Blog: Stories are dangerous, said the Judge

Blog: Stories are dangerous, said the Judge

By Marie Beauchamps

Marie Beauchamps joined the School of Politics and International Relations as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoc fellow in May 2019. She is an Associate Researcher at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam. She authored Governing Affective Citizenship: Denaturalization, Belonging, and Repression (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2019)She completed her PhD at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 2015. She taught at the College of Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (UvA) and the Literary and Cultural Analysis department (UvA). She is a guest teacher at the Amsterdam Academy of Theater and Dance. And she blogs at https://mobilisingaffects.org/.

It was an afternoon in early summer 2019, in Amsterdam. We were celebrating our teaching program’s fifth anniversary, just as much as I was saying goodbye to those colleagues who had been my community for the past four years. Sipping a beer and laughing at students’ jokes, I was chit chatting with a colleague who happen to be a judge at the Dutch supreme court—one never just happens to be a judge, but one happens to have a colleague who is a judge at the supreme court. My colleague judge was asking me about my new research project that had just started in London.

“I’m writing about denaturalization law,” I answered.

I’ve been writing about denaturalization law for years now, so that has become my primary reflex answer. Judges do know what is at stake in denaturalization law—they know the stakes of the principle of equality before the law; they know what is at stake when depriving someone’s of their citizenship rights; they also know that security is a tricky topic that can sometimes bring democratic ideals into shaky grounds. I saw in his look that he was interested and that he understood why such a topic was worth years of research. That look changed slightly when I added: “But denaturalization is more a tool to write about something else. What I really do is to show that law and politics are driven by affect and emotions. And then I also want to make the argument of fiction as methods of inquiry and communication within the academia…”

Where most of my academic colleagues up to now had reacted positively intrigued—who wouldn’t want to see creativity come back in an institution of knowledge and education?—I sensed that my colleague judge had his doubts about it.

“Stories are dangerous,” he said, pausing. “Stories are a huge problem in law, making it very difficult for judges to know where to draw the line—a line that they do have to draw.”  

I agreed. Stories are dangerous. But the point is, stories are as old as human communication. So, I told my colleague judge that my starting point was precisely to see the dangerous potential of stories. In fact, it was when studying such a repressive measure as the deprivation of citizenship, studying the logics that has justified practices of denaturalization throughout history, that had made me realize the power of imagination when it becomes captured in language. Repression is indeed based on stories. Stories drive people to do the most horrific things imaginable. Wars; Slavery; Genocides. These are based on stories. Stories make people believe that some people are better than others. Worse, stories make people believe that some people are more human than others.

The arguments in stories are no rational arguments. Instead, the arguments are anecdotes, figurative language—metaphors in particular—framing…all ingredients needed to make a good story.

Stories are nothing new in law and politics. They’ve always been there. And yes, they are dangerous.

So, we better learn acknowledge their presence and learn to recognize them.

“You’re very right,” said the judge.

I’m certainly not the first to claim that law and politics are intricately related to storytelling. For instance, Ronald Dworkin is famous for understanding the law by means of the chain novel metaphor. Central to his law philosophy, the chain novel metaphor represents law as literature, but then literature of a specific kind. It is a collective work, for which novelists write in chain, each continuing the chapter of the previous writer. This means that each writer must interpret the work of their predecessor, as well as add their perspective on the story unfolding. It is no free writing though: in Dworkin’s vision of law as a chain novel, each writer must respect the logic and the chronology of the work as a whole. No postmodern experiments, not poetical interludes—at least, not in the guidelines.

What I like about Dworkin’s vision of the law as a chain novel is that it makes salient how the law is “doing language,” to speak in Toni Morrison’s terms. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may the be measure of our lives,” she reminds us in her Nobel Prize Speech. When seeing the law as a chain novel, we must pay tribute to the work of interpretation that goes hand in hand with working with the law. And we must acknowledge the creativity involved for laws to be drafted in the first place. 

Yet there is another layer to acknowledging the stories that make our laws and drive our politics. Uncovering stories is one thing, writing stories is another. But they go hand in hand; they are the two sides of the same coin. If stories yield power, they are also empowering, and perhaps even more so when they are stories about power relations, of those power relations that require a story to uncover them.

More than any academic text will ever be able to do, stories yields the potential for readers to relate to the complexity rooted in the politics of law, or in the law of politics. Elizabeth Dauphinee’s book The Politics of Exile is a wonderful example. Her “meditation on the aftermath of the war on Bosnia” does a tremendous job at plunging the reader into the context of the war and its atrocities. No academic text could have made us experience what is at stake in circumstances of life and death, such as when a man deserts an army. Dauphinee’s creative text does. It is a page turner in which the narrator makes us feel the soldier’s line of flight. But The Politics of Exile does more than that. It also makes us feel how complex it is to write on the aftermath of war in the first place. Because, how could one possibly write about the aftermath of war when not having experienced war in the first place? Can war be known to those who have not experienced it?

Dauphinee’s work makes us feel the existential negotiations of a writer who feels the urge to expose power in its most destructive form. Just as it makes us feel the writer’s anxiety when negotiating their ability and responsibility to find truth. The voice examining the aftermath of war necessarily needs to remain plural, and open for radical transformation. Creative writing is indeed a great tool to achieve such complexity without having to name it complex.

More than any juridical comment will ever be able to do so, stories allow for people like you and me to understand what is at stake in norms of belonging and repression. Stories empower the dispossessed to connect, to speak, to speak-back. Stories are paranoiac as much as they are reparative, to speak in Eve Sedgewick terms. They are paranoiac because they seek the (com)plot behind our governing norms. But a good story is always stronger than its plot, yielding layers of connective emotions that make us practice our job at being human. And that is what makes them reparative.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

This blogpost was originally published on Marie’s blog, https://mobilisingaffects.org/

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