Patrick McAuslan, or the Yes

by | 17 Jan 2014

Untitled in Tanzania, by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos

Professor Patrick McAuslan passed away on the 11th of January, 2014. I do not know the details of his apparently deteriorating health, or of his death for that matter. I know very basic things about the whole event, and I have chosen to keep it like this. This is because I do not want to close the biggest question of my life. I do not want to round it up with the final event. I want the question mark to linger.

Let me tell you a couple of things about my relation with Patrick before I explain what the question mark is about. I met Patrick, or indeed Professor McAuslan for me at the time, when I started my LLM degree at the University of London. His course was the only one that grabbed me right from the title: it was about cities, law, land and development. It promised heat and sweat, Africa and Asia, fumes and noise, dirt and corruption. It promised an affirmation: amidst all this, there was a grand ‘yes’ rushing through the streets of the cities of the global south. I could not contain my disappointment, nay, terror, when on the third session, the lights of the classroom were off and no one was there. The class was a perilous affair from the start, with a handful of people, which seemed to go down from the first to the second session. But no one? I climbed up to Patrick’s office, a little nest high up in the Birkbeck law school building, with a tilted roof, too low for the towering Professor, and an almost Paris-like feel of the roofs of London coming in from the tiny window. No class? No class, I am afraid, he says. All have dropped out. May I carry on with the class please, I say. I have already done three weeks of it, and frankly, nothing else seems as interesting as this course in the whole intercollegiate curriculum. That was the moment of his first yes: I enjoy teaching, he says, and I do not see why not.

Thursday mornings, for a whole year, I was expected to “raise issues” after reading pages upon pages of reports, case studies, articles and even whole books for each session. Thursday morning, 9am, sleepy and fully aware of my whiteness and my pale ignorance of everything I was studying about, perched on the top of Bloomsbury, “raising issues”. Two hours of intense but never discouraging back and forth, two hours of talks between what must have been the most patient man in London and the most ludicrous fumbling for “issues” by a most inexperienced, cushioned, 20-odd years old white European. The yes was being formed. He was sharing with me his one passion: the yes to the possibility of improvement from within. His great dilemma, solved with a characteristic Scottish dryness: how to help the global South without maintaining the direction of colonisation, of the one tall white man instructing the various committees, public bodies, international organisations, whole countries. The answer: by enabling. By eavesdropping into the gurglings of the system within, and allowing this to blossom. By folding in the people whose bodies were one with the ground, the land and its ravaging, and by encouraging them to contribute to their own Land Registration Code, their own Property Cadastre, or their own Environmental Charter. By remaining ignorant, fresh, enthusiastic, wholly give to the particular of every situation, corporeally dedicated to the process. Each land was one infinite immanence of yes-sayers, along which Patrick flowed, pacing it down and spreading it through as soon as he would step off his plane. The indigenous foreigner, the observer that belonged, the ear of the land. Market, yes. But with regulation. Land law, yes. But only through the locals. Law, yes, even common law, yes. But with indigenous customary law. These were the real yes that kept on being rehearsed in his little shop of wonders in Bloomsbury.

I asked him to be my PhD supervisor. Yes. I made him read pages upon pages of my theoretical fumbling, from open ecosystems to closed autopoetic systems, from Lacanian fathers to Jungian enantiodromias, from proto-Marxist banner-cradling to post-Marxist body-cradlings. Yes, I read it twice and I began to understand, he would say. Twice! I could not even bring myself to read these tirades once after I had blurted them out. Conceited nonsense, world-altering paradigms, immodest theoretical acrobatics, revolutionary wet dreams. Yes, yes, yes (not in a lackadaisical, I-have-seen-it-all way, but in a yes, why not, let’s see way). More yes: he asked me, I am going away, I need someone to teach my property law classes, how is your property law? Non-existent, I said, full of Civil law shame. Good, he said, you are starting after the summer. He asked me to mark undergraduate essays. Stern and fearful, I gave what I felt were fair marks. He did not comment but gave me his marked essays ‘to second mark or just have a look’. My marks went up at least 20% after that. Yes, yes, yes.

And here comes the biggest yes, the one that I do not want to close and I will resist closing as much as I can think and write and create. My first draft done, a theory of autopoiesis for the urban environment, nice and fragmented, all good. He says, this is very good. But what is your thesis? Well, I am looking at this and that through the other. Yes, he says, but what is your thesis? It took me six writing-up months of a research exchange in Cleveland, 9/11 in NYC, and a night trip in a Rio de Janeiro favela to understand the question. This is the biggest yes of my life, and Patrick has opened it up for me. A thesis as a position, a seat from which one sees the world, the one idea (we are lucky if we have even half an idea in our lives, as another yes Birkbeck sayer, Anton Schutz, told me once) that is lived through the body and makes the body contort and fold in and make of itself the thesis. The thesis is what you live by, ever-changing, ever-there, never closing.

Patrick McAuslan

Patrick McAuslan

I am writing this as I fly from Hobart, Tasmania, to Sydney. The end of a two-month lecturing tour across Australia, full of indigeneity, ground, land, country, law, cities, world. Also, a land full of vibrating intellect, a pulsating question mark of a country that ebbs back and forth between the possible and the impossible. A thinking community that allowed my thesis to evolve, while keep on saying yes. These are things I would have never been able to feel, had it not been for Patrick. Like me, waves of students and colleagues and friends, his own family, his wife Dorette and his daughter Fiona, and a host of countries across the world, have learnt, through and with Patrick, the importance of yes.

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos is Professor of Law & Theory and Director of the Westminster International Law & Theory Centre at the University of Westminster.


  1. That was really beautiful, Andreas. Thank-you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for this touching tribute and for passing to us, invaluable lessons.

  3. This was a beautiful read Andreas, many many thanks for this.

  4. I cried and smiled. Thank you.

  5. Very moving.

  6. Dear Andreas, thank you for sharing these thoughts. I was lucky enough indeed and more to have met this most modest of human beings and most intelligent of jurists and it changed my academic life for good much like you describe so well.


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