Towards a Literary Jurisprudence of Harm: Re-Writing the Aboriginal Child in Law's Imaginary of Violence
Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Forthcoming
20 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2016 Last revised: 20 Jun 2016
Date Written: June 2016
The figure of the “abused Aboriginal child” haunts the Australian legal imaginary in ways that are both poignant and dangerous. This article examines the role this figure has played in assertions of Australian law’s violent jurisdictions, in the past and in the present. I examine the narratives that support law’s claims to authority and jurisdiction over Aboriginal communities, arguing that practices of representation — narrative, figuration, and what we might more widely think of as “law’s imaginary” — need to be interrogated and challenged, as an important means of intervening in law’s violent jurisdictions. We need to engage in what I term here a “literary jurisprudence,” in order to intervene in law’s claims to authority and jurisdiction that are based on narratives of purported harm to the Aboriginal child. “Haunting” is used to think through the significance of the legal imagination in two ways: the ways in which narratives in legal and state archives affect culture and politics; and also the role of law’s own imaginary and the ways in which its figures and narratives affect judicial outcomes, perhaps in ways that function beyond logic. To say that law is haunted by the figure of the abused Aboriginal child is to point to the affective, political, legal, and imaginative afterlife of narratives and figurations that are part of law, and which are not ended with each case or legislative regime but which, unresolved, are always living on.
By way of an example of these practices, I provide a reading of harm in the novels of Alexis Wright, a leading Australian novelist, which I argue together provide an exemplary text that counters state law’s representational practices and claims. What is needed to resist the use of the child figure as the occasion for further violence, I argue, and what this reading provides, can be described as a “counter-imaginary” to law’s. This counter-imaginary re-writes law’s narratives and figures, connects that which law has separated, and makes visible that which law has occluded. In particular, each of Wright’s three novels Plains of Promise (1997), Carpentaria (2006), and The Swan Book (2013) is concerned with the relation of harm to questions of Aboriginal authority. Together, all three of Wright’s novels provide a developed counter-imaginary to law’s continuing assertions of authority over Aboriginal people based on the figure of the “abused Aboriginal child,” from the early twentieth century to the present.
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