Focus on the Funk

This post was contributed by Kojo Koram, PhD student in the School of Law. Kojo attended the Focus on the Funk event in May 2016.

Focus on the Funk

On the 20th-23rd of May 2016, a community of academics, activists and artists met at Birkbeck School of Law under an invitation to ‘Focus on the Funk.’ Over three days, the likes of Gayatri Spivak, Alicia Garza, Nina Power and Lewis Gordon all took up the task of trying to think through ‘the funk’.

Law and funk

We felt fortunate to have attracted such a cast of speakers, considering how unappealing the prospect of joining a law school threatening to ‘get funky’ must have appeared upon first reading. ‘Law’ and ‘Funk’ are understandably imagined as diametric opposites; the transgression implicit in bringing them together being what initially excited us as organisers. Funk most immediately invokes a genre of music, yet the notion of ‘the funk’ transcends this particular expression, its musical form being just one manifestation of the condition of the ‘funk’.

Etymologically, the word ‘funk’ derives, in part, from the obsolete Flemish word fonck meaning ‘disturbance’ or ‘agitation’ (citation from Oxford Dictionaries). This understanding of ‘funk’ synthesised with another definition – as ‘a strong smell’ – to become the common shorthand for the atmosphere of the jazz clubs of the early twentieth century. In these clubs, the funk denoted not just the musical corruption of classical European melodies occurring on stage but a particular orientation to life that could be found everywhere in these clubs. Here, one could encounter ‘the funk’ of life. When a particularly agitated form of rhythm and blues music emerged in the 1970’s, it was christened as ‘funk’ but it hadn’t invented the idea, rather fully realised it in musical form.

So while our reference to ‘the funk’ did not only mean music, we did attempt take the music seriously. We were concerned with what law sounds like, starting not with the harmony or even silence of law within lives that rarely encounter its force but with the crescendo that greets subjectivities over-determined by law. (For further on the relationship between law and music, and the role of sound in law, see James E. K. Parker, Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi.(Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015)).

In response we turned to funk, which, as a music genre, de-emphasised the melodic in favour of bringing forward that which was buried underneath, the hypnotic bassline and the interrupting, staccato drumbeat. Funk music begins with the background mess of song and then, crucially, stays with it, sustaining the failure of the soothing melody to emerge and, instead, forcing artists to express themselves from inside the groove. The result is often vocalised through a scream.

Funk as a prism

To employ ‘the funk’ as a prism to examine questions of politics and philosophy offered a challenge particularly apt for our turbulent times. We were awed at the vigour with which this challenge taken up by our guests. After an introduction by the organisers, in which we performed our manifesto outlining future plans for a different way of philosophising about law, Gail Lewis and Nina Power began with a dialogue illustrating how law’s claim to public order is haunted by ungrievable lives such as Sarah Reed’s. (See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso 2009)). Their talk exposed the sacrificial piling of bodies upon bodies that guarantees received notions of law and order.

Then we welcomed an activist roundtable as Rupinder Pahar from the London Campaign Against State and Police Violence, Adam Elliott-Cooper from #RhodesMustFallOxford and Alicia Garza from #Blacklivesmatter illustrated the interconnection between epistemological and state violence across the Black Atlantic. (See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1993))

Next Kerem Nisancioglu, Brenna Bhander and Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman dismissed any myopic suspicions that thinking through the funk was to indulge in particularism. Rather than avoid ‘universal’ topics, this panel confronted them, compelling the audience to re-read received notions of sovereignty, property and reason. Doyens of modernity like Thomas Hobbes and Francis Galton were immersed into the funk, re-emerging as figures other than what they were, now finding the funk to be stuck to them.

Friday closed with Sarah Keenan, Stephanie Bailey, Taylor Le Meel and Karen Mirza generously talking us through the Art System from the perspective of the ‘Wretched of the Screen.’ Sarah Keenan sported a Vernon Ah Kee designed t-shirt with the words “Australia drive it like you stole it”, as she spoke about a recent unsanctioned installation which saw the projection onto the walls of Australia House of faces of refugees killed in Australian offshore detention. Both evenings were filled with wonderful cinematic and visual art exhibitions offered by our collaborators from the Serpentine Gallery, which continued into Sunday.

#BlackLivesMatter

The auditorium was at its most full on Saturday morning, perhaps evidence of Friday’s success, but more plausibly the result of Gayatri Spivak joining us to converse with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera on ‘The Politics of Deconstruction.’ Spivak guided the audience in revisiting her engagement with Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, whilst tying her comments into the wider themes of the conference, advocating a way of reading described as ‘funky, not straight…an on-beat, off-beat, back-beat structure.’

