“What is Law?” in the Age of Empire

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 3:50 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Miranda Frances Spieler, American University of Paris
This presentation will explore legal approaches to the study of empire during the period from roughly 1750 to 1900.  I expect to organize most of my talk around the question  “what is law” and to propose ways of grappling with this question that are (for the most part) drawn from my own past or ongoing work.    Up to the present the most common way of answering the question “what is law” has been through an exploration of legal subjectivity. This has, typically, involved an analysis of contestations between (and among) elites and subaltern groups over the content or interpretation of law and the meaning of justice.    A second, somewhat less common way of grappling with the question of “what is law” in imperial contexts has been to study the interaction between fact and law or what might be called the generation and mutation of law on the imperial frontier.  (Fact here denotes circumstances on the ground.) This might mean the invention of one or more new laws; it might describe the emergence of new modes for adjudicating disputes. Or it might describe the way existing laws of the colonizer change in meaning when  altering their context while the letter of the law remains the same.  A third way of approaching the problem “what is law” in an imperial context concerns the relationship between law and violence or police power. In the writings of Michel Foucault, non-law often takes the form of police power. In the writings of Giorgio Agamben, ‘the exception’ figures as both a form of non-law and as a legal situation.  In the paper I hope to address the relationship between law, police power, and violence with an eye to moving beyond these kinds of dichotomies.
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