Legal Orientalism: Law, History, and the Global

AHA Session 48
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Concourse C (New York Hilton, Concourse Level)
Samuel Moyn, Harvard University
Samuel Moyn, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Law is a fundamental element in the modern worldview that conceives the individual— the singular human being—as the paradigmatic existential, political, and legal subject, and the state as the privileged medium for the instantiation of its universal values through law. More than just a set of rules for regulating behavior, law in this larger sense is a structure of the political imagination. This historically and geographically particular notion of the autonomous legal subject, encompassed within a state, has become more or less universal through processes of colonialism and globalization. This roundtable is organized around the theme of  “legal Orientalism,” defined not in terms of geographic space but more broadly as a set of discourses about what law is, who its proper subjects are, and what is at stake in formulating and answering these questions.  While the roundtable examines law as part of a political and historical grammar that takes distinctive forms in different places (such as East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America), it is not organized as a series of Area Studies presentations projected on an already mapped globe. Instead, it stages a conversation about the global circulation of ideas of law and lawlessness, their spatial and temporal travels, and their numerous political, economic and cultural projects—imperialism, neoliberalism, human rights and many others.   Methodologically, the roundtable examines the potential as well as limits of using law as a multi-sited archive for global history.  Informed by the circulation of the legal concepts that structure contemporary politics globally and locally, our panelists contemplate the notion of “rule of law” at its most expansive, as a potent language of global governance and commensurability as well as of difference and othering.  Viewed from below, how can “informal” legal orders help us read the status of the postcolonial global today?  Viewed from above, how does law write the world, and how can we use law to read it?  The roundtable is chaired by Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law at Harvard University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard 2010).  Participants include Teemu Ruskola, Professor of Law at Emory University, author of Legal Orientalism: China, the United States and Modern Law (Harvard 2013); Ritu Birla, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, author of Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Duke 2009); and Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor of Sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, author of Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Science, and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition (Routledge 1995).

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