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Object Lessons in Personhood

“Object Lessons in Personhood” is a roundtable session I organized for the MLA Law and Humanities Forum. It will take place on Thursday, January 5, 2017, at the MLA convention in Philadelphia. Featuring object lessons on chair, body, mail-coach, will, canoe, child soldier, and cloud, the session explores how theoretical issues surrounding legal personhood–questions of consent, responsibility, rights, and freedom–manifest themselves at the level of substance, form, and environment. Our aim is to establish a material archive for personhood and model new ways of putting legal studies into conversation with other thriving subfields in the humanities.

Presiding: Kevin Curran, University of Lausanne


Stephanie Elsky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In Margaret Cavendish’s closet drama The Religious (1662), Mistris Odd-Humour, a gentleman’s daughter, refuses to relinquish her childhood chair, thus rendering herself unsuitable for marriage. Cavendish represents her attachment to this object as not only figurative but also literal: because she has physically outgrown her chair, she is unable to remove herself from it when a suitor unexpectedly arrives. The play seems to parody the inappropriate affective investment in objects, but the extended pun on the word “seat,” an object and a place, suggests something more. Cavendish collapses two incommensurable forms of property, the paramount legal category of land and its compensatory other, moveable goods. She thus challenges the boundaries of the inalienable, asking where legal personhood begins and ends, especially for a woman on the cusp of marriage. The play dramatizes the convergence of affect and object and, when the chair is finally destroyed, considers what kind of person and liberty (the play’s term) are created in its wake.


Sarah Winter, University of Connecticut

In his study of common-law writs, F. W. Maitland comments, “The forms of action we have buried, but they still rule us from their graves.” This paper investigates the forms of legal personhood mobilized by a set of writs that enabled courts to move bodies; specifically, the habeas corpus ad respondendum, used to bring a defendant before the court; the capias ad satisfaciendum, used to jail a defendant in order to obtain execution of a judgment; and the celebrated habeas corpus ad subjiciendum et recipiendum, which permits adjudication on the legality of a specific prisoner’s detention. In Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the action of these writs illuminates the embodied nature of legal personhood. In the novel’s object lesson in mesne process, the insolvent debtor’s human body is reduced to a “carcase” by hunger and isolation in the Fleet. Through Mr. Pickwick’s voluntary incarceration, however, the debtor’s “corpus” becomes interchangeable with its counterpart, the free and mobile citizen’s body, thus demonstrating the restricted freedom of the modern political subject.


Daniel Williams, Harvard University

Until 1846 English law viewed any mobile object responsible for human death as “deodand”—to be rendered unto the crown via forfeiture or fine. The statutory abolition of deodand (9 & 10 Vict. [1846], c. 62) ushered in negligence and liability provisions more attuned to a machine-driven, accident-prone capitalist society. Reading two literary reflections on the same mortally threatening vehicle, I consider how Victorian writers, in dismissing deodand as a curious remedy for extracting compensation, gradually came to erase its emphasis on how objects and persons are legally drawn together by accidents. De Quincey’s The English Mail-Coach (1849), a text saturated with legal paraphernalia, laboriously envisions a forthcoming “sudden death” by comically dispersing responsibility among human and nonhuman actors. Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), by contrast, casts a devastating mail-coach accident as a contest between two human agents, despite the scene’s significant nonhuman presence and casualty. Relying on recent object-oriented theory that has invoked deodand as a useful precursor, I propose that we can furnish more creative accounts of the responsibilities entailed in negligence cases by attending to their objects as more than fungible bearers of human value or concern.


Lucy Sheehan, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

In Shirley Brooks’s melodrama The Creole; or, Love’s Fetters (1847), a patriarch has died; brandishing the piece of paper containing his last will and testament on stage, his son discovers the dictates of the will grant him irrevocable ownership over the woman he loves, who was his father’s slave and possibly his half-sister. The will is never read aloud on stage; instead, the document is furnished as a stage prop, an “object lesson” in how the law threatens to reduce complex bonds of kinship and elective love to a willed but unwanted property claim that grants possession to some while dispossessing others of, alternately, their status as legal persons and the objects of their affection. This paper will examine how the artifact of the planter’s will wielded on stage encapsulates the drama of legal personhood at the intersection of family and slavery, and legal form at the intersection of text and performance.


Christine Holbo, Arizona State University

Where would Huckleberry Finn interpretation be without the raft? For most literary critics and legal humanists, the raft runs away with it all, symbolizing freedom from society, and thus the possibility of justice in an unjust world. This paper argues that in focusing on the raft, critics have long been concerned with the wrong “thing,” and that they have overlooked a set of objects that directly figure the protagonists’ search for freedom and their understanding of their status as persons before the law: the series of canoes which, found and lost again, appear and disappear in the course of the narrative. Reading Huckleberry Finn for the canoe allows us to recognize the way the raft represents unfreedom as well as freedom; and it makes visible a complex argument woven into the novel concerning the relationships between personhood and property, freedom from law and freedom before the law in Reconstruction-era America.


Jill Stauffer, Haverford College

If someone was abducted at the age of 10 and forced to be a child soldier, is he responsible for what he has done? If he is indicted 20 years later, at what point did he pass the line between too young to be responsible and old enough to have known better? What kind of person can he be, if these are the questions? We find time and ourselves in aging. But when we are faced with what cannot be undone we also see that time is not a form of measurement but a question directed at us, a lived inner sense that plays a role in the kinds of selves we might be. Taking child soldiers as an extreme form of a common problem, I’ll explore the difference between a sense of time that opens up a future, and one that forecloses possibility. This is part of a larger work on how time passes in law.


Stefanie Mueller, Goethe Universität Frankfurt

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC spurred a renewed public interest in the legal fiction of corporate personhood and its consequences for a broader debate of what constitutes a person at law. In the same year, Timothy Donnelly published a collection of poems called The Cloud Corporation. But it is more than timing that brings these two texts together. Rather, it is that both deal with questions of personhood, voice and participation in the public sphere. The image at the center of the title poem is the cloud, with its changing meaning in the digital age and its elusive materiality as a natural phenomenon. This presentation will therefore examine the way in which the corporation serves as a metaphor of the self in “The Cloud Corporation” and how this self can interact with natural and legal persons in Citizens United.

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