entitlements that are respected and those that are not. In fact, as the last assignment for the semester, I am having my students read the Devil and Tom Walker.  These are some of the things I want them to see.  Today I want to point out how landscapes and their surroundings in The Devil and Tom Walker are intertwined in the property world.

The beginning of the story tells us that there are two property conflicts that will shape the story.  We learn that the Pirate Kidd has stashed gold in the hills amongst the trees in an inland swampy area under the watchful “guardianship” of the devil, “as [the devil] always does with buried treasure, particularly when it has been ill-gotten.”  We also learn that Tom Walker and his wife lived in a state of conflict over the things that might be termed their “earthly treasures.”  The wife hid things as they were acquired (like the eggs laid by the hen) and Tom pried about to discover her secret hoards, causing fierce conflicts over what Irving tells us should have been “common property.”  These conflicts left their marks on Tom’s face from time to time, though no one ventured to interfere with their business.

We also get an early glimpse of the poverty in which they lived — poverty which was common amongst their peers.

They lived in a forlorn looking house, that stood alone and had an air of starvation. A few straggling savin trees, emblems of sterility, grew near it; no smoke ever curled from its chimney; no traveller stopped at its door. A miserable horse, whose ribs were as articulate as the bars of a gridiron, stalked about a field where a thin carpet of moss, scarcely covering the ragged beds of pudding stone, tantalized and balked his hunger; and sometimes he would lean his head over the fence, look piteously at the passer by, and seem to petition deliverance from this land of famine. The house and its inmates had altogether a bad name.

Their Property, it seems, began to mimic the desolate nature of their souls.  Their home, like them, was forelorn.  The story does not tell us that Tom or his wife had children, but their property reflecting their nature suggests they were sterile, producing no fruit.  Moreover, the house was unwelcoming — there was no warmth either by fire or welcoming nature and no “traveller stopped at its door.”  The house became anthropomorphasized, at least as it reflected its two inhabitants, similar to the House of Usher in Poe’s tales, or the House of the Seven Gables from Hawthorne.

As Tom went walking one day, through the land, he came upon an area known amongst the common people as a dim place. Tom stops for a rest amongst a great tree and uncovers an indian skull with an ax embedded within it.  The place was known to be one where Indians performed incantations and made sacrifices.  It was a place where the sacred and the profane met.  But Tom was not one to be trifled with such stories.   Here, the story tells us a couple of things.  First, Tom perceives himself differently from the common people.  Common people believe in the mystical nature of the place which shapes the entitlements of people to enter; but not Tom.  Tom’s view of property then is shaped by what we would term entitlements, rather than propriety.  This is exemplified when Tom encounters the devil after kicking away the skull he has unearthed.

“Let that skull alone!” said a gruff voice….

He scowled for a moment at Tom with a pair of great red eyes.

“What are you doing in my grounds?” said the black man, with a hoarse growling voice.

“Your grounds?” said Tom, with a sneer; “no more your grounds than mine: they belong to Deacon Peabody.”

In Tom’s view, the Devil has no right to exclude Tom from the property.  Its only Deacon Peabody, whose entitlement is legally proper — that is respected by the white community.  In this end, it does not matter that Tom does not have an entitlement to the property.  All that matters is that neither does the devil, and from where Tom sees the world, his entitlement is probably better anyway.  Similarly, when Tom learns that the Devil is hewing trees (which represent the souls of the great men of the town), Tom asks what right did the devil have to tear down the trees.  And the Devil responds: “”The right of prior claim,” said the other. “This woodland belonged to me long before one of your white faced race put foot upon the soil.”

There is an irony in the claim of first title that emerges in the discussion between Tom and the Devil.   Tom does not respect the right of the native American’s to occupy the land.   He believes the entitlement is only proper with Deacon Peabody — an opinion which was consistent with the prevailing worldview as title goes.  See Johnson v. M’cintosh for example.  Ironically, Tom seems to accept the Devil’s account when he learns that the devil is not merely native american, but rather absorbs the dark matters across all cultures.   At this, the Devil has trumped Tom’s view of entitlement drawing on a greater source of right, than that which Deacon Peabody claimed his right — the actual right of first occupancy.

