Valerie Kerruish, 1943-2022

by | 25 Jul 2022

Valerie Kerruish, 1943-2022

“Val has left us”, her partner Uwe Peterson wrote recently in an email to a few of us who had known her for a while.

Valerie Kerruish was a Tutor, Lecturer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia from 1965-1992, and an Associate Professor at Macquarie University from 1993-1999. She then moved to Hamburg and set up the Altonaer Stiftung für philosophische Grundlagenforschung along with Uwe and Matthias Kaiser. Convening the Stiftung’s Centre for Legal Theory, Val organised a variety of workshops between 2005 and 2016 focusing on “the interdisciplinary study of the conceptual, social and political foundations of law with particular reference to the role of colonialism in the emergence of modern forms of law”.

Val published numerous papers on legal theory and colonialism. Her book, Jurisprudence as Ideology was published in 1991 and, more recently, she had been working on a major project entitled The Wrong of Law.

The following are tributes from a few of Val’s friends and colleagues.

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Valerie was a steadfast friend and ally. In 1991 my USYD doctoral supervisor left after a year and I was on my own. Val Kerruish stepped up as my reader. As Macquarie monstered critical legal staff they doubled my workload on return from maternity leave. Val stepped up saying, it was not my problem to solve. Though she would hate the descriptor as an academic mother and roll her eyes at the idea of being a role model or mentor, Val stepped in, over and over, supporting me, and encouraged me to move past self doubt and what she called intuitive philosophy to practice disciplined thinking. Val Kerruish and I taught a full year History and Philosophy of Property Law subject at Macquarie University together for ten years. We got to understand each other through many debates and arguments about the readings and how to improve them. We bonded through devising strategies to respond to colleagues and university management that sought to undermine critical legal education, and a shared frustration at leftist politics practiced far removed from grassroots and direct action.

It is shameful that when she was forced out altogether from Macquarie the enormous loss to Australian critical legal education passed unnoted. After she moved to Hamburg, along with Uwe Petersen, they established the Centre for Legal Theory at the Altonaer Stiftung für philosophische Grundlagenforschung. Val and Uwe created fantastic opportunities for many legal theory scholars who attended workshops there or benefited from scholarships. She would sit, smoke, laugh and make wry observations, but mainly she would read closely and share her knowledge generously. Along with Uwe, Val normalised the idea of a critical space for deep thinking about colonialism, the environment and law.

Kathy Bowrey

Unlike other friends who are contributing to this tribute, I did not get to meet Valerie except fleetingly during her years in Sydney, but only came to know her later, once she and Uwe had moved to Europe to set up the ‘Stiftung’ for interdisciplinary research in Altona, in Hamburg. Over the years this institute became a site of rare intellectual engagement, of the kind that Valerie not just encouraged, but embodied: marked by demands placed on oneself to read closely and to understand, calling for attention and responsibility. Those who took part in the annual workshops were often surprised by their intensity. And for Tarik, Scott, Stewart and me who had the privilege to attend those exceptional occasions (I cannot recall any of us missing a single one) they became something of an anchor, a welcome return to the undiluted – by instrumentalities and considerations of ‘impact’ and ‘added value’ – intellectual exchange, critique-heavy, sometimes combative, always honest. 

Valerie was quite simply one of the most brilliant thinkers of her generation. Her perfectionism made it difficult to let go of work, with the effect that there is less of her research available in published form than one would hope. Her magnum opus The Wrong of Law­, which she spent the last two decades of her life writing, remains devastatingly unfinished. I learnt an enormous amount from reading drafts, and I have relied heavily on its insights, and quoted heavily from it in my own work, always with some trepidation that I had not quite got it, that there were aspects of its wonderful complexity that I had missed. In my recent book there are numerous references to Valerie’s book, as ‘forthcoming’. A certain sadness attaches to this term as I write it down, and I will hold on to it – that term and the emotion it invokes – as a sign and index of how her thought lives on in the work of those of us who admired her generosity, humanity, and brilliance.  

Emilios Christodoulidis

The death of Valerie Kerruish, of which many of us heard recently, was not merely a personal loss, for which commiserations must go to Uwe Petersen, her partner, and other recently close friends, but also for those of us who knew and worked with her slightly longer ago. She was a highly principled person, a sincere friend with whom one could agree or sometimes disagree quite profoundly without disturbing the underlying affection. This is a relationship of a kind too rare.

