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Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice

Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice

by Austin SaratAustin Sarat
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Law punishes violence, yet law depends on violence. In this book, a group of leading interdisciplinary legal scholars seeks to map the inexorable but unstable relationship of law to violence. What does it mean to talk about the violence of law? Do high incarceration rates and increased reliance on capital punishment indicate that U.S. law is growing more violent at a time when violence is being restrained in other legal systems? How is the violence of law represented in popular culture and does this affect law's actual legitimacy? Does violence express or distort the essence of law? Does law's violence serve justice?

In deeply original essays, the authors build on the seminal work of Robert Cover—one of the few legal scholars ever to consider the question of law and violence. In striving to situate his insights within current political, social, economic, and cultural contexts, they contemplate diverse and interrelated subjects surrounding the theme of law and violence. Among these are the purpose of law as punishment, the increasing number of executions in the United States, prison violence, racial disparity in sentencing, and the meaning of torture. The result is a remarkable volume that stimulates us to reconsider connections that we too often leave unexplored. In addition to the editor, the contributors are Marianne Constable, Peter Fitzpatrick, Thomas R. Kearns, Peter Rush, Jonathan Simon, Shaun McVeigh, and Alison Young.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691048451
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/09/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is a past President of the Law and Society Association and a recipient of its Harry Kalven Award. He is currently President of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and Humanities. His recent books include The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture and When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition. (Princeton)

Read an Excerpt

Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice

Chapter One



Austin Sarat

IT SURELY COMES as no surprise to say that violence of all kinds is done everyday with the explicit authorization of legal institutions and officials or with their tacit acquiescence. Law without violence is unthinkable, yet if law were to be no more than violence it would not be law at all. Law depends on violence and uses it as a counterpunch to the allegedly more lethal and destructive violence situated just beyond law's boundaries. But the violence on which law depends always threatens the values for which law stands. Some of this violence is done directly by legal officials, some by citizens acting under a dispensation granted by law, and some by persons whose violent acts subsequently will be deemed acceptable. Moreover the pain that these acts produce is everywhere, in the drama of law's sporadic vengeance as well as in the ordinary lives of those subject to legal regulation.

The bloodletting done, authorized, or condoned by law occurs with all the normal abnormality of bureaucratic abstraction. As a result, the violence of law is often untraceably dispersed. Indeed it is this distinctive combination of bloodletting and bureaucracy thatmakes law possible, insures its continuous presence in our minds and imaginations, and holds us before the law.

Despite its undeniable significance, law's violence has played little role, and occupied little space, in legal theory and jurisprudence. Or, when it is present, awareness of the violence done or authorized by officials is divorced from legal interpretation, as if the act of speaking or writing the words of law could be separated from the inscription of those words on the bodies of citizens. This absence and this divorce have serious consequences since the fate of law is inextricably tied up with the fate of legal theory.

By failing to confront law's lethal character and the masking of its interpretive violence, legal theory tacitly encourages officials to ignore the bloody consequences of their authoritative acts and the pain that those acts produce. Moreover, by equating the conditions of legal legitimacy with that masking, much of jurisprudence promotes righteous indifference and, as a result, allows law's violence to continue unabated. While I am neither so idealistic nor so naive as to imagine that a change in legal theory would in itself end bloodletting done, authorized, or approved by legal institutions, this book seeks to move violence to the center of theorizing about law and to connect it to the question of justice. Does law's violence stand as an impenetrable barrier to the achievement of justice in and through law? Or, alternatively, is violence necessary to the realization of justice?

These ought to be perennial questions of legal theory, but unfortunately, they are not. Perhaps this is why the work of Robert Cover was, and is, so significant as a moment in late-twentieth-century jurisprudence. Cover, who died in 1986, taught at Yale Law School and produced a limited but highly influential corpus. At the heart of his work was an effort to think about law in relation to the institutional reality of its intimate engagement with violence while also attending to its normativity and its normative aspirations.

