Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds. Law and the Utopian Imagination. The Amherst Series in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. 200 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9081-9.
Reviewed by Andrew Fair
Published on H-Socialisms (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Law v. Utopia: Are They Mutually Exclusive?
This book of six essays on law and the utopian imagination is written by scholars from a wide array of disciplines, including English literature, fine arts, art history and cultural studies, political science, and legal philosophy and jurisprudence. The result is wide ranging and highly stimulating. Although the topics seem almost at odds with one other, the authors each pursue a unique tangent and tap into their particular areas of expertise to tease out exceptionally interesting logical constructions and conclusions as to the meaning and relationship of imagined utopias and legal strictures.
The first essay by James Martel, “The One and Only Law: Walter Benjamin, Utopianism, and the Second Commandment,” explores Benjamin’s legal philosophy as explicated in his essay “Critique of Violence” (1921). For Benjamin, there was only one “law,” that being the Second Commandment and prohibition against graven images as substitutes for the true God. From this starting point, Martel then engages in a spirited disquisition comparing law and the utopian imagination, explaining and then expanding on Benjamin’s discussion of the prohibition against fetish worship. This discussion extends the debate found in the editors’ introduction as to whether positive law puts a brake on the excesses of utopianism, or whether utopias as imagined are even subject to any law. This is a theme throughout these essays, along with the corollary of whether imagined utopias have an impact on positive legal systems. According to Benjamin, God’s law is the one true law and is unknowable. Any legal system established on earth must therefore be a false object of obeisance, thereby violating that Second Commandment. Martel applies these concepts of Benjamin’s in his analysis of the utopian imagination, saying that God’s law is the only basis of a utopian world but that such a world can never be achieved since God’s law is hidden and exists “no place” (the meaning of the word “utopia” as coined by Thomas More in Utopia .) Martel goes on to discuss Benjamin’s Arcades Project as another example of Benjamin’s legal thought, in which he posited that the desire to purchase and possess objects that are on display in the arcade is tantamount to devotion to a false god (“fetishism”). This desire, stated Benjamin, is violative of the Second Commandment and would not be found in a utopian society. To draw out the contrast between the rule of law and the utopian imagination, Martel draws on a number of other authors as well—More and Charles Fourier among them—in order to highlight the importance of this theme for Benjamin.
The essay by Johan Van der Walt, “Law, Utopia, Event: A Constellation of Two Trajectories,” approaches these issues by means of the literary canon and the ideas of Plato, St. Francis, More, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Theodor Adorno. Van der Walt also agrees with Martel and Benjamin that the two concepts—law and the utopian imagination—seemingly describe mutually exclusive realms. Furthermore, Van der Walt states that the chief characteristic of utopias as imagined in literature is the disappearance of private property. However, he cites as his prime example Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), in which Calvino's utopia not only is a society without individual property ownership, but also is marked by a “radical questioning of linguistic or conceptual propriety.” Van der Walt says that "propriety" is related to the word "property" (belonging to oneself), and that the lack of linguistic propriety is a characteristic of a utopia similar to a lack of private property. Calvino, says Van der Walt, believed that language itself is an example of “the transformation of the utopian imagination” (p. 62). As to the relationship of law and the utopian imagination, Van der Walt argues that “legal and utopian thinking have a common point of departure, departing from which they move in opposite directions” and that their relationship can be said to be “described in terms of a nonoverlapping contiguity” (p. 63). Van der Walt grapples with these two opposed terms and attempts to resolve their relationship, only to conclude that they have no points of intersection but do exist on the same structural continuum.
Nan Goodman in “What about Peace? Cotton Mather’s Millennium and the Rise of International Law” explores the legal and religious philosophies of Mather, the early New England Puritan minister, whose ideas about international law and treaties between nations were forged in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and Peace of Westphalia. Mather developed these ideas as a substitute for his hoped-for millennial utopian society in New England which could not be achieved after Charles II revoked Massachusetts’s charter in 1680. Mather’s inspiration was the Book of Revelation which predicts that an Edenic state of peace would be found after Armageddon and the chaining of Satan for a “thousand” years—hence the advent of the “millennial” period. For Mather, a millenarian-style peace could only prevail through international negotiation and treaty making. Goodman points to Mather’s sermon to the Massachusetts Bay Colony Artillery Corps, “Things to be Look’d For,” as her “proof text” to demonstrate “what the reciprocity between the law and utopia in a millennialist context looked like during a particularly transformative period of the law” (p. 103). The law in question was not domestic law as in Plato or More, but international law. Goodman finds it interesting that Mather eventually even agreed that a negotiated peace between international states could be had with the “Turk,” the disparaging name given to the Ottomans, who were the image of Satan in Mather’s day and who could never be reconciled with Christendom religiously. Thus, Goodman believes that Mather’s thought as expressed in his writings evolved to allow an imperfect utopia brought about by negotiation.
The penultimate essay by Diane Morgan entitled “Globus Terraqueus: Cosmopolitan Law and ‘Fluid Geography’ in the Utopian Thinking of Immanuel Kant and Joseph-Pierre Proudhon” is a tightly argued discussion that delves into Kant's rendition of the utopian imagination. She begins with his idea of “cosmopolitan law,” the form of utopia “whose concern is described as being ‘the welfare of the human race as a whole.’” Morgan argues that “utopian theory and practice have moved away from the ‘blueprint’ model of legislation as a means of implementing social progress” (p. 130). This interesting view seems to track some of Mather’s thought described above. Morgan goes on to discuss Kant’s concept of a “fluid geography” that she says is similar to Proudhon’s idea of seriality, in which geography, natural resources, and events of the world are a continuum and flow into one another. People will naturally become aware of their mutual obligations, thereby bringing about a peaceful, utopian society.
The final essay by Shulamit Almog, “Utopian Narratives and Legal Imagination: Tales of Noir Cities and Dark Law,” discusses artistic dystopias, using as examples More’s Utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), and the movies Blade Runner (1982, directed by Ridley Scott) and Alphaville (1965, directed by Jean-Luc Godard). This essay focuses on negative utopian narratives as presenting examples to be avoided if the goal is to achieve a just and peaceful society. This discussion returns to the thesis presented in the introduction by the editors that negative authoritarian societies are the outcome of utopian thinking. For the editors, utopias were last discussed among Western thinkers during the 1950s by such authors as Lionel Trilling, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin (the book’s title, in fact, echoes Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination ). These three “liberal” thinkers were antisocialist in orientation and associated utopian thinking with the authoritarian dystopia of the former Soviet Union, clearly the Cold War mindset of the era in which their books were written. The editors hope to “reimagine or revitalize the concept of utopia such that it can survive the terms of the midcentury liberal critique.” Although the Occupy Wall Street movement is mentioned in passing as an example of current day utopian thought, more discussion of this important phenomenon is warranted, especially because of the many permutations it has taken on since Zuccotti Park. The editors say “this volume can be seen, then, as a project of exploration and resuscitation” (p. 2). It is indeed that, for a topic that has proved to be both challenging and fascinating.
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Andrew Fair. Review of Sarat, Austin; Douglas, Lawrence; Umphrey, Martha Merrill, eds., Law and the Utopian Imagination.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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