She and I met at the first Australian law and society conference and at subsequent meetings and conferences designed to broaden legal scholarship and with the help of younger researchers to include wider contexts of inquiry than those traditionally associated with legal education. The endeavor was significantly successful and Valerie’s support important. We presented joint conference papers in San Diego and later at Durham in England, the first with sun streaming through the windows, the second after being marooned for two hours at the city’s railway station in a late winter snow storm .Our last encounter was when my partner, Judith Grbich and I discussed our work at Val’s and Uwe’s then new venture in legal philosophy, their Hamburg Stiftung.

Valerie’s loss is a loss to legal theory in Australia.

Ian Duncanson

Valerie has passed away far too soon, and we mourn her passing. While my partner Ian Duncanson and I live in Melbourne and Val has always lived far away, we have been able to continue a friendship with Valerie which began in 1981 when Ian convened the first Australian Law and Society conference in Melbourne. Valerie and Ian eventually worked on a joint jurisprudence and history project which involved conversations around her kitchen oven in Nedlands, close to the University of WA, Perth. I learnt to think jurisprudentially from Valerie, as did many a new `law and society’ devotee of legal scholarship in the 1980s in Australia, and her work took us all into the new legal landscapes of a critical jurisprudence located in local politics. Val lived her politics, and it included living frugally in her rented house in Nedlands, and winter heating involved turning on the gas oven and opening the door of the oven. It also involved starting her academic teaching day by rising at dawn and joining the Aboriginal protest camp at the nearby sacred site of Gooninup on the Swan river in inner Perth. In the dreamtime stories of the Noongar and Whadjuk peoples Gooninup was the resting place of the ancestral serpent Waugul. The colonialists had built a brewery on the site and now the state government was planning to rebuild as a riverside restaurant and tavern. Val joined the protesters early every day during 1989 and added politics to her jurisprudential theorising about the systematic dismantling of the Noongar sacred site by both state and federal governments, and the continuing practice of Aboriginal child removals from their families.

In her monograph of 1991 Jurisprudence as Ideology, she finds the usual traditional jurisprudential philosophers wanting, and suggests a lack of `any awareness of and concern with the question of how someone whose sexual or cultural identity has been repressed or dislocated finds a sense of self at all. He is unaware of it, I suggest, because of rights fetishism’. The paper cover of the hardback edition contains a photograph of some 13 police standing over a single seated Aboriginal  protester sitting on the sand beside the river, barely visible is the protester’s placard lying on the sand, proclaiming `No Police Allowed’.

When Val moved to teach at Macquarie University in Sydney in 1993 her commitments to a jurisprudentially inflected politics of property and state power brought local issues into the mainstream of a global  jurisprudence. Feminist jurisprudence found a home at Macquarie with Val and her critical colleagues. Val and Uwe moved in 2000 to the northern hemisphere to eventually set up the Altona Stiftung. Together they created a vibrant intellectual home for many scholars, and for us, we were fortunate to share their hospitality, their seminars, and Uwe’s cooking. Val remains an intellectual giant in jurisprudence. I would like to share my photos of her from 2005, sitting in her study at Altona and saying goodbye to us at her front door. They seem to capture for me different aspects of Val and her presence  in the world. Perhaps the publisher of Jurisprudence might also allow me to reproduce the iconic cover photograph, with its placard claim to indigenous territory, its quiet opposition to police and its pathetic state agents.

Judith Grbich

I met Val about 20 years ago on a visit to Hamburg, she and Uwe were living in their small flat in Altona and had not yet set up their Stiftung. Over the years through emails and visits to Hamburg, a stint in Altona as a postdoc funded by the Stiftung, and attendance at the Stiftung’s workshops, Val became a friend and mentor. She was kind, caring and tough, never shy of asking the hard questions but doing so in a way that was always considered, always affirmed you, always took account of your or another’s standpoint and worked from there. She loved her kids, grandkids and Uwe who was also her intellectual partner and collaborator. Indeed my favourite memory of Val will always be of her and Uwe working away in their shared office, thoughts bouncing off each other, cigarette and pipe smoke floating about, and the sound of Val’s very mischievous laugh bursting out of the room. 