"Between the idea and reality of common meaning falls the shadow of the violence of the law, itself." This one sentence reveals, with great simplicity and directness, Cover's awareness of the tragic character of law's violence and its world-altering reality, a reality so awesome that its mere "shadow" stands as a barrier between present experience and the realization of an "idea." Thus in Cover's work one finds a mournful story of violence set against utopian possibility, and an appeal to legal scholars to enter the shadows and explore law's violent underside. However, one also finds an acknowledgment that the violence of law is, despite its tragic character, different from and preferable to other forms of violence-the violence of the lynch mob or the lawless state-which, in their own way, cast even more destructive shadows. Law's violence is to be preferred, albeit reluctantly, as a way of counteracting and containing that other violence, as a way of saving us from the darkest possibilities of human existence.

Cover compellingly called our attention to law's "jurisgenerative" and its "jurispathic" qualities. "Law," Cover argued,

may be viewed as a system of tension or a bridge linking a concept of reality to an imagined alternative. Thus, one constitutive element of a nomos is the phenomenon George Steiner has labeled "alternity": "the 'other than the case,' the counterfactual propositions, images, shapes of will and evasions with which we charge our mental being and by means of which we build the changing, largely fictive milieu for our somatic and our social existence." But the concept of a nomos is not exhausted by its "alternity"; it is neither utopia nor pure vision. A nomos, as a world of law, entails the application of human will to an extant state of affairs as well as toward our visions of alternative futures.

Cover used the word "nomos," or "normative universe," to argue that law is crucially involved in helping persons "create and maintain a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." The nomos that law helps to create, Cover believed, always contains within it visions of possibility not yet realized, images of a better world not yet built. But, he reminds us, law is not simply, or even primarily, a gentle, hermeneutic apparatus; it always exists in a state of tension between a world of meaning in which justice is pursued, and a world of violence in which "legal interpretation takes places in a field of pain and death." It is here that Cover confronted and described what was for him a fundamental tension-namely, despite its destructive, world-destroying power, the violence of law an indispensable presence in our lives.

Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice seeks to energize scholarly interest in the violence of law and to connect that subject to the question of justice. It brings together essays by leading interdisciplinary legal scholars, each of which uses Cover's work as a starting point and a source. As each of the essays measures the violence of law as well as violence's impact on law and on the possibilities of justice, each provides more than a celebration or critique of Cover's work. The essays consider Cover's theorization in light of the contemporary situation of law and of the work of such thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida. Thus this book is about Cover but also about the phenomenon-violence in law-to which his work so provocatively pointed.

The essays in Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice call attention to the fact that law is both constituted in response to metaphorical violence and yet is a doer of literal violence; law, which is the peaceful alternative to the chaos and fury of a fictive state of nature, inscribes itself on bodies. It "deals pain and death" and calls the pain and death that it deals "peace." Once established, law is maintained through force; it is maintained as an apparatus of violence that disorders, disrupts, and repositions preexisting relations and practices all in the name of an allegedly superior order. That order demonstrates its "superiority" in ferocious displays of force and in subjugating, colonizing, "civilizing" acts of violence. Violence thus may be said to be integral to law in three senses: it provides the occasion and method for founding legal orders, it gives law (as a regulator of force and coercion) a reason for being, and it provides a means through which law acts.

Yet law denies the violence of its origins, as well as the disorder engendered by its own ordering efforts, in that law proclaims the force it deploys to be "legitimate." Legitimacy is thus the minimal answer to skeptical questions about the ways in which law's violence differs from the turmoil and disorder that law is allegedly brought into being to conquer. What this claim to legitimacy implies, in this minimal answer, is that law's violence is rational, controlled, and purposive, that law makes force the servant of the word.

To say that law's violence is legitimate is to juxtapose the alleged rationality of legal coercion and the irrationality of a violence that knows no law. It is to claim that law's violence is controlled through the legal articulation of values, norms, procedures, and purposes external to violence itself. It is to claim that the force of law serves common purposes and advances common aims in contrast to the anomic or sectarian savagery beyond law's boundaries.

Yet neither this rationality nor common purpose necessarily is just. Thus, even on this account of the nature of law's violence, the question of justice is deferred. Does law's violence serve justice? Can a violent legality ever be truly just?

