Date: 21 September 2018
Venue: The ANU Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies
Paul Ricoeur portrayed law as eternally torn between ‘the promise’ and ‘the rule’. Giorgio Agamben has been looking for a ‘third thing’ between these two poles. And he wonders whether he has found in late medieval Franciscan writings something that is ‘unthought and perhaps today unthinkable’, that is, where the life and rule and might have become so intertwined so as to almost realise this other, this ‘third thing’ (Agamben 2013: xii). In this form of monastic rule, perhaps, there might be a lived obedience to norms that is more liturgical than regulative, more to be sung than interpreted. Agamben, then, grasps at a tradition that might contort even our most basic categories for law, politics and society, finding new ways of uncovering law’s promise beneath or beyond rules.
History is not the only place where we might look for radical approaches to norms or for alternative ways of dwelling with law. Clifford Geertz, after all, insists that legal interpretation is only possible on the basis of ‘local knowledge.’ Take for example Brinkley Messick’s ethnography of Yemen in colonial transition. He describes the transfer of land title affected by handwritten documents, the scribe’s text spiralling around the benediction to God. Writing in every direction surrounds the central bismillah, making each document essentially different in form and in content. The significance of this, for Messick, lies in its different epistemic structure (1993: 234). Here the rule is embodied not in the form of the document but in the presence of the scribe and his ink, in the ‘individual sensuous or intuitive content’ of the total document (Cassirer in Messick 1993: 237).