Val was a true scholar who had little time for the bullshit elements of contemporary academic life, the careers driven by ego and desire for popularity. She was a serious critical thinker whose knowledge was of an incredible range, stretching across legal and political theory, European philosophy and mathematical logic. Her approach was shaped by a background growing up in Western Australia, working as a Marxist academic, and being politically engaged with the critique of Australia’s ongoing colonial violence against Aboriginal people. Val’s work shared a common ground with Uwe, built in part upon drawing out the insights of Hegel’s logic. For Val the critical project of dialectical and speculative logic was key for reformulating what it means to understand the foundations of knowledge – against formalism and forms of thinking which deny contradiction and which through the claims of stability, reasonableness and moralism, muddy and mythologise their own unstable and bloody foundations. Her unfinished work The Wrong of Law, attempted to think this through against the multiple uncritical formalisms of law, logic, capital, and colonialism. I was always asking Val when would she finish The Wrong of Law? She would say that she was close but was still wrestling with one puzzle or another. Although it must have infuriated her, at times I got the sense that she kind of enjoyed the slightly unfinished nature of it all – of thinking, reason, chasing its own tail and getting perpetually surprised by itself. She wanted legal and philosophical thinking to do that, to open itself up to the ability of being unsettled, upset and startled by itself. Val helped me to think this way, she inspired much of my own work. I thank her, and I miss her.

— Tarik Kochi

It is a sign of her influence, intensity, and impact on my life that I recall my first conversation with Valerie nearly 30 years ago. We were sitting on the steps of the ‘dry’ fountain at Macquarie University discussing Aboriginal deaths in police custody. Smoking together and talking informally, I was struck immediately by her commitment to challenging colonial violence; and her conviction that there is a deep relationship between this violence and the stock jurisprudence of legal positivism that undergirds legal and social systems.  Such thinking was rare in Australian law schools in the 1980s-90s, and writing about it as unequivocally as Val did had consequences. She stared-down the lions of conventional jurisprudence (Hart, Dworkin, Raz, Finnis); making them into play-things even, with a philosophical range that far exceeded their turgid repetition. At the time I met Val I was working on my final-year project on the Australian Labour Government’s policy to detain forced migrants in remote locations. I drew on her book Jurisprudence as Ideology. Scott Veitch had also just arrived at Macquarie – introducing me to Luhmann and Teubner’s systems theory. It was a testament to Val’s tremendous openness and qualities as a teacher that she would leave me to find my own way with these disparate ideas. And so it was that the feminist thinking of Harding and Hintikka which informed the standpoint theory of Jurisprudence as Ideology, as well as autopoiesis, informed by work and stayed with me. 

Val, Uwe, and I became friends in the years that followed. I would visit them in Glebe long after I had left Sydney, seeking their counsel and warmth. I am in no doubt that without their inspiration and example I would not have become an academic. The collective political hysteria and legal re-colonisation that followed the Mabo decision in the 1990s was a regular topic of our conversations. Val helped to shape my doctoral work on sovereignty. I was immensely fortunate that Val and Uwe’s move to Hamburg coincided with the time I moved to London for my PhD. When Peter Fitzpatrick was visiting the U.S for a term in 2000, Val and Uwe came to London and convened his reading group. We read Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche in those months with an intensity I’ve not seen repeated. In London Val and I shared the sense of being migrants and outsiders (differently, no doubt); but with a sense of comradeship and sympathy. Soon after this Val and Uwe established the Altonaer Stiftung für philosophische Grundlagenforschung in Hamburg. Their ambition was to facilitate intellectual work with care, rigour, and as an end in itself. If there is a phrase to describe the delights of the Stiftung I would go with the odd combination of ascetic splendour. There was a seriousness to the proceedings and discussions, accompanied with a sense that all the details had been thought through in the beautiful space they created. Val and Uwe’s hospitality was second to none. I was fortunate that the Stiftung supported a gathering of my dear fellow travellers to discuss the manuscript of Archiving Sovereignty. Ever since I met Val I would send her my work; not all of it mind you; just the stuff that I thought worthy of her time. True to this pattern I sent her my recent Countersign interview with Irene Watson. It was this email that Uwe responded to saying that Val was gravely ill. I will miss Val’s critical, honest, and generative dialogue. Most of all I will miss her fierce friendship!

