ALF Law and Literature Reading Group: Why Law and Literature? (Session 1, May 11, 2015)

Last Monday, we at ALF initiated a Law and Literature Reading Group. Open to anyone, people from both legal and non-legal backgrounds participated. This post hopes to summarise some of the themes which were discussed in the first session, and my own ideas about them.

Why Law and Literature?
The most obvious question to a Law and Literature Reading Group is why think about Law and Literature at all? Several perspectives were cast in this regard. Danish spoke of how reading literature about the law like To Kill A Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men (using a broad definition to “literature” to also encompass popular culture) first sparked his interest in law. Several others along with him, including Ishana and Manish then discussed how literature can help reimagine the possibilities of law, and make law more “human”. It was pointed out how judges who are of literary bent also tend to be more sensitive to the problems faced by those not in similar social circumstances as them. Literature can breed the empathy which law seems devoid of. Ishana also talked about how literature can help make law more accessible to people outside of the legal community.

My personal interest in initiating this reading group stemmed from the idea that both law and literature deal with the subject of human interactions, albeit in different ways. I remain intrigued by the question of whether each discipline’s particular way of approaching human interactions can enrich the approach of the other.

The History of Law and Literature as a Discipline
In light of my fascination with the question of human interactions in both law and literature, the historical approach to the discipline has always baffled me. Law and Literature has traditionally been studied in three aspects: Law in Literature, Law as Literature and Law of Literature. Law in Literature looks at how law is portrayed in literature and literary texts.

I actually find this segmentation an inhibitor in discovering the true potential of Law and Literature as a discipline because it limits discussions to the narrow confines of how law interacts with literature.

Literature in Law: Literary Tropes
Significantly, Kishore was quick to point that something starkly missing from the traditional organisation of Law and Literature, is the analysis of literature in law. Or, how literature actually influences and finds a presence in legal documents. He gave the example of literary tropes like cases of rape or sexual harassment, whereupon the woman is seen as “asking for it.” These literary tropes often find a way into the law. I think another excellent example of this is the image of the scheming wife in literature, which must in some way, spark the imagination of judges when diluting Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which is intended to protect women from cruelty in marriages.

Danish brought to the table that this probably might be because a lot of what we now consider ancient literature was actually law back in the day. For instance, the Old Testament, which is literature now, but which was also a Code of living and law to be judged upon for many centuries. Similarly, a number of Greek tragedy literature which discussed issues of ideal and ethical behaviour.

Divergence of Law and Literature: Probing at Technical Architecture of Law
If law and literature are however so similar, where do they begin to diverge? What makes them different? In line with this, Manish asked the pertinent question of what it really means when we say that we are talking about “law”? Are we talking of the legal system as it is, or the legal system as it should be? This in my opinion, was a valuable question because as it is, the legal system seems complicated and insurmountable. Unlike literature, law is extremely technical, and sometimes incomprehensible. And how can law be just when it cannot even be accessed easily? Can literature then help one reimagine the role of the law and lawyer? Can it help question law on what it means to be just?

This also got me thinking about the process of knowledge production in law, as opposed to literature. Why does law produce itself as such an inaccessible form of knowledge? Bhavana gave the excellent example of Companies Act in this regard, a body of knowledge so complex and technical that nobody—including lawyers themselves, can hope to understand it fully without devoting years of careful study to it. Is such inaccessibility of knowledge form tied up to the identity and authority of law?; so that if made accessible, it ceases to be law anymore and is “mere” text? Can literature help demystify this “aura” of law? Can we even demystify this aura without losing the point of law in the process?

Looking at Literature from a Historic Perspective
These discussions at the first session helped us solidify the manner in which we would like to structure the activities of the ALF Law and Literature Reading Group. The Group’s readings and discussions will run on two parallel tracks alternating each week. The first track will pick up reading of literature through a historical chronology in an attempt to see how literature, law and the relationship between the two has changed over the ages. The second track will include readings on theme-wise suggestions made by members of the Group, depending on their particular interests.

Literature Recommended for Session 1
—Susan Sage Heinzelman, An Introduction to Law and Literature (Audio Lecture)
—John Hursh, A Historical Reassessment of the Law and Literature Movement in the United States (2013), available at http://www.graat.fr/1hursh.pdf
—For illustration, two different kinds of course modules of Law and Literature courses, from NALSAR and from University of Toronto.

If you are interested in joining us for the next session on Tuesday, 19 April, 6PM, just walk in! 🙂 To get the relevant reading material for the next session, please drop a mail to Danish at danish@altlawforum.org, or me at smarika@altlawforum.org. We are in process of creating a mailing list. Meanwhile our Reading Group is also on Facebook here!

Written by: Smarika Kumar
Published on: May 13, 2015