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Law as Performance: Theatricality, Spectatorship, and the Making of Law in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Europe
by Julie Stone Peters
Tirades against legal theatrics are nearly as old as law itself, and yet so is the age-old claim that law must not merely be done: it must be "seen to be done." Law as Performance traces the history of legal performance and spectatorship through the early modern period. Viewing law as the product not merely of edicts or doctrines but of expressive action, it investigates the performances that literally created law: in civic arenas, courtrooms, judges' chambers, marketplaces, scaffolds, and streets. It examines the legal codes, learned treatises, trial reports, lawyers' manuals, execution narratives, rhetoric books, images (and more) that confronted these performances, praising their virtues or denouncing their evils. In so doing, it recovers a long, rich, and largely overlooked tradition of jurisprudential thought about law as a performance practice. This tradition not only generated an elaborate poetics and politics of legal performance. It provided western jurisprudence with a set of constitutive norms that, in working to distinguish law from theatrics, defined the very nature of law. In the crucial opposition between law and theatre, law stood for cool deliberation, by-the-book rules, and sovereign discipline. Theatre stood for deceptive artifice, entertainment, histrionics, melodrama. And yet legal performance, even at its most theatrical, also appeared fundamental to law's realization: a central mechanism for shaping legal subjects, key to persuasion, essential to deterrence, indispensable to law's power, —as it still does today.
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About the Author
Julie Stone Peters (B.A. Yale, Ph.D. Princeton, J.D. Columbia) is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Co-Chair of Columbia's Theatre and Performance PhD Program. She has taught at Harvard, Stanford, and the Metropolitan Detention Center (Brooklyn), was Founding Director of the Columbia College Human Rights Program, and has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEH, Fulbright, ACLS, Humboldt, and other fellowships. Her publications include Theatre of the Book: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe 1480-1880 (Oxford University Press, 2000, winner of the Harry Levin and Beatrice White Prizes), Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives (co-edited, Routledge, 1995), and numerous studies of drama, performance, film, media, and the cultural history of law.
About the Speakers
Jesús Velasco is the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Chair at Yale Univesity. He studies Medieval and Early Modern legal cultures across the Mediterranean Basin and Europe within and outside the legal professions, from the perspective of contemporary critical thought. He is the author of Dead Voice: Law, Philosophy, and Fiction in the Iberian Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), Plebeyos Márgenes: Ficción, Industria del Derecho y Ciencia Literaria (SEMYR), or Order and Chivalry: Knighthood and Citizenship in Late Medieval Castile (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Denise Cruz is a Professor and the Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she writes and teaches about gender and sexuality in national and transnational cultures. She uses spatial and geographic frameworks (from the transpacific, to the regional, to the Global South) to examine previously unstudied archives (from the first works of English literature by Filipina and Filipino authors, to private papers that document connections between the Midwest and U. S. empire, to fashion shows in Manila). Her first book, Transpacific Femininities: the Making of the Modern Filipina (Duke University Press, 2012) analyzes connections between the rise of Philippine print culture in English and the emergence of new classes of transpacific women from the early to the mid-twentieth century.
Camille Robcis is a professor of French and history at Columbia University and specializes in modern European intellectual history, with a focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. Her interests have circled around three issues: the historical construction of norms, the intellectual production of knowledge, and the articulation of universalism and difference in modern French history. Prior to coming to Columbia, she taught at Cornell for ten years. Robcis is the author of The Law of Kinship: Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and the Family in France, which was published by Cornell University Press and won the 2013 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize. Her second book, Disalienation: Politics, Philosophy, and Radical Psychiatry in Postwar France (University of Chicago Press, 2021) maps the intersections of politics, philosophy, and radical psychiatry in twentieth-century France.
Eleanor B Johnson specializes in late medieval English prose, poetry, and drama; medieval poetics and literary philosophy; law and literature in the Middle Ages; and vernacular theology. Her first book, Practicing Literary Theory in the Late Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve, was published in 2013 (University of Chicago Press). Her second book, Dramatizing Contemplation: Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama, was published in 2018 (University of Chicago Press). She is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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