Back in Style

Abstract

In recent years Duncan Kennedy has turned to the question, what is Contemporary Legal Thought? For the most part, his answers have focused on the modes of legal argument he believes are indigenous to Contemporary Legal Thought in the United States, and possibly, at a transnational or global level as well. In this article, I bracket the question of content and ask instead, if we are interested in exploring the category of a legal ‘contemporary’, how do we do so? What historiographic methods are well-suited to the task of constituting ‘Contemporary Legal Thought’? My focus here is entirely on legal structuralism, the historical method I associate with Kennedy’s work beginning in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, legal structuralism was under assault and quickly fading from the repertoire of available styles of doing history on the left. By the turn of the century, legal structuralism appeared to have vanished. I think that this was regrettable and unnecessary, and in this article I argue for a return to structuralist historiography. I do not pretend, however, that this return entails a second coming of the totalizing, originary center. Rather, I encourage thinking about legal structuralism in the way that I understand Roland Barthes, Hayden White, and to a large extent Duncan Kennedy himself to have thought about it: as a style. And as a style, legal structuralism is worth reawakening, a style back in style once more.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For overviews, see generally Higham and Conkin (1979), Iggers (1997).

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Frug (1980, p. 1074): ‘[L]iberalism describes in the most fundamental way how most of us understand any political system, because it also describes the way we understand ourselves and society as a whole. Liberalism is our world view, one that emerged from such theorists as Hobbes and Locke, was developed by both Bentham and Rousseau, and was forcefully expressed in the mid-nineteenth century in the work of John Stuart Mill. It so pervades our thinking that it can be contrasted only with radically different ways of understanding the world, such as that based on medieval thought or that derived from modern critiques of liberalism itself.’ And yet, just a few paragraphs later, Frug cautioned: ‘While this Article discusses only the development of liberal ideas, I am not suggesting that liberal theory by itself has caused or controlled the changing status of Western cities. I do not deny the role of economic, social, or political factors or even other ideas in the development of cities. Instead, I am simply bringing to the surface an aspect of our social life that has too often gone unnoticed’ (Frug 1980, p. 1078).

  3. 3.

    I am not referencing here the field of stylistics. For discussion of that terrain, see Mackay (1996), Short (1998).

  4. 4.

    By ‘we,’ I am referring to the dominant mode of analytic philosophy. In contrast, philosophers like John Dewey took the view that the scientific method ought to be applied to questions of ethics and the like (Dewey 1920).

  5. 5.

    This is a riff on Rorty’s discussion of Galileo and Bellarmine. ‘At this point, it seems to me, we would do well to abandon the notion of certain values (“rationality”, “disinterestedness”) floating free of the educational and institutional patterns of the day. We can just say that Galileo was creating the notion of scientific values as he went along, that it was a splendid thing that he did so, and that the question of whether he was “rational” in doing so is out of place’ (Rorty 1979, p. 331). For further discussion in the related terrain of Science and Technology Studies, see Riles (2005). See also Riles (2000) and Riles (2008) for a very helpful view of legal fiction quite similar to the notion of style articulated in this article.

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Correspondence to Justin Desautels-Stein.

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Desautels-Stein, J. Back in Style. Law Critique 25, 141–162 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-014-9135-7

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Keywords

  • Historiography
  • Jurisprudence
  • Legal history
  • Structuralism