Stewart Motha

I first met Val in the late 90s. I’d received some funding to go to Australia following my PhD, and to further my own research in the area of Indigenous rights, following the Australian High Court’s Mabo decision a few years earlier. A mutual friend – my ex-supervisor, the late Peter Fitzpatrick – had put me in touch with Val, who was based at Macquarie University at the time. Val had already published her book, Jurisprudence as Ideology the year before Mabo. I didn’t know it, but only of it, and my own intellectual influences were altogether more French rather than German – as Val’s were. But Peter had suggested I work with Val because, at least at that time, her commitment to theory (she would doubtlessly have said ‘philosophy’) and to thinking through, and engaging with, the developing legal and political situation in Australia was a rare combination. She quickly became, not only a valued collaborator – we were later to co-write a short piece based on the Federal Court’s decision in a 1998 Native Title case, that of the Yorta Yorta – but a close friend. 

For most of my time in Sydney, we met regularly in a pub in Glebe, along with Scott Veitch and Val’s partner, Uwe Petersen, to work on texts by Kant and Hegel, among others, and to discuss Indigenous issues and developments in Australia, and more broadly. It was serious stuff. And Val was a serious scholar, with an unwavering intellectual, and political, commitment. For me, the opportunity to spend time with her, and to learn from her own, always thoroughly considered, engagement with the impact and legacy of colonialism was invaluable. But along with her enviable focus, Val had a great quality of openness, both intellectually and personally. She was always good company: engaging but playful too. And, fuelled by beer and cigarettes, usually followed by Vietnamese food (and the miracle of fried ice cream) at a favourite restaurant near Val and Uwe’s house, it was fun, and I always looked forward to it. Regrettably, I saw Val just a few times after I left Australia and she moved to Hamburg to set up the Stiftung with Uwe. I recall, though, the first legal theory meeting there. Inevitably, it was intense but also immensely enjoyable; and accompanied throughout by Val and Uwe’s always impeccable hospitality.

“Val has left us”, Uwe emailed recently. Heartbreaking – they were such an amazing couple. Perhaps Val’s ongoing work, or at least some of it, on The Wrong of Law, will yet be shared. I hope so. But in any case, and although I hadn’t seen her for a little while, Val was someone who I feel immensely grateful to have known, and to have been able to spend time with. She was a formidable intellect, a kindred spirit, and a lovely friend.

Colin Perrin

I met Val at Macquarie University when I was 21 years old and was entering into my third year at law school in 1997 and ended up in her class for Property in Law and Equity, a course that Val had developed with Kathy Bowry.  How lucky I was. Not only because Val offered me a research position in my second week in the course, which as a poor student I desperately needed, but this is how it ended up in each other’s future orbit as friends and as mentor/mentee. I think back to this time and how intentional she was in getting to know me through the offer to work with her. But I would be remiss if I did not mention this incredible course, which treated property as a drama involving violence, theft and exploitation. Along the way, we read feudal history, history on the enclosures, early capitalist history and the role of property, the liberal and settler-colonial justification for private property and the critics of this justification from multiple perspectives including Marxist, feminist and anti-colonial ones. I still have the edited readings for this course. It was a course well ahead of its time, particularly because it offered a critical viewpoint of property in settler-colonial Australia and the way law through property is so implicated in social relations but disembeds itself at the same time. If I have any criticism of this course is that it raised the law to such heights, which was deeply disappointed by actual legal practice, though I have tried, I think quite successfully, to bridge the gap between this kind of critical approach and my own legal practice and that is one of the lasting impacts Val has had on me.

Val also taught the course, Law, laws and Aboriginal Peoples. I wrote a paper on how the High Court used magic in a case where it refused to contend with the claim that the policies which permitted States across Australia to steal Aboriginal children was genocidal. She gave me a B+ and said I had not managed to pull off the rich notion and I argued with her about the grade, which resulted in her allowing me to rewrite the paper. I felt I deserved a higher mark, just for trying to write something that I felt was right but was so outside the mainstream, even of legal theory at that time. Things were said by me about the way the university reproduces mediocre privilege and Val’s role in maintaining that, which I am a little embarrassed about now but I remember years later that she remembered this moment fondly and it consolidated our connection into a genuine one. She let me resubmit and I worked hard over 3 weeks to make it the paper she thought it could be, securing that A grade.