We returned from lunch to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Paget Henry, with Lewis Gordon, Julia Suárez Krabbe and Nadine El-Enany honouring Henry by engaging with topics of such as race, rights and stunted moments of rebellion.

Later Alicia Garza, the co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, returned to the stage to take up the task of explaining what law sounds likes when you must affirm your very existence through opposition to it? What does law sound like when its ordering is predicated on your arbitrary execution? And, perhaps more importantly, what response is available to you to make yourself audible over the violence of such a law? Alicia implored the audience to respond with a fearless and furious love. Alicia’s herstory of #BlackLivesMatter reminded us that the hash-tag that captured a movement, that captured a moment, initially began life as a love-letter. #Blacklivesmatter was the sound of black love and to a world producing harmony through the negation of that love: it sounded like a scream.

Once the audience finished giving Alicia an extended standing ovation, Lewis Gordon lived up to his reputation as ‘the closer’ with a keynote that executed a nuanced synthesis of the themes that had emerged over the conference. Lewis tied together issues of challenging legal violence, decolonising the curriculum and shifting the geography of reason whilst also transforming the stage into a makeshift drum-kit. His masterful musicianship and critique offered an embodiment of relationship between a political and philosophical commitment to ‘the funk’ and its musical manifestation.

Taking legal theory into a funky atmosphere

Ultimately, we spent a remarkable three days trying to extend Beckett’s embrace of the ‘mess’ of life towards a philosophical understanding of life’s ‘funk’. We took theory to school with the musicians, a move that appears curious in our age of fetishized disciplines. Modern European philosophy emerged interwoven with music, the Kantian imperative towards autonomous, universal human subjectivity finding expression through the overtures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. (For further on the relationship between European classical music and philosophy, see Andrew Bowie, Music, Philosophy and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007))

Conversely, the African-American musical tradition, beginning from an understanding of modernity as catastrophe, would mutate these classical musical phrasings in the atmosphere of the jazz club. What would it mean to take legal theory into that funky atmosphere? To make law answerable to a tradition that responds to legalised structural violence with song; to enslavement with a call to ‘wade in the water’, to an unfair criminal justice system with a defiant cry that ‘we gon’ be alright’?

Our meeting was the beginnings of an exploration such questions. However, to begin with a ‘focus on the funk’ is to begin with failure and, in that sense, we met knowing that our collective ambitions had always, already failed. Yet in the embrace of that failure, we will persist in building our intellectual community, both inside and outside the academy. And we will try to fail better, each time we meet.

Watch highlights from Focus on the Funk:

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Cameras in the court

This post was contributed by Ruth Saunders, who attended the LSE Law and Birkbeck School of Law Judicial Images Project public lecture on Wednesday 13 April

‘From Oscar Pistorius to Reality TV: the implications of using the courtroom as a television studio’ was the title of last Wednesday’s well-attended lecture from the Judicial Images Network Project, a joint project of Birkbeck School of Law and LSE Law which brings together scholars across disciplines and continents to explore issues surrounding the production, regulation and consumption of judicial images.

The lecture featured speakers with extensive experience in the issues that arise from the use of cameras in courtrooms. Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Deputy Chief Justics of Constitutional Court of South Africa, took to the stage first to discuss the experience of, and issues arising from, televising the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

Describing the concept of open justice as a key and now well-established principle in post apartheid South Africa, Justice Moseneke discussed how the trial of Oscar Pistorius created new ways in which people could access and assess justice.

Dr Jur Ruth Herz

Dr Jur Ruth Herz

Emphasising that ‘democracy dies behind closed doors’, Justice Moseneke also acknowledged that televising the courtroom could foster a dynamic of intimidation for defendants and witnesses – but it would, he said, be more reliable than a journalist’s perception of events.

But ultimately, he finished, ‘we, the media and courts, share a common goal. We want the public to know and to assess what we do’.

Next, Visiting Professor at Birkbeck School of Law Ruth Herz, formally a Judge in Cologne and the star of popular German courtroom based reality TV show Das Jugendgericht (Youth Court), reflected on her four year experience in television.

Giving a frank recollection of her experiences, Ruth described her motivations for participating in the TV show to tackle the veil of secrecy that surrounds the court system in Germany. What she found, however, was that the presence of the camera with the focus on lighting, position and angle, did not create transparency.

Media, she says, speaks a different language, and is motivated first and foremost by money which informed casting choices and the types of cases heard.

These factors all worked against her attempts to use the reality TV court show as a useful educational tool to show viewers how justice in the courtroom works. She echoed the concerns raised by Justice Moseneke that Courts have a primary responsibility to pursue justice.

Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice in England and Wales, closed the discussion commenting on his own experience of cameras in the courtroom. In the Supreme Court, Lord Dyson said, he was unaware and unaffected by the discreet cameras.

Professor Leslie Moran

Professor Leslie Moran

The Crown court pilot to introduce cameras in the court is proceeding carefully, he said, to minimise risks to the fairness of the trial and, he also described, a ‘duty of care to protect the vulnerable’.

Birkbeck’s Professor Leslie Moran brought together questions from the audience which resulted in a lively discussion.

brought together questions from the audience which resulted in a lively discussion.

In closing the event he encouraged all to become avid viewers not only of the UK Supreme Court summary judgment videos but also the UK’s first reality TV court show, ‘Judge Rinder’.

He explained, ‘the future of cameras in courts is already taking shape on our TV screen. We need to take it seriously and debate it further if it is to best serve the needs of open justice.’

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Why Should Britain keep its Human Rights Act?

This post was contributed by Devin Frank Law (LLM) graduate. Devin attended Bianca Jagger’s speech at the School of Law’s annual Patrick McAuslan Lecture on Friday, November 6  

Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger

We all see the signs in the tube, listen to the debates in the evening news and read the contrasting opinions in the Daily Mail and The Guardian.

Should David Cameron’s majority government scrap the Human Rights Act? Should they lead us out of the Convention of Europe? Should the UK exit the European Union?

On Friday 6 November 2015 long-time human rights activist and the Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador Bianca Jagger spoke at Birkbeck to give an enlightened and informative perspective on the UK’s current human rights debate.

While Bianca’s talk did indeed have the emotion, humour and flair one might expect from a human rights rockstar (figuratively speaking) — her talk was also a well-researched and academically sound historical analysis of how Britain developed its long standing and legally robust human rights tradition.

From Magna Carta to migrant crisis

Bianca began her talk by reminding us that Britain was not always a democracy governed by the rule of law. For most of its existence England had a Monarch who answered neither to Parliament nor the people and governed with absolute authority. In the year 1215 this began to change when King John bound himself to the Magna Carta; however, and as Bianca persuasively argued, the principles emanating out of the Magna Carta took 800 years to root themselves in law culminating with the 1998 Act of Parliament — the Human Rights Act.

We were also reminded throughout Bianca’s talk that 730 years after the Magna Carta the people of Europe endured the worst abuse of authority and government power in the continent’s history. In the context of the current debate – should the UK leave the council of Europe – Bianca reminded us that following the horrors of the Second World War, the general consensus of ‘never again’ UK authorities led the way in drafting and establishing the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights.

In the context of the current migration crisis Bianca did state that 65 years after the ratification of the European convention of Human Rights, it’s odd and indeed counterintuitive that in the midst of yet another humanitarian catastrophe, British Politicians are looking to reduce and take away the rights of the people.

One might argue that British politicians are simply looking for political ways to reduce their moral, ethical and legal responsibilities; however, and through her talk, Bianca argued that ‘our’ human rights are the result of hard fought battles and elements of British Society that we the people must defend.

A weak UK Human Rights Act

Bianca JaggerThe underlining message and golden thread of Bianca’s talk was that human rights belong to the people and are there to protect the people. Everyday otherwise normal people rely on their human rights in housing and employment tribunals, in cases against their local councils and in situations where individual police officers attempt to overstep their authority. An important example is the relationship between our democratic duties as citizens and our right to protest when we feel that our political representatives have led us astray.

In closing this blog, I will attempt to leave you with a rather simplistic observation. Bianca’s argument is that we need our human rights and any attempt to weaken our legal rights is an attack on the society we have spent 800 years building.

However, I would point out the Britain’s Human Right’s legal framework is already weak. Compared to other similar countries, Germany or Canada for example, the UK’s Human Right’s Act is incapable of declaring a government decision or policy unconstitutional. If Parliament is truly intent on ignoring human rights, they can.

Perhaps than, what should be taken from Bianca’s talk and this simple observation is that it is as important now as ever before to not only defend the human rights that we do have, but to continue to build a society based on the rule of law and the individual rights of citizens i.e the battle has been hard fought but there is still work to be done.

The message should therefore be that instead of taking three steps backwards and abolishing the Human Rights Act, we should be taking five steps forward and not only protecting the Human Rights Act but actively working to strengthen it so as to ensure that our rights are truly and genuinely protected.

View the Patrick McAuslan lecture 2015 below:

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Law on Trial: The End(s) of the Legal Academy

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Law on TrialThe School of Law’s Law on Trial 2015 came to a close on Friday 19 June with an exploration of the Legal Academy – or rather what its role is at a time when its ends and purport are increasingly being put under the microscope.