Similarly, the question of who has the rights to the chattels on the property are shaped by how Tom and the Devil perceive the entitlement to the wooded area. The Devil tells Tom of the treasure that falls under his protection.   At first, Tom is skeptical of the Devil.  In fact the story tells us that Tom was a “hard-minded fellow” and did not at all fear the devil and asked for proof that what the devil said was true.”  As the story proceeds, we see Tom does ultimately deal with the devil (I am going to cover Tom’s and his wife’s encounters with the devil in part II) and takes possession of the gold.  But what is important is how Tom perceives the Devil’s entitlement to the gold.  The Devil tells Tom that the only way to find the gold is through the Devil, who has hidden it so that none may find it.  As Tom prospers with the Devil’s gold, he begins to think about how he can cheat the devil out of his gold.

Once again, Tom defers to entitlements. His solution is to appeal to the what he believes can conquer the devil — zeal and devoutness.   Once again, relating the property course to this work, we see the American perspective shaped by how entitlements are created.

Some Questions for Students from the Devil and Tom Walker

1. How does Tom’s perception of the entitlements to the forest land shape his interactions with “Old Scratch?”

2. Does Tom’s lack of respect for the entitlements shape the way he respects the things found on the land? Compare the Skull with the Trees, with the Treasure.

3. Considering the reasoning of Justice Marshall in Johnson v. M’Insosh, how should we understand entitlements to the property in the forest.  Could Johnson v. M’Intosh be consistent with Devil’s entitlement to the forest land?

4. How should disputes relating to various chattels be resolved in relation to the Skull, the Trees, the Treasure?  Consider Pierson v. Post, Ghen v. Rich, Popov v. Hayashi, Keeble v. Hickeringill, and NAGPRA.   Does it matter if the Devil’s entitlement isn’t legitimate?

5. How does Property shape the various relationships in the story?   Tom and the Devil; Tom and his wife; Tom and Deacon Peabody; the Devil and Mr. Peabody?

6. Are there entitlements we should respect, regardless of their legal enforceability?

Are there other things that you would ask?  Please post comments below.

Forthcoming — The Devil and Tom Walker: A Property Tale — The Relationships of People to Property.  

Hemingway to Pound: “If there was any justice in this world, you would have gotten the Nobel Prize. You’ll get it yet. I was damn sore.” Reply


 

Following yesterday’s correspondence between Melville and Hawthorne, today I am posting the reading of a letter by Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound.  The Yale Library gives a nice lead in to the letter here.   There is also a project titled the Letters of Hemingway.

As the story goes, Hemingway met Pound in Paris in the early 1920’s.   Hemingway taught Pound how to be a boxer, while Pound taught Hemingway how to write. Hemingway spoke of Pound on other occasions.  In 1925 he wrote: “He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. … He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying”

 

The Five Blessings of Reading 3


Thanks to the HogsHead Blog, I stumbled on this wonderful post by Jenna St. Hillaire reviewing a piece by former BYU Magazine Literary Reviewer Richard H. Cracoff titled No Good Place to Stop.  Both pieces are well worth your time in full.   I would like to comment on three points that are made across the pieces.

Cracoff lists five blessings of reading.  I am going to expound on three of these:

Books enable us to see outcomes where we presently see only possibilities; solutions where we presently see only dilemmas; direction where we presently see only impasse.

I think the way we teach law leads to the conclusion that the law is imagination-limited.   Lawyers out there, let’s be honest — we train you to stop using your imagination early on, from the way we teach you to write, to the procedural role that precedent plays to the procedural process of separating facts from law.  I think its quite obvious to say, there is just not a lot of room for imagination to flourish.  Imagining outcomes where there were only possibilities requires the capacity to see the world as it is, and then turn it just a hair to alter the perspective a bit.  Literature’s capacity to highlight this imaginary problem solving capacity is something that the law curriculum needs more of.  This is one reason why students love the course — it asks them to do what is instinctual — to imagine a different possibility.

