Law meets poetry, or what have you learned about how to serve?

A post first year law school essay on the journey of jurists-as-servants, as explored through poetry…

You have just completed your first year of law at a prestigious Law School, including a course on ‘The Foundations of Canadian Law’, a course that purports to align with the Faculty’s vision “as directed towards the formation of jurists in the highest sense, i.e. jurists for whom law is an intellectually enriching and ethically demanding vocation”. You return home to your family and your community and are promptly asked: What did you learn about how to serve?

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In lieu of conclusive answers to this unnerving question, I offer this gesture: allow me to weave together the voices of several authors while contemplating ‘Wolfwatching’ by Ted Hughes. In thinking critically, perhaps I can render all too-easy gestures difficult and arrive at a somewhat satisfactory response.

A starting-place is with Williams and her “subject position is everything” (p.3). I am writing from what Palmer calls a ‘baffled place of mind’; addressing what feel like bottomless mysteries is scary. I am concerned with not doing the poem nor the wisdom of the authors ‘justice’. I question what can be generated in my chosen ‘meeting-place’. Limited by my own lived experiences and relationships, I wonder whether I fully grasp the question. The tension behind the sentiment of “that which is self-evident is evidence of the self” accompanies me; what I do/don’t question or address reveals me to the reader’s exacting gaze.

A pile of intimidating articles sits on my desk as I attempt to articulate my thoughts. I smile and relate to how “all those letters of the alphabet, full of random signification” make “[Williams] feel like a monkey” (p.4). I re-read the syllabus and take heart in its emphasis on process, unlearning and going backwards, and recall that many authors were writing with uncertainty and questions. Nevertheless, the sentiment that “our powers of thought, in the… sense of steadfast attention to the whole, have atrophied” feels like a reminder to pay attention to my tendencies of falling back on “silly little dichotomies” (Howe, p.541).

Foucault offers a re-framing when asked whether to see his writings as prescriptive: “my books… function as invitations, as public gestures, for those who… intend to slip into this kind of experience” (Stoler p.16); he writes “precisely because [he doesn’t] know yet what to think about a subject matter that attracts [his] interest [and] above all to change [himself] and not to think the same thing as before (p.ix). When Stoler engages Foucault, she takes up his invitation and casts her own writing as “an opening, as a provocation… of [her] own” (p.17). Perhaps I too can attempt to think new thoughts that invite jurists who contemplate the concept of ‘serving’ to engage and dialogue.

To practice capacities of attentiveness and articulation is both an ethical and intellectual endeavour (class syllabus); being attentive is noticing “texture and detail… and to avoid… projecting one’s prejudices and precommitments onto the people, texts and phenomena one encounters” (p.1). I offer a re-framing: to paraphrase theologian Nelle Morton, our job as ‘jurists-as-servants’ is to hear people, texts and phenomena into speech. A heavy responsibility that appears fraught with danger, particularly after having read Meister’s ‘After Evil’. In Meister, Klein’s psychoanalysis proposes that our minds are always already “populated by multiple subjectivities that have affective feelings toward each other: the internalized others that we experience as who we are; the externalized parts of the self that we experience as who we are not” (p, 34). Freedoms and ‘the disciplines’ as Foucault reminds us, emerged together and closely interwoven, as projections perhaps of each other. I recall also Simpson’s warning about how jurists may find themselves in an “intellectual prison” (p.10) and an educational environment that “suppresses curiosity about cases” (p.10) thus presenting a decontextualized and ahistorical account of law as ‘leading cases’ stripped of human experience, mined only for “fundamental legal principles” (p.4).

This begs the question of who we are ‘hearing into speech’ as we attend to and listen; the particular person with their singular voice, rhythm, texture, tonality, etc, or the ‘other’ as an idealized, mythologized and distorted dissociation, an embodied projection coming out of the deepest unconscious corners of our own minds (Meister)? The thought is unnerving and productive: it begs us to reflect on and contemplate this complex “Being-in-the-World-with-Others” (p. 26) that Meyer suggests is best lived as an open, receptive encounter and exercise of mercy in response to an “undeserved gift of being-with” (p.47).

Obligations are “always compromised” and responsibility to “the unique other” is potentially infinite; it must thus be “reformulated as an obligation that continues over time both ethically and legally and is impossible to fulfill… in the now” (Meyer, p.43). This comforts in that it implies that mistakes can be made and forgiven and that ‘practical wisdom’ as Jill Frank reading Aristotle uses it, is a matter of relationship, use and ‘doing’; a thinking-doing that Spinoza in Massumi’s Politics of Affect frames as “affecting and being affected” (p.ix) in an open, evolving and relational field. In this field, ‘doing justice’ may be a “judgment of the ‘sublime’ – the elusive infinity of responsibility; the ‘call’ to respond from over the chasm of individual difference without assuming, presuming, or consuming the other” (Meyer, p.45). We are required to abandon “standard stories” that “pre-empt[] judgment” and listen carefully to the ‘call’.

