Hesitant Left


I am struck by Pierre Schlag’s assessment, in the midst of the proceedings of a conference entitled “Teaching from the Left,” that the aim of the academic discipline of law in our cultures, understood primarily in sociological terms, is to produce a politics of centre. His was not a complaint directed against any particular “school” of legal critique; rather the gripe was of an existential kind. What is the impact of an existentialist complaint upon the economy of our conference? In a spirit of nauseating honesty, Schlag pointed out the intrinsic impossibility of teaching “from the left” as a matter of fact. No matter what the syllabus content and the pedagogical method, our discipline centres around the intellectual emptiness of judicial opinion, which consists of bits of “reasonableness, greatest common denominatorhoods, hypertrophic technicalities,.., folk wisdom, overlapping consensus, shared belief, plundering of foreign expertise all presented in a formal idiom that gives the impression of knowledge.” In other words, the fact that the object of our teaching is not knowledge but judicial opinion is paramount irrespective of the critical thinking that takes place in the classroom. The function of teaching the law is therefore to propagate reverence for judicial “reasonableness” and this function is the indisputable backdrop of our diverse intentions to think the law critically. Schlag is not here pointing to hypocrisy. Rather, he is saying that our critical reflexions, despite their sincerity, are necessarily nondetachable from the thoughtless performance of a function which takes the law seriously (as law) while broadcasting its shortcomings. This performative function-the review, dissection and assimilation of “10,000 cases, maybe more”-sticks to us much like the feeling of nausea in someone who has eaten too much. Critique, like vomit, liberates us in the short term, before the next term’s assimilation of an even greater volume of judicial reasonableness.

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