A Reminder

by | 22 Jan 2022

Umut Özsu

a reminder

I was never able to meet Alan Hunt. My relation to him is mediated in a double sense—first, in that my only points of entry into his unique and impressive world are through his many and varied writings; second, in that I happen to teach in the same department of the same university in which he spent his last quarter century as an academic. To a great degree, Hunt remains a mystery to me, his name a phantom reminder of a past that continues to haunt the future—a reminder of what legal theory once was and what it might once again become.

Part of Hunt’s story has long been a matter of professorial lore. His name is inseparable, for instance, from the history of the Critical Legal Conference, which he helped to found as a network in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, shortly after Duncan Kennedy, David Trubek, Mark Tushnet, Roberto Unger, and a host of other law professors (all white, nearly all men, and nearly all affiliated with elite law schools) embarked upon the project of developing ‘critical legal studies’ in the United States. Hunt was the Critical Legal Conference’s founding chair and worked with Peter Fitzpatrick and others (all white, nearly all men, but in their case generally based at less prestigious institutions) to expand the horizon of theoretical and sociological approaches to law in the United Kingdom. Notably, he did so in a way that remained in contact with the Marxist tradition to a greater degree—and for a longer stretch of time—than in the United States, where Marxism, though partly represented in the work of Morton Horwitz and Karl Klare, was never permitted to gain a serious foothold in the ‘mainstream’ of the law schools’ ‘critical’ scene.

For many the key to Hunt’s professional story is his work on Foucault. Hunt should be credited with having provided one of the earliest and most searching analyses of Foucault’s writings from a specifically legal-theoretical perspective. Scholars of law and sociology, among many other disciplines, had been reading, teaching, and discussing Foucault for years before Hunt’s argument about Foucault’s ‘expulsion of law’ appeared in the pages ofLaw & Social Inquiry. But Hunt’s critical reading of Foucault, anchored in the view that he dismissed law’s constitutive role in modern societies, quickly proved to be influential, even as against Kennedy’s earlier attempt to take up Foucault’s relevance for legal analysis in conjunction with the writings of Robert Hale and other US legal realists. Hunt developed his argument further inFoucault and Law, which he and Gary Wickham published in 1994. This book still makes for terrific reading, alongside more recent work by Ben Golder, Jessica Whyte, and others.

In my own case, a particularly significant point of reference has always been the interview Nicos Poulantzas gave to Hunt and Stuart Hall shortly before his death. A reference to the interview found its way into Stuart Hall’s introduction to the New Left Books / Verso translation of Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, arguably the most important work of Marxist state theory of the post-Second World War period (and one authored by a Marxist who, tellingly, had rebelled against his formal training in law after receiving a doctorate in the discipline). Hunt’s engagement with Marx, and his willingness to use Marxist critical tools to analyze law, rights, and the state, ran exceptionally deep. Though he wrote extensively about Marxist approaches to law (see, e.g., here and here), his Poulantzas interview is remarkable for bringing one of the chief figures in ‘critical legal studies’ together with one of the chief figures in cultural studies and one of the chief figures in Marxist state theory. I find myself returning to it often. It feels like a crossroads.

Ultimately, these are no more than snapshots from a life of academic production, bits and pieces torn from the public profile of an incisive legal theorist with an unusually broad array of talents and interests. Alan Hunt the person was evidently far more than what might be captured in the name ‘Alan Hunt’, as it appeared in the books and articles that thousands of students and scholars have pored over for decades. Yet that name is also a kind of signature of a certain way of thinking and writing, one which remains crucial and well worth cultivating today.

There was once a time when Hunt’s writings were read widely, perhaps even a tad too much so—a time when they dominated much of the ‘critical legal’ universe and did so without the benefit of an Ivy League affiliation. Nowadays, he is read far too little—and generally only superficially. Decades after Marxism was wrongfully declared dead, and several Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian ‘turns’ later, it is time we revisited the basic questions of law and society around which Hunt circled. Not in order to retrace his steps, let alone venerate his achievements, but in order to rekindle our own appetite for investigations of first-order theoretical ambition and importance. That, at any rate, should be the point of any ‘critical legal studies’ worth its (and Hunt’s) name.

Umut Özsu is associate professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University.

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