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Doing Justice: Trials, Performance, Law

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Doing Justice: Trials, Performance, Law 6th March 2017, 5-7pm, CRASSH

Başak Ertür (Birkbeck College) Mayur Suresh (SOAS)

This seminar will address the relationship between performance and performativity in trials and affective quality of legal language.


Voice beyond a concept: Law as Opera Mayur Suresh

How might one re-imagine the staging of a trial? In this presentation I would like to think of the trial as an operatic performance. To do so, one needs to consider the relationship between voice and legal language.

This presentation looks at some letters that I encountered during my fieldwork of terrorism trials in Delhi. Written in the course of brutal and grinding trials, these ubiquitous, relentless epistles ranged from accusing the police of torture, to asking the judge for a small favour, to asking the deputy Prime Minister to let an accused-terrorist out on bail. These letters, written over and over again, rarely, if ever, met with a reply. Why then, did the authors of these letters write them endlessly?

Part of the answer lies in being attentive to the quality of the voice of the letters. There is something in their pitch, tone and volume that goes beyond the idea of demand, persuasion and claim making. The endless, repetitive nature of these letters points to a more tragic place – almost as their authors are condemned to perpetually re-inhabit the site of their pain. I think of these forms of writing as a mode of inhabiting the world through acts of mourning – not only for the injustices of the past, but also for futures that have been lost. At the same time, there is an affective quality to the letters that is beyond the meaning that they seek convey. In their attempt to express an inexpressible pain, their voice becomes intensely compelling. Cast out into the world, legal language here takes on, not a deadened quality, but an amplified one. Soon, legal language comes to resemble an operatic score.

Mayur Suresh is a lecturer in law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research revolves around anthropological approaches to legal trials. —-

Sovereign Infelicities: Performativity, Performance and the Political Trial Başak Ertür

This paper is an attempt to think beyond the currently dominant analyses of political trials that view them either as the spectacular instrumentalisation of legal procedure for political expediency, or as the mass pedagogical means to consensus and closure in the aftermath of atrocity. It draws on theories of performativity (J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler and Shoshana Felman) to rethink the relationship between performance and performativity as it unfolds in a trial. The philosophical idiom of performativity proves felicitous both for rethinking the role of performance in trials, and for understanding the various ways in which violence is addressed, negotiated, re-enacted, transformed, and perpetuated through legal proceedings. Against readings that approach the political trial as a scene of mastery, that is, either as the stage of clashing sovereign wills and intentions, or as the site of therapeutic working through and a route to closure, a performative account allows us to avoid such overdeterminations of the political. Instead, it sharpens our awareness as to how law’s structural unconscious may play out in a trial, and how embodied practices bring fears, desires, anxieties, fantasies, projections, fetishes into the scene of the trial to unsettle and recast the political.

Başak Ertür is a lecturer at the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London and fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Difference, Columbia University. Her current research and recent publications focuses on political trials, theories of performativity, political violence, memory, and the deep state.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network series.

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