Organised by Prof Peter Fitzpatrick, the workshop featured presentations from a trio of legal academics – and each responded to by thoughts from a further three discussants.

From the high pressured environments of the legal professional, to the complexities of ‘legitimised’ violence, to an examination of the pre- and post-war structures of the university, the afternoon event offered plenty food for thought for the gathered audience of legal academics, professionals and students.

Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

The trio of presentations was begun by Prof Richard Collier of Newcastle University who discussed his recent paper – and ongoing research – in the area of Wellbeing in the Legal Profession. During the course of his talk, Prof Collier argued that not only is there considerable evidence that interest in wellbeing in the legal profession is growing; there are multiple strands to it, including:

  • The study of wellbeing in the profession – recent articles in this area have looked at the hyper-competitive environment and the implications on social connectedness and subjective wellbeing of the lawyer
  • The impact of legal training and education programmes on wellbeing – with ever-growing pressures being put on students being reflected in an increasing uptake of on-campus wellbeing and counselling services
  • The proliferation of wellbeing programmes being run in law firms, which underlines a growing recognition of poor wellbeing in the legal profession, and the desire to tackle it

Prof Collier then critiqued these emergent areas of study, and highlighted the discourses arising from them. Among them, he noted an ‘individualised discourse’, in which attention is directed away from wider structural, political and economic forces i.e. wellbeing as a personal, not a political issue.

A further over-arching theme was the commodification of wellbeing, and how it is considered by many to be another artefact of the neoliberalist world – where ‘wellness’ is considered important primarily because it is a vital part of the profitability of the law firm.

Future research, he concluded, could examine how normalised the hyper-competitiveness/wellbeing situation is, and to what extent the legal profession is now a field only survivable by an elite class who can successfully self-manage its pressures.

In her response to Prof Collier’s presentation, Prof Fiona Macmillan questioned a university’s complicity in laying the ground work for, and perpetuating, the high-pressured environments of the legal profession.

The Law School and the Force of Law

Next up was a presentation by Birkbeck’s Prof Patricia Tuitt, executive dean of the School of Law. The relationship between law and violence, she explained, has underpinned much of her work.

Reflecting this field of interest, Prof Tuitt presented her thoughts and findings as outlined in her recent paper, which explores:

  • Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, Critique of Violence, in which the German philosopher contemplates the seeming paradox of an exercise of a legal right being construed as an act of violence – subject, potentially, to the emergency jurisdiction of the state.

And its applicability to a 21st Century incident:

  • In which an American law school dean recently wrote to her students, urging them to take part in protests in Baltimore – even offering to defer an exam for those who help people on the street with legal advice (read the Washington Post article)

Examining this incident within the boundaries of Benjamin’s proposition on sanctioned vs unsanctioned violence, Prof Tuitt noted that the dean’s actions could have been construed as an extortionate use of legal rights. However, she also noted that Benjamin’s Critique doesn’t adequately address the 21st Century legal system, such as the impact of human rights principles.

In his response to Prof Tuitt’s presentation, Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, continued the conversation on the matters of the distinction between the academy and the legal system; what this might mean for the end of the legal academy; and asked whether – given the topics under analysis – the State needs the University to stay alive, or whether it merely keeps the University barely alive for its own legitimacy.

The Structure of a University

Closing the presentations for the afternoon, Birkbeck’s Soo Tian Lee examined the historical structure of a university from the perspectives of:

  • Instrumentalism
  • Idealism
  • The University-in-itself
  • Forms of life

In discussing each structure, Soo Tian examined the contexts of the university during the post-war consensus era, and the rise of the neoliberalist university in which it has become “subordinated to narrow economic goals”.

Instrumentalism and idealism are often seen as opposed, Soo Tian explained. However, he finds this to be “a false dichotomy”, and instead proposed “a relational structure” in which both instrumentalist and idealist principles co-exist. Also within this relational structure are what he described as ‘Forms of life’ – i.e. the individual habits of an institution which, though not always easy to identity, exist nontheless.

In summation, Soo Tian offered what he considered “an uncomfortable conclusion”, in that the objective of such a study such as his, can only be to lay out the proposed structure of the post-war educational institution and let it be discussed.

If an overly neat or definitive conclusion is found, he explained, “it should be killed immediately”. “Unflinching rightness is to be approached with caution”, he concluded.

Soo tian’s presentation was responded to by discussant Dr Matthew Charles, of the University of Westminster. Dr Charles spoke of the university as a special kind of community, and examined it within the context – and limitations – of Kantian theory on antinomy.

The workshop’s final half hour comprised an open Q&A opportunity between the panellists and audience members.

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