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Beyond Nomos and Narrative: Unconverted Antinomianism in the Work of Susan Howe

60 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2007  

Marie Ashe

Suffolk University Law School


Robert Cover's "Nomos and Narrative" (N&N) is often recognized as an originary text for jurisprudence, and its interdisciplinarity has been particularly valued within the fields identified as "Law and Religion" and "Law and Literature." Since the time of its publication in 1983, it has been received by readers as a powerful contribution to legal theory, and it has been the subject of renewed and highly favorable commentary during the last several years.

Analyzing certain intersections at which the narratives of religious groups have confronted and challenged a prevailing nomos - or normativity - N&N valorized such challenges, as well as the religious groups from which they emanated, for their "jurisgenerative" potential. However, while focusing on the value of antinomian narratives produced by religious groups, N&N failed to engage in any way with the intra-communal suppressions of gendered antinomianism that have been accomplished and enforced by such groups. In its valorization of American religious communities, for example, Cover's article entirely failed to explore the constrictions and circumscriptions of gender - in particular, the exclusions, excommunications, and banishings of women - enforced by the normativities of those groups. This failure seriously limits N&N's relevance for what may be the most urgent questions now confronting American - and global - law and legal theory: questions about religion's intersections with gender; questions about law's intersections with gender; and questions about law's intersections with religion.

Contemporary commentary on Cover's work - including feminist commentary - has argued for N&N's continuing relevance and has either overlooked or excused its failure to engage with issues of gender. In refraining from strong critique of N&N, such commentary attaches itself to - and is limited by - the liberal-legalist genealogy that shapes not only N&N but also the texts that continue to dominate the areas of "Law and Religion" and of "Law and Literature."

This article argues the need for theoretical movement "beyond N&N" and beyond legal-liberalism. It points to possibilities for such movement - especially within feminist-legal-theoretical ventures and in the "Law and Religion" and "Law and Literature" areas - by re-reading N&N alongside and in interaction with the work of the American poet, historian and critic, Susan Howe. A contemporary of Cover, Howe has taken up in her work the reality of gendered antinomianism - evident in American religious history and in American literature - that Cover excluded from N&N. Seeing in Howe's work the kind of freshness and force that readers of 25 years ago discerned in Cover's, this article introduces her work to legal theory, demonstrating the ways in which it exposes alternative directions for the study of law's engagement with narrativity, with religion, and with gender. Fragments from Susan Howe's writing appear throughout this article and will be recognizable by their appearance in a distinctive font.

Keywords: Robert Cover, Nomos & Narrative, MarkdeWolfe Howe, Susan Howe, law and literature, law and religion, feminist legal theory, Derrida, Anne Hutchinson, antinomianism, Emily Dickinson, Carol Weisbrod

Suggested Citation

Ashe, Marie, Beyond Nomos and Narrative: Unconverted Antinomianism in the Work of Susan Howe. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Marie Ashe (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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