Eco-Legal Bonds: On Veitch’s Obligations

by | 16 Dec 2021

We continue our series on contemporary critical (legal) books with a series of responses to Scott Veitch’s, Obligations: New Trajectories in Law (Routledge, 2021). We will post four responses to Scott’s new work, each picking distinct themes which together testify to the richness of the book’s scholarship. Next week Scott will respond.

Two terms of connection run through Obligations by Scott Veitch. The first is the Latin stem ‘lig’, which provides the central idea of binding at the heart of an obligation. ‘Lig’ appears not only in obligation, but also in ligeance, ligament, ligature, and religion (Veitch, 27). For instance, Veitch quotes Coke comparing the ligeance owed by subjects to the ligatures that tie the body together and comments such bonds – of ligeance and of religion – are politically constitutive – they ‘mesh together and culminate in the body politic’ (Ibid). The second term is the striking image from Justinian’s Institutes of the vinculum juris, a ‘bond of law’ – represented as a ‘fetter, bond, chain, or rope’ (Birks, quoted in Veitch, 59) tied around the neck of the person who is obligated. As Veitch explains, a vinculum juris is not represented as a bilateral bond but as one-sided and implies a power difference between the person obligated and the person to whom the obligation is owed. ‘An obligation is thus a constraint on only one of the parties; the other is entirely free to act as they choose unless they are themselves bound by another obligation’ (60).

Thus a bond is the defining image of obligation. Obligations are ‘legal ties’ (62). These images of ties and bonds are densely packed with legal significances that Veitch unfolds in detail. Veitch describes obligations as having three further characteristics: they are bonds between persons; they can be reified as things (and hence become transferable); and they are enforceable. Finally, Veitch argues that obligations exist as part of an extended normative ecology: they ‘function in an environment made up of various institutions and social formations that may be described as constituting the ecology of obligations’ (67). Legal obligations are dependent upon the associations, presumptions, and broader institutions of society. To put this in the terms of the ecological metaphor, all organisms are dependent upon habitat and moreover, habitat and organism are co-constitutive – the organism shapes the habitat but is also adapts to it. Ecological relationships are layered and multi-faceted, involving heterogeneous elements and ongoing processes that constantly lead to new forms. Similarly, all obligations are hybrids of legal and extra-legal norms. And hence, obligation also depends upon and shapes heterogeneous elements of social and political life – as a legal relation it extends into every corner of the human condition. One powerful illustration among many offered by Veitch relates to the debt that fuels the world economy. Debt cannot be understood as a purely legal relationship producing the obligation of a single borrower to a single lender. Partly because of the scale of indebtedness but also because of the personal-corporate-sovereign interlinkings that bring it into every part of daily life, debt is structural and its reach is geopolitical. Debt governs freedom of contract, freedom of policy-making, and freedom itself. 

For most people in modern society the reality is that the vinculum juris they have is not in their hands. It is round their necks; and it follows them around unrelentingly, it curtails their freedom, it leads them where the creditor wills. As Birks advised: dwell on that image. (89)

However, obligations are not entirely negative, in Veitch’s analysis. He argues that they also provide the connective ties for community and solidarity. Thinking of obligations as the correlative of needs rather than of rights enables a more constructive resonance of obligation to emerge. Veitch concludes the book by turning from the metaphorical use of ecology to a literal one where ‘the force of obligations – of binding people to each other and to things’ (111) is deployed to structure the urgent need for humans to care for the earth. Humans are literally bonded to the earth and in consequence ‘the “ecology of obligation” is no longer merely a metaphor’ but describes ‘the reality of our mutual relationship and joint liabilities within the complex webs of life’ (113).

Such a series of bonds was termed a ‘natural contract’ by Michel Serres. In this contract, the whole of humanity relates symbiotically as contracting partner with the Earth: ‘we must add to the social contract a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity’ (Serres 1992, 38). This is possible because ‘the Earth speaks to us in terms of forces, bonds, and interactions, and that’s enough to make a contract’ (ibid, 39). Serres’ natural contract, like Veitch’s literal ecology of obligations, situates obligation in our mere existence on earth. It is also perhaps comparable to John Donne’s ‘primordial debt’ theory of obligation discussed earlier by Veitch, except here the debt would be owed not to God but rather to the planet for its ongoing sustenance of life. In other words, because we owe our existence and being to the planet and are physically bonded to it, we are indebted to it. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with the Earth and we can choose to be either parasites (Serres 1992, 33) or mutualistic co-producers.