Justice “can strike us, as we come to confront an other” (p.45) who demands that we explore “as-yet-inarticulate” (Meyer, p.46) insights and asks that we follow him as he ‘Draws out Law (Borrows) from his own “legal archive” (p.22) – lands, animals, dreams and community – and listen as he articulates how he understands it, aspires to live it, and wants it to exist between us. This encounter may find us on uncertain footing: we who aspire to serve ethically fear the power of our minds to project and dissociate. Borrows offers us the grace of time in the form of a parable.

Four hills appeared to “the young man” (p.4) in a dream which reflected “life’s repetitions and the struggle it [takes] to climb through them” (p. 4). As we age, we encounter issues repeatedly and experience them differently each time, growing in our ability to interpret them and gain perspective. Unfortunately, Borrows councils, this “knowledge certainly does not prepare you for your first encounter” (p.4). Jurists attempting to serve may require courage, humility and the ability to laugh about themselves, for “the gift of laughter” is closely connected with “these deeper laws about hope and healing” (p.16).

Let us now encounter the “woolly-bear white” old wolf with his “bitten-off impulses and dismantled intuitions… hanging upside down on the wire of non-participation” in a London zoo. How do we listen to him so that he is revealed on his own terms? How ought we meet him in his misery? Can we avoid deepening his pain, learn what it or he wants to say through it and then see beyond, to encounter him more (w)holistically, to arrive at a more nuanced sense of legal and social responsibility (Williams) not only to him, but through him, to life?

The gaze and the gazer’s subject position may not be benign and exists within relations of power and control (Foucault); control which may involve a “narrowing of vision, [a calculated] simplification, legibility and manipulation” (Scott, p.11) that strips away a “complex and unwieldy reality” and leaves behind mapped, regimented and codified places and beings struggling to just ‘be’ and exist within those exacting narratives of reason and means-end relationships (Meyer) that feel and can be alienating (Borrows).

We hear that “eyes have worn [the wolf] away. Children’s gazings have tattered him to a lumpish comfort of woolly play wolf. He’s weary” in his confinement, watched daily and watching in return, perhaps slowly going crazy as he lives out the panopticon (Foucault): “the Keeper has come to freshen the water… [and] the awful thing is happening [again]… is he hearing the deer? Is he listening to gossip of non-existent forest?” Is he going mad, “afflicted by voices… torn up in neurotic boredom… a product without a market”? What has seeped into him, torn up his “incredible rich will”, keeps him “waiting for the anaesthetic to work” as he struggles to live “between nothing and nothing”, in the perpetual waiting room, existing in political ‘in-between moments’ of drawn out time (Meister). He could “howl all night.”

As Deleuze “commented somewhere, discipline is a very expensive project” (Valverde, p.90); post-disciplinary mechanisms for governing wolves thus involve “never-ending modulation… continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment” (p.90). The wolf is stripped down to “capacities, potentialities” (p,90). “He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it… His every yawn is another dose of poison”. What does he do with this knowledge? It appears he dissociates, “his every frolic releases a whole flood of new hopelessness which he then has to burn up in sleep”. This too, Borrows recounts, “is what our people have done in the day of their sadness. Some of us forgot who we were, where we came from, and the laws we were given. We turned against that which would most help us remember” (p.13). But the wolf’s “eyes keep telling him… that he’s a wolf [and not a] lump of meat”.

Has it always been this way? A young wolf “full of easy time” could still “afford to prick his ears to all that … shadow-flutter of moving people, and the roller coaster roar of London… and find nothing as to forest. He still ha[d] the starlings to amuse him”. It appears that discipline and control work with and through time. “Children are taught not to see what they see” (Williams, p.13), a paradigm of thought like that “by which blacks are reassured that there is no real inequality in the world, just their own bad dreams; and by which women are taught not to experience what they experience, in deference to men’s ways of knowing” (p.13).

The caged wolf does not exist “apart from the narratives that locate [him] and give [him] meaning”. Who then are these “wolfwatching” meaning-giving subjectivities that we meet briefly as “gazing children”, “moving people” and “the Keeper”? Surely this is a question worth asking if only to briefly withdraw our intense focus from the over-watched, over-analyzed and over-determined wolf as our pitied victim and shed light on the “semiotics of power relations, of dominance and submission, of assertion and deference, of big and little” (Patricia Williams, p.12) that must not be left in the dark.

