Critical Legal Conference 2013

Law’s counter-archive: narrative, memory, testimony

Stream Organisers: Stewart Motha (Birkbeck Law School) and Honni van Rijswijk (Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Sydney)

The demands for recognition, responsibility, and reparations are regularly invoked in the wake of collective and individual trauma, slavery, colonial violence, apartheid, internment, and acts of mass violence. Political trials are one response. Given the limits of judicial processes, truth commissions and inquiries have proliferated as techniques for recognising trauma, determining responsibility, and as means of acknowledging injustice. Reconciliation, as the theme of this conference suggests, has become one of the primary devices for archiving histories of violence and political conflict.

Reconciliation is dispatched to the disaster as commonly as “US Aid” and a visit from the World Bank. Inquiries are held, testimonies gathered, and weighty tomes added to the archive of catastrophe. What is the juridical and political significance of such archives at a time when media technology has made “everything” visible and present? But then, why have “history wars” proliferated in an epoch when the time/space of knowing has become so compressed? What becomes “known” and what is “forgotten” in these memorial practices of reconciliation?

The sovereign response to the new archive of violence is usually hyperbolic. It either involves denial or atonement – excesses that seem to repeat the destructive drive that Freud drew attention to. In place of justice, and usually after extravagant delay, national and religious leaders enter the feverish phase of apology. The “apology” has become an essential stately function of presidents, prime ministers, and popes. What is the ontology and political theology of the sovereign apology? Does apology or atonement address “error”, “mistake”, or something more, something worse, and what is this “something”?  (Recall the Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau – and later, Paul de Man’s treatment of these questions). 

This stream seeks to open discussions about the problem of assembling the archive that is at once law’s authority and troubled conscience. What resists being archived, and what is their political significance? What spaces and practices of memory – conscious and unconscious - undo legal and sovereign alibis and confessions? What narrative forms expose the limits of responsibility, recognition, and reparations?

Counter-archives challenge established forms of representing and responding to violence. What memorial processes re-inscribe and re-claim the meanings attached to trauma? To what extent are narratives of violence a problem of time, audience, and ways of hearing, and listening? What is a counter-archival sensibility? To what extent can memorial problems be spatialised?

We invite papers that address these or other related questions; or recast the problem of memorial practices. These themes may be addressed through aesthetic, psychoanalytic, historical, philosophical, or critical legal approaches.

Please send an abstract of 300 words to either Stewart Motha ( or Honni van Rijswijk ( before the 15 June 2013 deadline.

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