Introduction: Is Cultural Criticism Possible?

It is by now something of a truism that the abstract and conceptual modes of discourse that have dominated our intellectual life in the past century have led to a rather reduced and schematic view of law. Moved by the desire to talk about social institutions in a neutral and scientific way, scholars beginning at least with John Austin have sought to define law as a set of rules, promulgated by a sovereign and addressed to the behavior of subject individuals, all in an attempt to isolate legal phenomena from their context for scientific study. Rules, on this view, are seen to speak in terms of classes: any person who performs act A is said to be exposed to consequence B. For the purpose of law so regarded, all that matters is the stereotyped narrative which it establishes as a condition for the legal consequence it imposes. The law takes a snapshot of the world and reduces human actors and events to the set of caricatures by which it interprets what it sees. The analyst’s hope is to establish a set of classifications or categories that can be used to describe and predict legal phenomena in a scientific and value-neutral way. He preserves for other days the questions whether the law is good, whether it ought to be obeyed, what its origins are, what relation it bears to other social and cultural phenomena, and so on.