“Talk about iron-clad canon. Talk about a static, unyielding, totally uncompromising point of reference. These people must be lawyers” (Williams, p.13). Ouch! Have we learned so exclusively “the idiocies of High Objectivity… [as to] sink so deeply into the authoritarianism of [our] own world view… to universalize [our] relative bigness so completely that [we] obliterate” (Williams, p.13) wolf-subject positions of relative smallness? As jurists-as-servants ‘we’ surely must face this music and explore what is happening within us and in the in-between spaces of our relating.

Does the desire to ‘do justice’ come with a desire to ‘rescue’ the wolf from his enclosure? Does this ‘rescue operation’ come with a political lens that narrows in on the ‘wolf-as-victim’ and remains blind to the power structures that entangle him as much as they determine us as ‘would be rescuers’ (Meister)? Do we fear the young wolf as ‘the unknown other’ with his “Asiatic eyes, the gunsights aligned effortless in the beam of his power” and secretly revel in his being rendered “amiable in his dogginess”? Do we desire a less taxing captivity for him, with more freedoms, rights and opportunities but never entirely free, comfortably reconciled to what we permit (Meister)? Is struggling for him and his well-being too taxing on our taken for granted privileges and do we therefore shuffle our proverbial feet and ask for more time; always more time (Meister) while we dodge restructuring our and his world in what we fear may amount to a revolutionary and violent redistribution driven by his resentment and “purging” anger (Coulthard); do we fear the “breakdown of [his] colonial subjection”?

We know our capacity and may project onto the wolf this same ruthlessness, waiting for it to emerge, for him to “vomit them up” (Coulthard), our cherished supremacy of values and ideology, our carefully crafted superstructure (Weber). We know that he comes with an “iron inheritance” and with long “ancestries grizzled into his back”. We may be weary of the moment that he re-discovers “his feet, the power-tools [that currently] lie in front of him [which he] doesn’t know how to use” yet. Should we episodically inflict violence upon him (Hussain), a warning to all potential resistance?

Is this baseless speculation, dangerous exaggeration? Perhaps, but does the fear of ‘the other’ not reside in mythologizing processes that grow best in the fertile soils of ‘relating at a distance’, from behind bars, separated by motes? “Am I also the man in the nest”, Borrows asks, reflecting on the importance of not “becom[ing] detached from those around us” (p.8) whom we desire to help. “Justice works differently around here”, the officer reminds him, “it’s all relative… I really didn’t realize who you were, but not to worry. I know your family; you’re OK. You’re free to go” (Borrows, p.7). It seems that only after relationship was established that he could help as he desired; only then was he also protected from being seen as the dangerous and suspicious other “disturbing the peace” (p.7). The relational field first had to be ‘intensified’ (Massumi).

Is this then our first task as jurists-as-servants? Do we need to ask ourselves Borrows’ important question and learn how to avoid standing at “the edge of most issues” (Borrows, p.11)? How do we re-connect “rhetoric, politics, laws, and philosophy [with] the actions and understanding of people ‘at home’ (Borrows, p.12)? How do we enter the wolf’s enclosure and recognize him as ‘at home’, including him within our circle of care? Do we need to understand how he lives his “Arctic whisper[s]… of escape and freedom” or is it enough that we appreciate that they engage “his strength, his beauty, and his life”, accepting also that his current carceral existence (Foucault) feels like “a million miles knotted in his paws [like] ten million years broken between his teeth”? Can we permit him to experience his pain and to own his “melodrama”, (Meister, p.63) become the type of audience that he deserves, refusing to cast evil as past, and working always, as ‘our task’, to narrow the time-space between moments of injustice and recourse to “justice” (Meister, p.x)?

As the weary wolf curls on the cooling stone, “the burden[s] of a new curiosity, a new testing, of new noises, new people with new colours, are coming in at the gate”. It is a burden for he exists in a state of “non-participation”; it’s all relative, Burrows’ officer explains, relative to relations of power (Foucault), degrees of understanding and the “cultural, political and economic habits” (Valverde, p.90) that jurists-as-servants ought to trouble as pre-conditions for ‘hearing others into speech’. And this then is what we may have and continue to learn when we think about how to serve.