Our friendship deepened when I wrote my thesis in 1999 on Job, Jesus and Mabo, which was a theological take and critique of the Mabo decision, finding its roots in biblical symbolism which both opened the space for Mabo and also closed off the radical potential of such a shift in Australian law. Val supervised and was so incredibly generous with her time and I could not ask more of a supervisor – she was tough when needed, offered excellent feedback on technique and what sources would plug the gaps or offer inspiration and was also genuinely interested and excited by the ideas and process. We would meet in a smoke filled cafe and talk through drafts and we started to talk about more personal matters. I learned more about her life and we bonded over coming from poor and working class backgrounds and the unique perspective we brought to the otherwise middle class profession of law. We stayed in contact when Val moved to London, then Hamburg and I would visit her when I travelled to Europe. Despite being a deep theory nerd, I had started to work in legal practice and Val would write to me occasionally trying to convince me to come back to the academy. Eventually she supported me financially to study at the University of Glasgow for my LLM and to start a PhD at UNSW, which I am still doing. Without Val and Uwe through their Stiftung, I would never have had the opportunity to study overseas.

It is difficult to really write about Val’s influence on me, because it is deep. I always say that she plucked me up as a messy undergraduate and because I was a working class Samoan student with a messy childhood, I felt like an imposter in the academy and in law but she continued to challenge me to keep at it. She was a real believer in my intellect (even more than me at times). I chose to spend my 40th birthday with her and Uwe, which is the last time I saw her. I had planned to visit Val before Covid hit as I had been invited to London to give a lecture, but that never happened and the borders were shut for two years. Covid contributed to intermittent contact – two years just flying by but I always expected that I would get to see her again. I have no doubt she knew the support she gave me and what it meant to me. Val will remain one of the most important mentors in my life.

— Fleur Ramsay

Smiles and laughter, wine and cigarettes, stories and reminiscences, Val and Uwe were always great company. I first got to know Val when we became colleagues at Macquarie University in 1993. I last saw her in Hamburg a couple of months before she died. In all that time – almost 30 years – she was unfailingly generous, both personally and professionally, in all kinds of ways. Those who knew her will recognise this in their own ways and will cherish the memory of her kindness. Those who didn’t, still have the opportunity to engage with her through her writing. I recommend it unreservedly. Above all, it sets a high standard for legal scholarship. It insists on the need to think critically: to challenge complacency and givens, to think harder and better, to constantly test naïve and complex assumptions alike. Val was like this in person too: deeply thoughtful, spirited, dogged. But she was also profoundly sympathetic and attentive, particularly to those people and communities that western imperialist violence and conceptual coercion harmed, and continue to harm, relentlessly. It was always then a self-consciously sensitive negotiation she made with her great (white, European, male) interlocutors, Hegel and Marx, as she worked the difficult seam of “thought thinking itself” that inspired her unfinished magnum opus, The Wrong of Law.

But there is much else still to engage with. Jurisprudence as Ideology remains wonderfully insightful. I use Val and Jeannine Purdy’s “He Look Honest, Big White Thief” and her and Alan Hunt’s “Dworkin’s Dutiful Daughter” in teaching, and I know they have shifted a lot of students’ perspectives on the common law and its forms of reasoning. Like all Val’s work, they certainly shifted mine. In both her scholarship, and in the memory of her way of being in the world and with people, she will remain for me a constant source of inspiration. She will be missed. But I feel lucky to have known her and to have had her as part of my life for so long.

Scott Veitch

I first met Val in the early 2000s, it was at a time when there were few legal academics who could see or wanted to see the Mabo decision critically and from an Aboriginal sovereignty perspective. Val was one of the very few.

My early conversations with Val are remembered and I admire her for the rigour she brought to them. Val’s writings on the High Court Kartinyeri decision shone a light on the deep caverns of colonialism and its legal system.  Those works will remain one of her ongoing legacies for the future of thinking, and beyond the matrix of an ongoing colonial world disorder. Alongside the legacy of her writings, Val’s generosity, kindness and energy for bringing people to independently think and work together spoke volumes to the ethics and integrity of a wonderful person.