Justice, Drucilla Cornell argues, "is precisely what eludes our full knowledge." We cannot "grasp the Good but only follow it. The Good ... is a star which beckons us to follow." While justice, or what Cornell calls the Good, is, on her account, always present to law, it is never completely realized in law. Or, as Judith Butler puts it, "[T]he law posits an ideality ... that it can never realize, and ... this failure is constitutive of existing law." Law exists both in the "as yet" failure to realize the Good and in the commitment to its realization. In this failure and this commitment, law is two things at once: the social organization of violence through which state power is exercised in a partisan, biased, and sometimes cruel way, and the arena to which citizens address themselves in the hope that law can, and will, redress the wrongs that are committed in its name.

These thoughts remind us that running throughout the history of jurisprudence and legal theory is a concern about the connections between law and justice and about the ways law is implicated in injustice. Commentators from Plato to Derrida have called law to account in the name of justice, have asked that law provide a language of justice, and have demanded that it promote, insofar as possible, the attainment of a just society. Yet the justice described is elusive, if not illusory, and in some scholarship disconnected from the embodied practices of law, including law's violence.

In an earlier day, speaking about law and justice was not so vexing or difficult. Justice (jus meaning "law") was a legal term, pure and simple. At the outset, then, "justice was defined and constituted by laws which were 'given' and held to be unchanging and unchangeable." This ineluctable link between justice and law, as put forth by Hobbes, had the virtue of making the boundaries of justice more or less clear; but it had the considerable vice of labeling even heinous, iniquitous laws just. Justice could do no critical/reconstructive work because it was impossible to think of justice as external to law.

Apart from Hobbes, most natural-law thinkers have resisted this result by insisting that unjust laws are not law, though doing so meant the end of any easy identification of positive or human law with "real" or binding law. The alternative, embraced by perhaps a majority of those who continue to be at ease in this idiom, is to cut justice and law free from one another, to insist that justice is more than mere conformity to law, and to acknowledge that even unjust laws might nonetheless be law. Most recently, the distance between law and justice has been recognized in postmodern theorizing about ethics. Thus, as Douzinas and Warrington argue,

[J]ustice has the characteristic of a promissory statement. A promise states now something to be performed in the future. Being just always lies in the future, it is a promise made to the future, a pledge to look into the event and the uniqueness of each situation This promise, like all promises, does not have a present time, a time when you can say: "there it is, justice is this or that." Suspended between the law and the good ..., justice is always still to come or always already performed.

Severance of the definitional tie between justice and law has left both notions free (if also bound) to acquire new identities. In both cases, former boundaries have been enlarged. Thus, matters other than those directly regulated by law (for example, the distribution of wealth) are viewed as falling under the purview of justice, and patently unjust legal arrangements (for example, apartheid in South Africa) are accepted as lawful despite their moral repugnance. But as Clarence Morris notes, "Though there can be law without justice, justice is realized only through good law." In fact, law and legal theory continue to be shaped by concerns about justice and injustice, just as understandings of these latter notions are shaped by an awareness of law and the concerns of legal theory.

If there is so close a link between law and justice there must, in turn, be a link between law's violence and its capacity to attain, or aspire, to justice. "A just and responsible decision," Douzinas and Warrington contend,

must both conserve and destroy, or suspend, the law enough to reinvent it and rejustify it in each case. Each case requires a unique interpretation which no rule can guarantee absolutely. But, at the same time, there is no just decision if the judge does not refer to law or rule This is the reason that we cannot say that a judgment is just. A decision ... cannot be declared just because justice is the dislocation of the said of law by the-unrepresentable-saying of ethics.

It seems reasonable to suggest, that justice is both present to and absent from law, present as an aspiration even as a constant reminder of the impossibility of bringing the Good into sight and translating it into legal judgment. As Derrida says, "From this point of view, justice would be the experience that we are not able to experience."

