Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks

On Thursday 2 May, the Department of Law welcomed Professor Peter Goodrich to give the department’s annual lecture on Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks. Professor Goodrich is one of the co-founders of the School of Law at Birkbeck and in 2018 was elected an honorary fellow of the College.

Reader in Law and Political Theory, Dr Elena Loizidou and Professor of Law, Professor Adam Gearey reflected on the evening.

Dr Elena Loizidou: Images in the US are more and more an integral part of judicial judgement and moreover they produce what Professor Peter Goodrich calls an imago decidendi. In his lecture ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’, Professor Peter Goodrich did not only guide us through ways of reading images in judgements, and called for the necessity of having an in court curator of images but gave us a lot to dream for. His powerful, enjoyable and humorous delivery facilitated even more the opening of the imagination.

I could not help, as somebody that is interested in seeing a social, legal and political transformation that at least undoes hierarchies, to imagine a time when judicial ‘pronouncements’ would be made of an assemblage of images that would be specific to the case that the court is handling. I could not stop myself of imagining that this has the potential of undermining the concept of the precedent and how this in turn may see the emergence of a system of adjudicating disagreements without the restrains of law, but emerging out of some other guidelines agreed by parties in dispute from case to case. One always lives in hope.

Professor Adam Gearey: Professor Peter Goodrich gave the Annual Law Lecture, ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’. Professor Goodrich was one of the founders of the law school- and is presently an honorary fellow. There was certainly a sense of occasion, as alumni, students, staff and friends crowded into the basement lecture theatre. Peter Goodrich always gives a good show, and tonight was no different. One of the most interesting and important of contemporary legal philosophers, Professor Goodrich is also a fine performer. Sporting rainbow shoes, he paced the stage and banged on the projector screen for emphasis—a scholar and a dandy whose thinking exemplifies the rigour, intensity and playfulness that characterises thinking that is worth one’s attention.

Such a strange title! Professor Goodrich has long been interested in masks—his legal theory (hardly surprisingly) draws on ideas of drama and performance: the mask allows the actor to speak. It is an artifice or a convention that allows an audience to experience the drama as something ‘natural’. If masks allow actors to speak, then law allows subjects to speak by giving them a kind of structure or affiliation: man/woman/child – property owner; legatee, beneficiary, father, mother, citizen, criminal, holder of rights or duties etc. These features of law are ancient- and so- is the court’s concern with images. These are not just the images of law with which we are all familiar- but the way in which the law must adjudicate images. Professor Goodrich’s lecture primarily concerned images given in evidence; increasingly a central part of the court’s business. What conventions must the court invent to allow images to make sense forensically?

Hence ‘rats and maps’. The rat in question refers to an American case in which an image of a giant plastic rodent figured in the court’s reasoning. The maps evoked in the title are representations of title  to land — evidence often lead in property disputes. Retinal justice- then- describes how the court seeks to do justice using images.

Professor Goodrich’s point is that the courts are incredibly bad at reading images– often using them to merely illustrate words- or- misreading them altogether. It may be that the modern technologies of images have outpaced law’s imaginary (the rhetorical and semantic techniques law uses to encode the world in its own terms). But there is something stranger at stake. Images point elsewhere- compromising techniques that set out to control them. Certainly, in some religious traditions, the image threatens the understanding of divine truth. Other traditions carefully guard licenced images and rituals. What if the disturbing effects of images were also at work in law; disturbing the ways in which it judges the world? Professor Goodrich’s point is that this most ancient of problems haunts modern law. To engage with law and images is to think critically about the ways in which law makes claims about its authority and validates its operations. The disturbances wrought by images provoke us to think about different kinds of adjudication, and perhaps to see different kinds of affiliation: different ways of being and living. Professor Goodrich is challenging students of the law to become more productive, more creative and playful—and, perhaps, as well as dressing better—to see things differently: retinal justice.

Watch a video recording of the lecture.

Listen to an audio recording of the lecture.

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“Age is just a number – but studying keeps the mind active”

Ghana born Anthony Mensah is graduating with an LLM Human Rights aged 78, and plans to devote his time and energy to fighting Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anthony with Professor Bill Bowring

I am originally from Ghana but came to the UK in 1966 as a trainee accountant, and am now a British citizen.

Sometime in 2011, I saw a newspaper advert for Birkbeck for a two year diploma course in Law. I applied, and was sent a problem question in the post to answer. I answered it to the best of my ability, and was invited to interview at the School of Law by the Dean at the time, Professor Patricia Tuitt. She was impressed with my performance, and I was thrilled when she invited me to enrol on the LLB course instead of the diploma.

My first and second years were a bit of a struggle, and a stark contrast between my professional accountancy course. Patricia Costall, an Academic Support Tutor, helped me understand how to write an academic essay and properly reference my work – I am very grateful for her help during my course and I know a lot of other students will agree with me that she was very helpful. I really enjoyed the lectures from most of my tutors; Fred Cowell, Piyel Halder, Adam Gearey, Leslie Moran and Patricia Tuitt, to name a few; and I had good relationships with my classmates.

My wife, Emma, was very excited for me throughout my studies. She gave me lots of good advice and encouragement.  I owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for the support and encouragement she has given me. Without her, I don’t think I would have got the marks in my LLB that I needed to proceed onto my LLM in Human Rights.

I decided to enrol on the LLM because I am passionate about tackling the complex Human Rights issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, where I am from. In particular, in the future I intend to lead a crusade against Female Genital Mutilation which is common practice in almost all countries on the continent.

I didn’t think about my age when I was applying. Age is just a number. However studying later in life is good for exercising the brain. So I would advise anyone thinking about starting a degree to start looking into it and making enquiries. You will feel so confident in yourself when you complete it.

