Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Legal History through a Rear View Mirror 3

I have written a bit about what has changed in the “field” of legal history over the past two generations. Let me now say something about what has stayed the same. At least as I have experienced it.

Legal history has been and remains an extraordinary, and perhaps singular, conversational community. From the mid 1970s, when I first encountered it, to the present day.

I emphasize the singular as well as the singularity of our field. Many conversations, one community. There are many fights worth having in the field: About how to do legal history, about what counts, about sources, about the relationship of the local to the national (and today to the global and the imperial/colonial/post-colonial), about reading practices, about the place of “theory” in history and about what kind of theory to use. These conflicts have always been there. There is no “peaceful” past for legal history, at least in the years that I “lived” it. (The first legal history public conversation I can remember going to involved Lawrence Friedman, who had just published his History of American Law, at Harvard Law School, talking about how everyone there had a distorted and mistaken understanding of what mattered “in” law because they spent their time looking at the pictures on the wall of eminent, mostly British, jurists.).  And those fights continue, at every annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History, and elsewhere. As they should. The conversations can be harsh.  Feelings can be hurt.  People can feel misunderstood. And yet, those conversations or arguments continue. Productively and mostly civilly.  And some of those fights remain in my memory as high points in my life as a legal historian.

Those conversations cross subdisciplinary and genre and national and period lines. “We” talk to one another regardless of whether one “is” or begins as a medievalist, a Latin Americanist, a Caribbeanist, a historian of slavery, or as a doctrinal lawyer or as a legal activist. And in the last years, the lines have extended farther, to incorporate historians and lawyers and others trained as South Asianists and Southeast Asianists and China specialists and classicists.  (The contrast here is with a field like that identified with the Law and Society Association, where each subdiscipline and genre or grouping has its own “collaborative research network,” with the effect of creating many siloed subfields, few of which talk to one another.)

Being a member of this growing community has been such a gift and such a blessing. When I was asked what it was like to go to a legal history meeting after my first time, I paraphrased the Groucho Marx line about not wanting to be a member of a club that would admit me. But that was a lie and a stupid affectation. It has been great. Full stop. I hope others experience that as well.

I can’t pretend to know many of the other precincts of academic law or of professional history, let alone the wider world. I know relatively few. But I know what I know, which is that “we” are a remarkably intense and collegial community. We are tough and critical. But there is a shared sense of a common pursuit, dare I say it, a “calling”? The resistance to silos could be said to produce a shallowness, an inability to plumb deeply into the weeds of our particular (subfield produced) subjects. That is a plausible critique. My sense, however, is that has not been the case. Or not often. There is a confidence that an audience of legal historians can follow any paper or talk into the legal technicalities and the obscurities of archives. And that “we” can have conversations about legal history as it is manifested in many places and many times, in several different languages.

I am not so naive as to pretend there is no hierarchy. There is no easy escape from the false seductions of watching particular people talk the talk, of privileging the clever ones, or the ones with the right credentials. Still, legal history meetings are one place where one does not often notice senior people looking over the heads of junior people (or to the side of their badges), to see if there is someone more important to talk with. Or at least I don’t notice that (which may be something different).

In conversation, Mitra Sharafi reminds me that we may be exclusionary in ways I am not adequately acknowledging. It is certainly true that fewer practicing attorneys come to our meetings than once upon a time. We have become more “professionalized,” in our weird way. We work to avoid making elite connections or degrees a prerequisite, but it may be that those without the “usual” credentials (which are themselves more arbitrary and perhaps disconnected from quality than I have acknowledged) feel excluded. Class privilege is intrinsic to many of our practices. And we have not (yet) done what the Organization of American Historians and a few other academic institutions do, which is to work proactively to include and incorporate into our conversations those who work in the trenches of public education, particularly high school teachers.

There is more to do. Our gemeinschaft may, like most, seem closed to those who are not in, even if we do not practice hierarchy within the group.

And yet our gemeinschaft is also a source for community, and I would think, for the work we do. Our group norms need constant and continuing criticism and attention. But, as compared to many other academic groups, they are not bad.

Why is that? What joins us together? What makes us who we are? I used to think it had to do with a shared sense of marginality. But our marginality, at least within the institutions where legal historians ply their trades, is much less the case than it once was, as I have written in an earlier blog entry. Could it be because we share a common socialization? Is it all about the increasing ubiquity of the dual degree, JD/Ph.D? I don’t believe so, since our biographies do differ. And even common alphabet after our names in our cvs may mask radically different experiences.

One answer to the “why question” has to be about particular individuals who have modeled how to be a good academic citizen, who practice a kind of meritocratic and democratic openness within the community, who create and practice the norms that bind us. From Stan Katz to Tom Green to Michael Grossberg to Rebecca Scott to Barbara Welke, to name just five of many possible leaders (who also served as models for me), we have been led by those committed to a relatively inclusionary and relatively non-hierarchical understanding of the field.

But it may be better just to leave the why as mystery.

My real point is less about the terms that constitute or produce our community life than to make a pitch for understanding our lives as academics through the lens of these conversations and relationships, and through our group norms. Our scholarship makes such conversations possible. But producing books and articles is not the only goal. Conversations and communities, friendships and arguments (and hurt feelings) and relationships, are another.  And legal history has done pretty well on that score.

--Dirk Hartog