Life-Giving Speech Amid an Empire of Silence

It will come as no surprise to readers of the Law Review that James Boyd White is a daring and wise practitioner of what Clifford Geertz terms “blurred genres.” By appeal to Kenneth Burke, Victor Turner, and Paul Ricoeur, among others, Geertz envisions a broad interpretive venture that breaks out of the rigid regulations of a particular discipline to the larger constructive enterprise that entertains life and its meaning as a “game” of face-to-face engagement, or as a “drama” that presses on to the next scene. White’s work fits that vision precisely. In Living Speech: Resisting the Empire of Force, White is rooted in his own proper study of the law, but he “blurs” his work over in many directions, notably to classical drama, poetry, and philosophy, even with indirect traces and hints of theology. The effect is to summon readers-especially, but by no means exclusively, students of law-beyond the conventional limits and procedures of their discipline or, alternatively, to depths in their discipline that touch human realities that technical reason can never probe. Thus his book is an exercise in the humanities of a wise and urgent kind. In Part I, I lay out White’s agenda in the book, and identify a key tension in speech upon which White focuses. Developing upon this, in Part II, I describe the sort of speech that White attributes to the empire of force, while in Part III, I describe what White defines as living speech. In Part IV, I apply White’s speech framework to three concepts that have long preoccupied me, namely intention, imagination, and interpretation, and in Part V, I examine what White’s thesis means in own my field, theology. Finally, I conclude the essay with my thoughts about what the book means to each of us, its readers both inside and outside of the field of law.