The notions of the ligature, bond, and ecology are highly suggestive of obligations emerging from human immersion in a predominantly nonhuman world and – perhaps – raise the prospect of obligations that are inherent in the structure of matter. I’d like therefore to take the ‘ecology of obligations’ even more literally (if that is possible and leaving aside the interesting question of the metaphorical-literal distinction) and extend obligation beyond human social formations and even beyond our obligation to care for the earth. 

The literal ecology of obligation – the webs of material bonds that make up any ecology – might be thickened in several ways, by following the matter, so to speak. These are not distinct trajectories but merge into each other, like the matter that they are made of. Nonetheless, some stopping points can be imposed onto them. 

First, the obligative ties extend to the immediately surrounding materiality touching and constituting law. Commenting on Latour’s ‘somewhat fleeting’ reference to vincula juris, Kyle McGee describes them as ‘those bonds, cords, laces, links on which the force of law travels: they make up the “wiring” system, cables strung up behind the walls of the totality’ (2015, 478). In this context, vincula juris (and simplifying Latour and McGee) are the bonds that materially constitute legal networks, that link a fence to a document, a party in a dispute, a building, judicial utterances, an extended web of such materials, and back again to the fence, across territories and times. In the process of linking material things, ‘[e]verything is transformed, or re-created’ (McGee 2015, 478). Extrapolating, each and every vinculum can be seen as a little obligation, a little cord, binding one thing to its neighbour or to several adjacent events, things, persons. The document is made from the trees, which have been nurtured by soil, inhabited by birds, and so on. Collectively, these heterogeneous and often slight ligatures produce, enable, enforce, the larger and more abstract things that law calls obligations. They are the material (and literal) groundwork of the intra-human ecology of obligations in Veitch’s metaphorical sense. Perhaps, in other words, the ecology of obligations among humans can never be only metaphorical, given that it is always constituted by literal bonds that must, eventually, extend into the earth itself.

Second, and returning to Serres’ natural contract, Latour argues that this ‘is not a deal between two parties, humanity and nature.’ Instead, it is ‘a series of transactions in which one can see how, all along and in the sciences themselves, the various types of entities mobilized by geohistory have exchanged the various traits that define their agency’ (Latour 2017, 64). The natural contractual bond is immanent to every planetary thing because it precedes the emergence – via symbiosis and/or intra-action – of entities and agents. As Whitehead succinctly put it: ‘We are in the world and the world is in us’ (Whitehead 1938, 165). There can be no objectification of the Earth as other in such a contract, much less its erasure, because we are all symbiotically bonded. As contract, it is not individualistic but fully relational: transactions can only be understood in the context of the relations that make them possible. And hence the natural contract is immanent to our being. Relationality – as physical or metaphorical ties – is now understood to be not only constitutive of all law and the autonomous identities that inhabit it, but of socio-political- and cultural patterns and persona. At the scale of the norms of life, new norms created by relating are in constant production: if a seed lands in a healthy microbial soil a pattern of material exchanges are quickly established between microbes, fungus, plant, and atmosphere. Symbiotic relations more generally enable and structure life at every stage from the formation of cells to entire ecosystems.

Can we go further, and hypothesize, thirdly, that bonds of obligation subsist in matter? The thought is challenging from the perspective of anthropocentric law because an obligation is a human construct. In hypothesizing that obligation subsists within matter, it is possible that we are moving from a metaphorical ecology of literal obligations to a literal ecology of metaphorical obligations. Even so, in the exchanges, bonding, and entanglements that produce matter are there not ties to which all existent things owe their being? As Karen Barad says: ‘Entanglements are not a name for the interconnectedness of all being as one, but rather specific material relations of the ongoing differentiating of the world. Entanglements are relations of obligation – being bound to the other – enfolded traces of othering.’ (Barad 2010, 265). Since the macro thing is itself actually produced and made possible by trillions of such micro ties, it is necessary to say that it is obligation that is fundamental, not the macro-things that relate. And hence it is no overstatement to say ‘[w]e live in a world replete with obligations’ (Veitch, 1). 

Barad, Karen 2010 ‘Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come’ Derrida Today 3: 240-268Latour, Bruno 2018 Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the N

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