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Legal Ecologies

“Legal Ecologies” is a roundtable session I co-organized with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for MLA 2018 in New York. The session is co-sponsored by MLA’s Law and Humanities Forum and Ecocroticism and Environmental Humanities Forum

The Anglo-American legal tradition is fundamentally anthropocentric and individualist. As the legal philosopher Desmond Manderson observes, criminal law, contract law, property law, and even constitutional law all start “with the assumed primacy of ‘I’,” the “I” which is independent and autonomous, born with a set of natural, unassailable rights to life, liberty, and property. Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke believed that humans were by nature independent and self-governing and that the first and most basic duty of any legal system should be to protect this primary freedom. This basic acceptance of the primacy of the “I” persists in the most influential legal thought of our own time, too, linking together the otherwise very different work of theorists from John Rawls to Robert Nozick and Ernst Weinrib.

This roundtable session pushes back against this tradition by considering how the theoretical tools developed by ecocriticism and the environmental humanities might help us redescribe legal experience in terms that don’t depend on the grammar of the “I” and the “me.” On the philosophical level, this will involve rethinking key legal concepts such as consent, responsibility, property, and personhood by placing them in a material and interspecies frame. On the political level, it will involve addressing how this philosophical re-orientation translates into new possibilities for environmental justice, especially with regard to animal sovereignty, activism, sustainable citizenship, and indigenous rights. Kevin Curran will open the session by outlining the theoretical contexts for this undertaking. He will focus in particular on the term “ecology” itself and how it can help us connect the thought worlds of Anglo-American law, materialist philosophy, and posthuman ethics. Sophi Christman Lavin will then consider how the notion of “sustainable citizenship” can be brought to bear on environmental law. Sustainable citizenship, She will suggest, involves not only legislated rights, but also an ethical imperative to exhibit a supererogatory duty of care to serve the environment’s interests. Next, Rob Nixon will address the recent spike in murders of environmental activists in the global South, defenders of the law who put their bodies on the line upholding laws that otherwise remain undefended. His focus will be recent films about environmental martyrdom in the context of these struggles. Christina Gerhardt will consider water rights in Hawaii with a particular focus on litigation that has sought restorative justice for Kānaka Maoli (Hawaii’s native people). Finally, Cary Wolfe will bring the discussion back to broader theoretical concerns by exploring how a “metabiological” account of social complexity drawn from system theory can help us address the changing legal requirements of the non-human world, including but not limited to non-human animals. Each of these presentations will run no longer than ten minutes. Factoring in an additional five minutes or so for the presider’s introductions at the beginning of the session, at least fifteen minutes will remain for questions and discussion.

The rationale for this session is both methodological and practical. On one hand, we wish to lay the groundwork for a more sustained and productive conversation between legal studies and ecocriticism. In doing so, however, we also wish to advance new forms of philosophically oriented activism and policymaking—what we might call “applied critical theory.” Towards this end, and in contrast to much of the scholarship on literature and law, we will be giving less attention to historical context in order to focus more rigorously on law’s philosophical deep-structure—the ideas, assumptions, values, and habits of thought that underpin specific legal rules and practices and which intersect with primary questions about self and environment, such as: what are the sources of agency? What counts as a person? For whom am I responsible, and how far does that responsibility extend? What is truly mine? These are questions that are as fundamental to law as they are to ecocritical theory. Exploring them will allow participants in this roundtable to establish new links between current ethical thought and the practice of environmental justice.

“Legal Ecologies” is a unique and timely collaboration between two interdisciplinary MLA forums which promises to model new critical futures for both legal studies and ecocritcism. Spanning a variety of historical periods and geographical locales, the session should appeal to a broad audience of scholars interested in political criticism, posthumanism, and the links between theory and practice within the humanities.

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