These observations call to mind a variety of uncertainties and ambivalences regarding the relationship of law and justice, but they fall far short of embracing the extreme position that justice should be jettisoned from legal discourse. Rather, they remind us of the vastness of our subject, of the difficulty of constructing a single account capable of holding together its many strands, and of the space that exists to theorize anew about violence, justice, and law.

In all legal orders, law's violence threatens to undo law, to destabilize it by forcing choices between its normative aspirations and the need to maintain social order through force. But unfortunately, except in the utopian imagination, there is no symmetry in the relations among violence, justice, and law. Violence is never similarly endangered by the claims of justice or the operation of law. Law sits poised between the present reality of violence and the promises of a justice not yet realized. Yet this positioning of law is generally neglected in current theorizations.

Some scholars, emphasize the meaning-making, community-building character of law, and de-emphasize its coercive aspects. They liken law to literature as a resource in building what they see as humane societies. Others take violence as a subject of inquiry, but its connection to the nature of law remains unelaborated. A third trend in legal scholarship appears, at first glance, to respond to these defects by speaking about many different types of violence and theorizing about their connections to law. Under the force of critical theory and deconstruction, the use of the word "violence" proliferates; we are reminded that law is violent in many ways-in the ways it uses languages and in its representational practices, in the silencing of perspectives and the denial of experience, and in its objectifying epistemology. Where once it seemed quite obvious that when one talked about law's violence one would be referring to the infliction of physical force, today critical theory and deconstruction have left violence with a confusion of meaning.

The expanding idea of violence threatens to undo the subject itself. If everything is violent, then the word and the idea lose their meaning and their normative and critical bite. If the critique of violence must take on all cognitive, linguistic, and cultural practices, then it will be overwhelmed and undone. Thus the first act in the effort to explore the relations of violence, justice, and law must be a "violent" act of repositioning our language; we must treat law's violence first and foremost in its embodiment and effects on embodied subjects.


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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE: Situating Law Between the Realities of Violence and the Claims of Justice: An Introduction by Austin Sarat 3

CHAPTER TWO: The Vicissitudes of Law's Violence by Jonathan Simon 17

CHAPTER THREE: Making Peace with Violence: Robert Cover on Law and Legal Theory by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns 49

CHAPTER FOUR: The Silence of the Laws: Justice in Cover's "Field of Pain and Death" by Marianne Constable 85

CHAPTER FIVE: A Judgment Dwelling in Law: Violence and the Relations of Legal Thought by Shaun McVeigh, Peter Rush, and Alison Young 101

CHAPTER SIX: Why the law Is Also Nonviolent by Peter Fitzpatrick 142

The Contributors 175

Index 177

What People are Saying About This

Carol Greenhouse

These elegant critical reflections on violence and law--mostly in the United States--focus on the paradoxes of violence as an object and means of the law's control, as well as place of violence among the conditions and complications of law's legitimacy and efficacy. The collection is compelling, even haunting, and profoundly enriching. The volume illuminates contemporary debates about law's violence, and makes engaging reading for academics in law and the human sciences, as well as others interested in the future of law as a social endeavor.
Carol Greenhouse, Indiana University

Eve Darian-Smith

This volume performs an important function. It is an extremely worthwhile and timely project that raises issues of grave concern to anyone interested in the realities of legal practice, including sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, political scientists, legal theorists, and practicing lawyers.
Eve Darian-Smith, University of California, Santa Barbara

From the Publisher

"This volume performs an important function. It is an extremely worthwhile and timely project that raises issues of grave concern to anyone interested in the realities of legal practice, including sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, political scientists, legal theorists, and practicing lawyers."—Eve Darian-Smith, University of California, Santa Barbara

"These elegant critical reflections on violence and law—mostly in the United States—focus on the paradoxes of violence as an object and means of the law's control, as well as place of violence among the conditions and complications of law's legitimacy and efficacy. The collection is compelling, even haunting, and profoundly enriching. The volume illuminates contemporary debates about law's violence, and makes engaging reading for academics in law and the human sciences, as well as others interested in the future of law as a social endeavor."—Carol Greenhouse, Indiana University

Customer Reviews