Books help us to process, order, and understand our personal experience and gain perspectives on others’ lives.

I have written other places that the law school process is as much about inward inspection as it is about learning how to be a lawyer – the ability to put miles on one’s soul and to encounter different ideas.  One stereotype of legal education is that we create conflict oriented lawyers.  I’m not sure that this stereotype is accurate — but I am also willing to concede it might be.  Law schools certainly create individuals who are more comfortable with conflict than other disciplines.  I think the greater problem is that we do not spend enough time harnessing empathy and understanding — key traits necessary to diffuse conflict.  Literature does so naturally.

 Books enable us to live more lives than the one allotted and allow us to experience impossible adventures.

Finally, one thing that literature accomplishes is it allows us to be cultivated to our potential as humans — it allows us the opportunity to be better people. I have talked in the past about the destructive allure that the garden in the rear view mirror poses.  That the bulk of the biblical narrative is moving away from the garden in the wilderness, and moving towards the city.    We get, by reading literature, to choose — are we more like a Willie Stark, a Judge Irwin, or a Jack Burden; A Severis Snape, Belletrix LeStrange or a Lucius Malfoy;  a Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, or a Tom Buchanan.  We get to choose the garden, the city, or a city with a garden in its midst.  Literature presents us choices of humanity, to shape our own existence after.   Largely we do so through the formation of empathy in conversation with other people. From St. Hillaire’s post:

[The blessings of reading are] about empathy, self-ordering, and finding solutions all bring quite a bit of weight to bear on our interpretations of Harry Potter. Much of fan discussion and literary interpretation has focused on the ways in which Harry helps us become better people (John Granger’s comments about being “trained in the stock responses” come to mind) and on understanding and loving the Other; also, Rowling’s own Harvard address spoke of “the power to imagine better” primarily through empathy.

May we read well for the lessons that continue to cultivate our imaginations and humanity.

Memory, Sluts and Barbers — How we talk about…. Reply


Yesterday, I posted a comparison of the role that labeling plays in the Handmaid’s Tale and the current contraception debate.  A few days ago, I posted on Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Barber.  Today, NPR posted a new story  Slut: The other four letter word, that connects these two posts in a way I had not originally imagined — the role of memory in associating language.  (Is it possible that someone at NPR reads the table?).    From the story:

And like other dirty words, “slut” besmears whomever it’s applied to in earnest, particularly when it’s simply ridiculing or discrediting someone. It trails all those repellent associations, along with sister words like “hot,” “cheap” and “trashy” that populate the titles of porn videos.

Whether you’re somebody who rejects the very idea of that stigma or somebody who takes it very seriously, it’s disturbing to hear it evoked so wantonly. And however we think of the word now, we can’t help recalling the casual cruelty of the middle-school lunchroom where we first learned how vicious it could sound, even though we had only the vaguest idea of what it was about.

I suspect that that memory is another reason why people found Limbaugh’s remark so offensive. It told us more than we needed to know about what he was thinking. “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?” — as if we were all back in eighth grade, sneaking a smoke with him in the stairwell.

The writer is dead on.  There are certain words that are used because they have the innate ability to travel back in time, thereby bringing to the current discussion all of the context and anxiety that the past has brought.  Whether the word is Mother hubbard, slut, prostitute, mud-blood, or other, there is a way in which language somehow becomes a means of incorporating the past.

This semester, I am teaching a seminar on Property law.   We started by discussing the foundations of property entitlements, and have considered what I have termed the aroma of property — things that we want to treat like property, but are reluctant to call property.   Starting next week, we will read three short books in a section I have called “How we talk about Property” with a focus on memory.   It seems that the way we remember things often is a more powerful referent than the way they actually were.  Language is critically involved in that process.  Labeling, as a primary act of language, is one way of remembering the past by creating large categories of agreeable or disagreeable referents.