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Revolutionary Justice in Brecht, Conrad and Blake

  • Location: Political Theory Workshop, Washington University St. Louis
  • Research area: Legal history

Oct 2008, Christopher L. Tomlins

Historians have approached the scholarly genre of “law and literature” as a means to mine works of literature for images, descriptions and representations of law and legal events in historical (or historical-analogical) contexts. The questions asked are framed by history and treat literature as source material. Suppose we instead make literature our frame and history our subject. What can literature as form tell historians about “history” as we currently practice it? How might an inspection of literature as a practice change the practice of legal historians? Here I consider the possibilities through an examination of time and justice, and particularly the time of justice, in three literary works: Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and William Blake’s poem “London” from Songs of Experience. My principal interlocutor in this exercise is the Marxist literary theorist and historical materialist Walter Benjamin. The conjunction is informative, for Benjamin was deeply engaged in the exposition of concepts of justice. My purpose is to show that literature as practice lends itself to the strategy of explanation that Benjamin termed “constellation” in ways that are suggestive of how legal historians in turn might employ constellation in approaching questions of time and justice.

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