Book Reviews

Law’s Documents: Authority, Materiality, Aesthetics. Katherine Biber, Trish Luker, Priya Vaughan, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2022. xii, 375 pp. 9781003247593. EPUB

  • Heather MacNeil

…more information

  • Heather MacNeil
    Faculty of Information, University of Toronto

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Cover of Number 95, Spring 2023, pp. 6-194, Archivaria

In an article published in 2012 entitled “Law’s Archive,” the socio-legal studies scholar Renisa Mawani reflected on the significant critical attention scholars in the fields of history, historical anthropology, philosophy, and literary studies had directed toward the archive over the past few decades. Archival-turn scholarship, she observed, had repositioned history’s archive as “a site of epistemic and political struggle,” throwing into question “the integrity of historical evidence and the narrations it makes possible.” She contrasted this attention with the noticeable absence of critical attention legal scholars had paid to law’s archive over the same period – a surprising absence given the close connection between archives and the law asserted by foundational archival-turn theorists (Foucault and Derrida being the most obvious examples). Mawani argued that archival-turn literature provided a productive starting point for elucidating and problematizing law’s archive, which she defined as In the 10 years that have elapsed since the publication of Mawani’s article, there has been a steady growth in the critical legal literature exploring the nature, limits, and possibilities of law’s archive. A defining characteristic of this literature is its engagement with archival documents as cultural objects. As Trish Luker describes it, such engagement “attends to material characteristics such as structure, form and aesthetics. . . . [and] engages in analysis of the careers or political genealogies of documents to demonstrate how they function as agents in the production of knowledge, with political, legal and social consequences.” The writings of legal historians and anthropologists such as Cornelia Vismann, Christopher Tomlins, Annelise Riles, and Bruno Latour, who have investigated the materiality of legal and bureaucratic forms of documentation and the agentive role they play in producing law and legal systems, are thus significant touchstones. The collection of essays brought together in Law’s Documents: Authority, Materiality, Aesthetics is the most recent contribution to this growing body of literature. The collection emerged out of an Australian Research Council–funded project entitled What is a Document?, carried out between 2016 and 2018, and is edited by Katherine Biber and Trish Luker, legal scholars based at the Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney, and Priya Vaughan, a post-doctoral fellow at the Black Dog Institute, University of New South Wales, and a lecturer at the National Art School. The editors’ aim was “to capture and re-think law’s relationship with the documentary form . . . to challenge what can be understood as a legal document, and . . . explore the ways that legal documentation might generate harm, violence, pain, trauma and also sometimes acts of liberation and transformation” (p. 3). The contributors include academics, community leaders, artists, and poets and bring perspectives from diverse fields, including law, history, anthropology, information science, material culture studies, and the visual arts. As Biber, Luker, and Vaughan make clear, Law’s Documents “is not a complete or comprehensive survey of approaches to law’s documents, but rather represents the debates and challenges of our current moment” (p. 3). They flag the disruptive impact of the digital age and the reckoning with historical and contemporary injustices as emblematic concerns of the current moment, and both are recurring sub-themes across the collection. The reckoning with injustice is reflected in the particular attention the editors have paid “to examining the ongoing violence of settler colonialism, and the demand by First Nations peoples to be heard and prioritized” (p. 3). The 18 chapters that make up Law’s Documents are organized into four parts: an introductory section entitled “What is a Document?” followed by three thematic sections: “Authority,” “Materiality,” and “Aesthetics.” In their opening essay, the editors respond to the question What is a …