The task of selecting an honoree is not an easy one—as we aim to take up a corpus of work that is at once deep enough and broad enough to sustain a full day of conversation. To be honest, most legal scholars tend to be more hedgehogs than foxes, burrowing down deep into an area of law over the course of a career rather than bringing their intellectual talents to bear on a range of social problems or diverse disciplinary locations. One person, without question, stands out as an exception to this tendency in the legal academy, and that is the incredible Patricia Williams.
Patricia Williams was my teacher. In the five stages of preparing for this day, I heard many of the phrases from The Alchemy of Race and Rights echo through my mind. I felt just like that monkey Williams describes staring at the keyboard, as she puts it, “all those letters of the alphabet, full of random signification.” And, of course, there was no shortage of news items vying for my attention on radio and TV. George Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, was interviewed by Michael Martin on NPR’s Tell Me More, explaining why growing up with his Afro-Peruvian mother in Virginia meant that race could not be a factor in his brother’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida one year ago, their growing-up marked, as it was, by a difference of culture (of foods and how they spoke at home, he mentioned), while also ensuring, he suggested, his family’s color blindness. The President of Emory University wrote confidently about the Three-Fifths Compromise as an historical example that might be useful in fending off the contemporary threat of sequester, avoiding the fiscal cliff, and getting the President and Congress (the only relevant social actors) to work together. In his response to criticism about his letter, he went on to apologize for the “hurt caused by not communicating more clearly [his] own beliefs.” And the State of Mississippi’s attempt to get rid of the sole abortion clinic remaining in the state through House Bill 1390, ostensibly making Mississippi an “abortion-free” state, as Governor Phil Bryant called it, could only recall Williams’ prescient words: “[T]he right to privacy might be a function of wealth.”
Patricia J. Williams has been widely admired in legal and academic circles for her role as a critical race theorist; less examined, and what I would like to talk about today, is her work as a journalist and commentator. Few are more skilled in making the tenets of a theory legible to broader audiences—or more deeply felt—than Pat.
About a work as intense and theatrical as this one, it might be odd to claim that On Being the Object of Property struggles with exemplarity by dedramatizing narrative into episode, epic into moment, and structure into gestures that convey intensities of need for the world to be a certain way. But this diminishing process—the episode as cooling chamber—is key to the work’s aesthetic, political, and ethical ambition to give subordinated bodies in the present a shot at not having the past reproduced in the contemporary nervous system. The interruption by aesthetic virtuality, by counter-form, is key to her strategy—not method—here. (It is not a method insofar as it is inimitable, not-prescriptive, and creative.) But the essay is not only affirmative about the process of aggressively remediating the world. For the labor of imagining a way to build a better good life out of the space of converged negativities and tender attachments is terribly costly, affectively. “As if a slaved or owned psyche could ever be reconciled with mental health,” Williams writes with dry, ironic flatness, noting additionally that cohabiting with her knowledges induces “a schizophrenia of biblical dimension . . . with all the baggage that that connotes.”
So now I wish to address a question raised by my experience then, in the reflective context of this celebration of Pat’s professorship, my fifty-first anniversary of life with my wife, the artist, Amy Pollack, and my two decades since that seminar as a teacher and scientist versed in molecular biology, neurobiology, and evolution, as well as the notions of my own religion. The question is this: have we a “self” that is in any way separable from the body?
I promise to write a longer letter to you soon, but today I want to tell you about the three figures to which I have returned as I have thought of writing this letter to you and as I have been rereading your books these last days. I want to write to you about silence, water, and animals. In this way, I want to say something about what your work tells us about the essential interdisciplinarity of the law, something that, in your hands, prevents the law from ever being identical to itself, perhaps even tells us that what makes the law the law is that it can never be simply itself. Using an “intentionally double-voiced and relational, rather than a traditionally legal black-letter, vocabulary,” you say that your writing is “staked out as the exclusive interdisciplinary property of constitutional law, contract, African-American history, feminist jurisprudence, political science, and rhetoric,” something that already opens the law to its presumed others.
This symposium has been unquestionably the greatest honor of my life. I am deeply grateful to all who planned it, particularly Katherine Franke and Suzanne Goldberg; to each of the remarkable speakers; and to the ever-supportive institutional community of Columbia University. Anything I say beyond that much risks sounding like a bad speech at the Oscars, without benefit of a recuperatively fetching gown. But I am appreciative beyond words for the work invested in shepherding this event into being. It feels as though a truckload of fairy dust had been dumped on me, and suddenly, suddenly . . . little academic wings have sprouted from my shoulders!
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