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Notes on my thought process while writing:

Poetry is a fabulous way to engage with the complexity of our affect saturated world without providing definitive, easy solutions. Poems draw us into a dynamic and contingent world that engages our intellect, imagination and emotions. I carry it with me as I make my way through law school as a reminder and as an inspiration. It helps me prevent a rigidity in thought and approach that I fear might be enculturated by a law degree. I am also reminded of the line in Percy Shelley’s In defence of poetry: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Therefore, reading law, legal education and legal jurisprudence by weaving in poetry and a poetic disposition is something that fascinates me while also triggering fears of inadequacy as to the task. I am thankful for Williams’ writing making use of ‘subject position’ which enabled me to bring in my own affect and emotion that also belonged to this writing project; all too often, emotions and affect is left in the dark, unexamined.

In that poetry leaves you on an unsure footing as you try to grasp for its meaning, it felt intimidating bringing this beautiful and sweeping poem in contact with authors presented in the context of thinking about law and legal education. I referred to this encounter as a ‘meeting place’, the imaginary space I hoped to create. I positioned myself as writing from a ‘baffled place of mind’, a phrasing that I appreciate and relate to.

The question that I asked myself, what did you learn about how to serve, is an important one; it is addressed indirectly via the class syllabus and resided in the background to our class discussions. I decided to address it head-on; that I end up weaving and circling around the question, never providing definitive answers is perhaps indicative that the answer is never closed and exists as an ongoing conversation that benefits from nuance and self-reflection. Drawing on Foucault and Stoler who frame their writings as invitations and provocations was therefore intentional.

Why did I chose this poem? Perhaps because it is beautiful or because I love wolves but also because I saw its narrative interacting well in many places with our readings. Keeping in line with the concept of ‘meeting place’, I framed my engagement with the wolf in the poem as an encounter.

‘Encounter’ speaks to themes of ‘a relating entangled in power dynamics’, self/other narratives, modes of paying attention, witnessing and understanding and storytelling. Meister’s use of Melanie Klein as she speaks to dissociation, his thinking on victim/savior splits, Foucault and Deleuze as they speak to governance, discipline and control and Borrows as he writes about storytelling and relationship all felt very pertinent to encountering the wolf in the poem. Finally, I draw on Massumi’s themes on affect to situate the encounter in an open, dynamic and interactive field.

It is easy to encounter the wolf as a victim; the poem drips with pathos and yet, this is what Foucault warned us against: we must render simple gestures complex and difficult. I therefore asked how we should encounter him, suggested that we do it on his terms – allowing him to own his melodrama – and problematized this platitude by turning the focus on the gazing subjectivities – the audience – who may or may not be willing to engage with the wolf on his terms. I explicitly, drawing on Williams, did not let law students, myself included, off the hook. We too gaze and our gaze is not always benign or as helpful as we may wish it to be; thus, the importance of Borrows’ theme of community and proximity.

Wolves have often been mythologized as creatures of ‘evil’. This wolf motif could function productively, in contrast and tension with his role as victim. The wolf existed not only as the victim, but also as the potential dangerous, feared ‘other’, a container for dissociations and other/self narratives. Hussein’s notion of exemplary punishment in conversation with Coulthard’s resurgence worked well as a reminder of the tensions underlying such a ‘fear saturated’ encounter. One-off violence done to the wolf may be rationalized as necessary and co-exists as an exception to an otherwise Deleuzian mechanism of control or to a more explicit disciplinary regime as per Foucault, or as I wrote: post-disciplinary mechanisms for governing wolves thus involve “never-ending modulation… continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment” (p.90). The wolf is stripped down to “capacities, potentialities” (p,90). “He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it”.

I saw the experience of the wolf as a metaphor partly for marginalized and oppressed peoples struggling to ‘be’ and made this most explicit when I linked the wolf’s recognition that he is more than a lump of meat to an Indigenous consciousness and resurgence as per Borrows. Analogizing, a law student’s bread and butter, appeared to work well here. I am aware that this carries its own difficulties, that analogies are imperfect and that I am limited in my work by what I have or have not experienced; thus, my use of ‘what is self-evident is evidence of the self’, a most useful entryway for self-reflection.

Our task (to borrow from Meister), as jurists-as-servants, I stated involves hearing those whom we encounter into speech. I was inspired to use this framing when thinking about the poem’s last lines, or how the wolf is “hanging upside down on the wire of non-participation”. This recalled the concept of voice, language and how an absence of both is related to processes of marginalization in society, leading to states of dislocation/confusion (i.e. hanging upside down) and non/impoverished participation. As advocates, we must have conversations that address this tension. I thus hoped to create an invitation to dialogue through this writing, performing perhaps a response to the question that I was asked to address by my hypothetical community.

The End (for now).