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“The more I learn, the more I want to learn” – from ‘left behind’ to law degree

Firhana wasn’t sent to school as a child and only learnt to read and write at 15. With years of hard work, persistence and dedication, she’s achieved the extraordinary feat of gaining a master’s degree in Law – and now has plans for a PhD.

Growing up, the idea of studying for a degree wasn’t even on Firhana’s radar. She was raised in Oxford with her parents and five siblings but was never enrolled in school – something that only came to light when a doctor made a home visit and found that at 12 years old, Firhana wasn’t able to write a simple sentence. When asked why they didn’t send their daughter to school, her parents said, “in our culture, the daughters get married, have children, and run the household.”

She strongly believes her parents did their best for her within the cultural context that they knew, but going to school for the first time was very difficult. “I was quite severely bullied because I didn’t know how to read and write,” Firhana remembers. “A lot of the children at school obviously thought that if I was born in England, why couldn’t I read or write? Eventually I had a one-to-one tutor who went through letters and phonics with me. I mastered my alphabet at the age of 15, and slowly learnt how to read and write.”

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really understand what I was reading at first. I used to look at the pictures and try to make out the story as I was going along. I didn’t really try to help myself because I had missed so much so I thought there was no point. Eventually, when I was about 19, I finished the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was my favourite book.”

After she had her own daughters in her twenties, she knew she wanted to get a proper education to help her children get ahead in life. Today, after years of hard work and close, careful guidance from dedicated teachers, she is graduating with a master’s degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London with merit, after gaining a 2.1 in her bachelor’s degree in 2012. Next, she plans to apply for a PhD looking into sexual violence in Asian communities. “Who would have thought there was going to be degree after degree for a typical Pakistani housewife who missed out on most of her primary and secondary education?!” she laughed.

Firhana is a passionate advocate for women and girls in Asian communities, and wrote her master’s dissertation on the grooming gangs in Cowley, Oxford where she grew up. “If I had any power,” she says, “I would ask the government to look at legislation which deals with violence towards women, especially women of colour. I feel like there’s not enough said or done because people are culture sensitive. I think the government should also aim to get women over 30 or 40 back into education. I think a lot of women in my era missed out and they feel like they don’t have the opportunities.”

Birkbeck’s evening study model suited Firhana, who was able to combine her studies with working and family life. Her daughter, Aisha, was starting her A levels at the same time as Firhana started university – “we were study buddies!” she said. “Today my daughter is an A level teacher in a really good school, and she’s also doing her master’s at Birkbeck. My other daughter is studying English Literature and Creative Writing, and my son’s at grammar school preparing for his GCSEs. He plans to go on and study Medicine.”

“Birkbeck has changed my life and my family’s life for the better. It has just had such a massive impact. What we show our children is what they will follow. I showed mine love for books and education because my teachers showed me their love for books. Now I feel like I have been empowered with the gift of knowledge. I am on a journey of learning more and more every day, because the more I learn the more I want to learn.”

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Reflections on hospitality, the hostile environment and the law

Netty Yasin, second-year part-time LLM student, and Patrick Page, Senior Caseworker, Duncan Lewis Public Law discuss the Birkbeck School of Law’s recent residential weekend at Cumberland Lodge, where they took part in discussions and workshops with eminent legal scholars.

Each year the School of Law at Birkbeck hosts a residential weekend at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, giving staff and students the opportunity to participate in discussions, workshops and lectures with internationally renowned researchers. This year the discussions centred around the themes of Hospitality, the Hostile Environment, and the Law. Two of those who attended reflect on the weekend’s events:

Netty Yasin, second-year part-time LLM Qualifying Law Degree student
The presentations covered a broad range of topics, including the creation of the ‘bad immigrant’, racist narratives in the sentencing of migrants, as well as detention and deportation policies and practices. Speakers included a former barrister, PhD students, a solicitor who shared some harrowing case studies from his experience of representing clients with medical needs in detention centres and even a personal perspective from a former detainee. Although there was a full schedule of seminars, there was also plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beautiful environment of Cumberland Lodge and its surroundings. It was also a great opportunity to network and have informal discussions with the speakers over dinner or drinks at the bar. It was a hugely interesting, informative and enjoyable weekend in a wonderful setting and I hope to return next year. Thanks to the School of Law for organising such a fantastic event.

Patrick Page, Senior Caseworker, Duncan Lewis Public Law
‘You don’t need permission to be anti-establishment.’ This was a response to a question by one of the speakers at the Cumberland Lodge conference on Hospitality, the Hostile Environment, and the Law. The speaker in question had been detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, and has since been shining a light on the injustice of immigration detention – what she calls ‘the hostile environment on steroids.’ For me, the answer encapsulated the spirit of the weekend. With its range of lawyers, academics and activists (many, indeed, wearing a number of these hats at once), the programme thoroughly exposed the hostile environment in all its manifestations. We were taken through the way in which the UK government has conscripted civil society in its racialised system of immigration control, how the ‘good migrant/bad migrant’ narratives dominate the legal system, and how executive powers to detain and remove have steadily expanded. Frances Webber, a barrister who has been working in this area for decades, put it simply: ‘it was never good, but it was never this bad.’ But this sombre tone was lightened by a cautious optimism that change is possible, that resistance isn’t always futile. As we saw with the Windrush scandal, those targeted by the hostile environment, like the speaker mentioned above, are increasingly mobilised to expose injustice. In the last talk of the weekend, we were reminded of the words of James Baldwin: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

Read more of Patrick’s thoughts on the Cumberland Lodge weekend at the No Walls blog

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