The Mytho-Poetics of Critical Legal (secret) Society

by | 2 May 2019

Adieu Ammenotep, Leonora Carrington, (1960)

By all accounts the secret society began before the Boston body was found. It started in many different places, small groups began to form who consumed the scraps and leftovers from other tables. Clusters of interested people had been gathering in smoky rooms for decades. And they would have been like all those other small groups in academia who persist for some time, sharing an interest before the connections break and the energy dissipates. Perhaps something similar would have happened to these ‘crits’, were it not for the discovery of the Boston body.

The corpse was discovered on the front steps of an august American institution, some time in the late eighties. No one appears certain whether death came naturally or by human hand, but it is clear that the body had been dragged from the institution and dumped outside (despite the protestations of some within the institution). How exactly the corpse was brought to the UK is also unclear, but it certainly found its way to this group of young academics and students. And before it festered, they began to consume its flesh. Initially the best parts were distributed, but in time every part of the corpse was disposed of. Some say the body was still living when the crits began to eat, but there is little doubt that if that were the case, its condition was terminal and its death was not hastened by their consumption. Whether this was initially conceived as pure transgression or as some political gesture of solidarity is much disputed. But the body was consumed over the course of a number of years, and it was consumed in its entirety.

The consumption had various effects on UK legal scholars. Many could not bring themselves to the work of digestion, expressing abhorrence from the outset. These people often found their way to other societies, whose antipathy for critique seemed constitutive. Some tried bits and pieces, but found the flesh indigestible. Their indigestion required strong purgatives, and they returned to a safer diet of legal thought. There were also those who found it initially delightful but overtime began to develop strong allergies, and foreswore the diet altogether. All of this is to say that the flesh of critique was not for everyone.

More interesting, for our purposes at least, are the stories of those who remained within the secret society. There we find multiple reactions. Almost universally, there was agreement that the Boston body was not enough. But this lead to disagreement on who else to consume. There were those in favour of exhuming long dead Germans, those who wanted to nibble on various living (although now dead) French bodies. Some suggested that the act of consumption itself was an expression of a type of gendered logic. Meaning either a rejection of the anthropophagy itself or a preference for female flesh. This is not an exhaustive list of the different bodies proposed, perhaps someday we might line them all up, head to toe and pick over their bones… but not today.

Of the Boston body, some reports suggest that the inedible parts were fashioned into relics and fetishes for personal and institutional power. One unpublished account (which I suspect should be treated with caution) even described a scholar who set the knuckle bones in resin. This amulet was passed amongst his most trusted students, at once reminding them of his proximity to the body while simultaneously strengthening their thrashing powers. I am almost certain that some of these fetishes were buried under particular buildings, in the hope that institutions could be imprinted with the originary sacrifice of the society. But it is also worth noting that from the outset, there was a healthy black market in counterfeit critical fetishes and relics. Leading to a perpetual debate about their authenticity, and potential to shape their institutions. This, perhaps, is the problem with the fetish.

Also noteworthy is the treatment of the corpse’s phallus – for the Boston body was most certainly was male. On this, no two accounts are the same. Certainly it was removed from the corpse quite early in the process of deliction. Some claim that particular men consumed it, fried with garlic and a little parsley. The act of symbolic appropriation proved quite difficult apparently – chewy. But others insist that its shrivelled form was preserved in a small bell jar and secreted at plenary events during a certain annual conference. It signified the inability of any particular person or group to permanently possess the site of symbolic power, apparently. Although such a liturgical practice requires its priests, who have presumably looked after it between the events. Still others insisted that it was destroyed in an attempt to excise the site of (patriarchal) authority itself. Certainly, when inebriated, some still whisper of its existence. And in hushed tones, it is discussed with a mixture of ecstatic terror and joy. Some even insist that its return signifies the end of critique, although they won’t be drawn on whether that means the end of days or the ends of critique.

Looking back now, more distressing are the many accounts of this society turning in on itself. In cities around the UK, scholars and activists tore chunks off each other: a society of auto-anthropophagy. Sacrificial cycles, cleansing, purity – and more bodies. At each time, the sacrifice always promised to end the cycle, but it would never create peace. After all it was a society – always and inevitably full of fracture, contestation and conflict.

And it was a society, it still is a society. And I mean society rather than community. There are plenty of visible critical legal communities. Some of these communities are even inoperative, paradoxically unworking logics of institutionality as part of their constitution. There are communities that are tied up in networks, fora and spaces of employment, underemployment and unemployment. But there is also a society – albeit a secret society.

It emerged in the UK during those days of anthropophagy. The origin – a mythopoetic account would always seem to deal in origins – was not the Boston body itself (legal critique was done long before it landed on these shores). No, the society emerged from the act of consumption, and from the consumption and excretion which is also the process of digestion and nourishment. All that is left now of that Boston body is its name – ‘critical legal studies’ – simultaneously exhausted in its original sense, but at the same time enlivened and opened in its potential. It is not quite an empty signifier, but neither is it strongly coercive (doctrines, dogmas, high priests, oaths, loyalties, police). It names nothing, but an invisible society of scholars and activists.

There has always been this secret society. The question that I suppose I am gesturing towards, is what might be done as a society.

1 Comment

  1. Also noteworthy is the treatment of the corpse’s phallus – for the Boston body was most certainly was [sic] male.

    Careful there, this is enough for an accusation of transphobia.


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