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Sources:

A. W. Brian Simpson, Leading Cases in the Common Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1995)

Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and
the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995)

Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of
Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)

Jill Frank, A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the Work of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

John Borrows/Kegedonce Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 2010)

Linda Meyer, The Justice of Mercy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010)

Marianna Valverde, Law’s Dream of a Common Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2003)

Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” in P. Lassman and R. Speirs, eds., Political Writings
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Michel Foucault, “Est-il donc important de penser?” in Dits et écrits, 1976-1988 (Quarto Gallimard, 2001)

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)

Nasser Hussain, “Towards a Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of
Law” (1999) 10 Law and Critique 93-115

Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1992)

Robert Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2011)

 

Wolfwatching by Ted Hughes

Woolly-bear white, the old wolf
Is listening to London. His eyes, withered in
Under the white wool, black peepers,
While he makes nudging, sniffing offers
At the horizon of noise, the blue-cold April
Invitation of airs. The lump of meat
Is his confinement. He has probably had all his life
Behind wires, fraying his eye-efforts
On the criss-cross embargo. He yawns
Peevishly like an old man and the yawn goes
Right back into Kensington and there stops
Floored with glaze. Eyes
Have worn him away. Children’s gazings
Have tattered him to a lumpish
Comfort of woolly play-wolf. He’s weary.
He curls on the cooling stone
That gets heavier. Then again the burden
Of a new curiosity, a new testing
Of new noises, new people with new colours
Are coming in at the gate. He lifts
The useless weight and lets it sink back,
Stirring and settling in a ball of unease.
All his power is a tangle of old ends,
A jumble of leftover scraps and bits of energy
And bitten-off impulses and dismantled intuitions.
He can’t settle. He’s ruffling
And re-organizing his position all day
Like a sleepless half-sleep of growing agonies
In a freezing car. The day won’t pass.
The night will be worse. He’s waiting
For the anaesthetic to work
That has already taken his strength, his beauty
And his life.

He levers his stiffness erect
And angles a few tottering steps
Into his habits. He goes down to water
And drinks. Age is thirsty. Water
Just might help and ease. what else
Is there to do? He tries to find again
That warm position he had. He cowers
His hind legs to curl under him. Subsides
In a trembling of wolf-pelt he no longer
Knows how to live up to.
And here
Is a young wolf, still intact.
He knows how to lie, with his head,
The Asiatic eyes, the gunsights
Aligned effortless in the beam of his power.
He closes his pale eyes and is easy,
Bored easy. His big limbs
Are full of easy time. He’s waiting
For the chance to live, then he’ll be off.
Meanwhile the fence, and the shadow-flutter
Of moving people, and the roller coaster
Roar of London surrounding, are temporary,
And cost him nothing, and he can afford
To prick his ears to all that and find nothing
As to forest. He still has the starlings
To amuse him. The scorched ancestries,
Grizzled into his back, are his royalty.
The rufous ears and neck are always ready.
He flops his heavy running paws, resplays them
On pebbles, and rests the huge engine
Of his purring head. A wolf
Dropping perfect on pebbles. For eyes
To put on a pedestal. A product
without a market.
But all the time
The awful thing is happening: the iron inheritance,
The incredible rich will, torn up
In neurotic boredom and eaten,
Now indigestible. All that restlessness
And lifting of ears, and aiming, and re-aiming
Of nose, is like a trembling
Of nervous breakdown, afflicted by voices.
Is he hearing the deer? Is he listening
To gossip of non-existent forest? Pestered
By the hour-glass panic of lemmings
Dwindling out of reach? He’s run a long way
Now to find nothing and be patient.
Patience is suffocating in all those folds
Of deep fur. The fairy tales
Grow stale all around him
And go back into pebbles. His eyes
Keep telling him all this is real
And that he’s a wolf–of all things
To be in the middle of London, of all
Futile, hopeless things. Do Arctics
Whisper on their wave-lengths–fantasy-draughts
Of escape and freedom? His feet,
The power-tools, lie in front of him–
He doesn’t know how to use them. Sudden
Dramatic lift and re-alignment
Of his purposeful body–
the Keeper
Has come to freshen the water.

And the prodigious journeys
Are thrown down again in his
Loose heaps of rope.
The future’s snapped and coiled back
Into a tangled lump, a whacking blow
That’s damaged his brain. Quiet,
Amiable in his dogginess,
Disillusioned–all that preparation
Souring in his skin. His every yawn
Is another dose of poison. His every frolic
Releases a whole flood
Of new hopelessness which he then
Has to burn up in sleep. A million miles
Knotted in his paws. Ten million years
Broken between his teeth. A world
Stinking on the bone, pecked by sparrows.
He’s hanging
Upside down on the wire
Of non-participation.
He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it.
He can howl all night
And dawn will pick up the same card
And see him painted on it, with eyes
Like doorframes in a desert
Between nothing and nothing.

 

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