Martu karu, wu wu Val

Irene Watson

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for these moving remembrances

    Reply
    • Was this person a Healyite? I’d never heard of McAuliffe myself until a friend mentioned to me the other day that she had died. If she was indeed a Healyite, why was McAuliffe associated with a bunch of sectarian deadshits like that?

      Reply
      • Graham mate.

        As I have stated to you before, my belief is that you need to form a group of your own.

        Just because other groups don’t agree to you taking over, doesn’t mean they are sectarian.

        Also, certain other groups now, as far as I know, are having secret meetings. They may or may not have public events. We’ll see I suppose.

        Sectarian? You did not help me nominate as Convocation Rep on the UWA Senate.

        Although you did attend the public gallery at my recent Police-Feminist trial and was a witness to the absence of a Legal Aid funded Defence Attorney on my side of the imbalanced justice equation.

        Sectarian? Did the CPA, the Socialist Alliance, and the Socialist Alternative assist me in the recent By-election to decide the MLA for North West Central – even though they didn’t have their own candidate?

        Sectarian? I forecast that it will be others, other individuals and groups in “The League” who have established by University Law (1) Speakers Corners, and (2) The Moot Court in the Law School System of Justice.

        And the Referenda at ECU Mt Lawley, and the fresh elections at Curtin University (employing the WA Electoral Commission and verifiable paper ballots).

        I am a proud to have been a Young Socialist in the original Socialist Labour League. And my Facebook page has a similar name, ending in “Mark II (Permission Pending)”.

        Reply
        • Others in “The League”, or the Young Liberals, or some sub-group within the Socialist Alternative who will agree and co-operate on good policies, which they actually agree with – both basic democractic rights, or fundamental human rights, that we simply have a right to have.

          For the establishment by University Law, of:
          (1) Speakers Corners
          (2) The Moot Court in the Law School System of Justice.
          PS
          Valerie Kerruish could have remained at Macquarie if this system of of Justice had existed, and a Jury of the University Community had agreed with her.
          (3) Referenda at ECU – to decide the destiny of ECU Mt Lawley
          (4) Fresh elections at Curtin University employing the WA Electoral Commission and verifiable paper ballots
          (5) A new one:
          For the Restoration of ECU Claremont.

          Reply
        • Police-Feminism, or the thee-wee and practical measures, or praxis, of “Julian Assange-ing witchcraft”.

          This can apply even in relation to simple “conversations” – which apparently, are often, and even routinely, illegal, especially at the Universities.

          At Universities, apparently unwarned of philosophical “triggers”, can lead to the invoking of other men with real triggers.

          And I don’t mean Roy Rogers who had a horse called Trigger.

          Such is often caused by political oppression of the immature minds of young adult females.

          This is done relatively easily in a cultural setting of calling in, or snitching to, the Police, as a reflex and normalised response, in every possible situation – instead of discussing it, first say, with friends and family, religious folk, or counsellors.

          Reply
  2. Jurisprudence as Ideology played such an important part in my PhD. Thanks, Val!

    Reply
  3. Val’s birthday is coming up (Nov 26th) and the beautiful recollections recited here will help ease the pain of such a loss. All I would add is that it was both strange and wonderful to have had a Mother who was also such a towering intellectual, and so passionate about acting to right the injustices of the world, particularly those dealt to indigenous peoples. She taught me so much.

    She continues to be missed..

    Joe and Tim McAuliffe

    Reply
  4. And some Courts of Law, as in the planned PEP laws in WA, are planned to be by-passed.

    In the planned PEP Laws – Protection of the Entertainment Precinct, and using an amendment to some Liquor Act – it is planned to grant Police the power to suspend people for up to 5 years from Northbridge, by Police Edict.

    This is soon after the ALP, with its unique majority being squandered, and with its current Police Puppet leader, and with the Yes-Men, and Yes-Women in the ALP Caucus gave us, by Press Conference, Dagbent the Bozo (former Police Commissioner Chris Dawson) as the new WA Governor. And also, there was no short list of alternatives taken to the people to come up with a consensus appointment. No Dennis Eggington, No Prince Harry. No workplaces. No shopping centres. No pubs and taverns. No universities. No parks. No nut’in. Like the Universities, utter failures.

    For Greater Justice.
    For Greater Democracy
    For Economic Plenty.

    Reply

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