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Writer in Residence 2023: Jennifer Culbert

Venue: Birkbeck Central

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Birkbeck School of Law Writer in Residence 2023:
Jennifer Culbert, Jurisfiction: Imagining Law without a Bannister
The book project on which I am presenting is tentatively entitled, Jurisfiction: Imagining Law without a Bannister. The title of the book alludes to Hannah Arendt’s argument that modern society no longer has “yardsticks by which to measure and rules under which to subsume the particular” and so we must figure out how “to understand without categories and to judge without the set of customary rules which is morality.” Inspired by Arendt’s work in political theory – particularly her reflections on techne and the ‘work’ of art – and elaborating on various engagements with legal topics throughout her writings – including, famously, race and discrimination in a discussion of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the phenomenon of statelessness and the limits of human rights in an argument about the nation state and World War II, and comments Arendt makes about legal responsibility, crimes against humanity, and international courts of law in the context of a report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem – Jurisfiction begins to detail a philosophy of law that is fashioned from the freedom/imperative to make law. This book project takes up the problem explored in my first book, Dead Certainty: The Death Penalty and the Problem of Judgment (Stanford UP, 2008), and the call issued there to attend more carefully to how we confront “enigmatic decisions and new paths” when we judge. Explicitly concerned with the force of law and its expression of (state) power, the chapters in Jurisfiction treat violence not only as a destructive but also as a creative energy with incalculable effects that make up the world in which we live.

* All three sessions will take place in the new Birkbeck Central Building (BCB) which is on Malet Street across from Waterstones.


Presentation schedule:

8 June 2023, 3-5pm 
“Constitutional Elegies: On Revolution and the Power of Poetry”
Venue: BCB 309

In On Revolution, Arendt famously compares the French and American Revolutions. According to Arendt, the French revolution failed because of its identification with the poor while the American revolution was “free” to establish a polis without having to concern itself with poverty. Nevertheless, the American revolution was ultimately unsuccessful as it was not able to sustain the conditions necessary to maintain the spirit of revolution. “Constitutional Elegies” reviews criticisms of Arendt’s constitutionalism before offering an alternative way to understand constituent power and the dynamic between constituent power and the constitutions this power effects and by which it is affected. Specifically, drawing on recent discussions of Arendt’s remarks on poetry, the chapter proposes lawgivers be recognized as poets and constitutions as the recollection and reconception of received political forms. Suggested readings include selections from On Revolution.

1) Honig (1991). “Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic,” American Political Science Review, vol. 85, no. 1: 97-113 
2) Arendt, From On Revolution, “Chapter Five: Foundation II: Novus Oreo Saeclorum,” 179-214


13 June 2023, 3-5pm
“‘A Picture in the Newspapers’: ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ and Images of Law”
Venue: BCB 307
Arendt’s (in)famous essay on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), “Reflections on Little Rock,” is often condemned for being based on a lack of knowledge about some of the basic facts of American history and the consequences of that history for the present lives of African-Americans. This chapter focuses on Arendt’s inspiration for her controversial response to the Supreme Court’s decision – a photograph in the newspaper. The reproduction of images raises the issue of “facticity” or the truth of events captured in a photograph, as well as questions about the powers of interpretation that bring images to life. Rather than try to explain or justify Arendt’s argument in “Reflections on Little Rock,” this session reflects on what Arendt’s essay presents about images, evidence, and what justice is supposed to look like. Suggested readings include “Reflections on Little Rock.”

1) Arendt (1959). “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6, no. 1: 45-56 
2) Arendt (1959). “Reflections on Little Rock,” in Judgment and Responsibility, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2003): 193-213 
3) Burroughs (2015). “Hannah Arendt, ‘Reflections on Little Rock,’ and White Ignorance,” Critical Philosophy of Race, Vol. 3, No. 1: 52-78 


15 June 2023, 3-5pm
“The Farce of Law: Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Theatre of Justice”
Venue: BCB 309

Arendt is often criticized for laughing at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This chapter takes her laughter seriously, arguing that the proceedings that the prime minister of Israel intended to present in order to redeem “the tragedy of Jewry” on the world stage is represented in Arendt’s report as a farce. This claim is not meant to suggest the trial is to be dismissed as ridiculous or absurd, or even unjust. Instead, this session highlights how Arendt shows the Eichmann trial to be a classical attempt to tell a story that becomes violent and absurd as it tries to make sense of a world that is falling apart. The chapter concludes by considering what kind of justice is possible when the myths that authorize tragedy are no longer available to storytellers. Suggested readings include selections from Eichmann in Jerusalem.
1) Arendt, From Eichmann in Jerusalem, “Chapter I: The House of Justice,” 3-20
2) Benjamin (1921). “Critique of Violence” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 1, 1913-1926, trans. Edmund Jephcott, edited by Marcus Bollock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996), 236-252
3) Derrida, “Post-scriptum” of “Force of Law: ‘The Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, trans. Mary Quaintance, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (New York: Routledge, 1992), 57-63

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