Law in Contemporary Society

Perhaps I want to further edit this paper by incorporating the "Something split" idea to the dissociation idea.

Yes, of course. See below.

What is the "thang?"

-- By MinKyungLee - 13 Feb 2012

One of the first lessons we learned in this class is that critical thinking involves “listening” and following that idea to inspiration. This essay is my attempt to follow Robinson’s idea of the “thang.”

Robinson's Metamorphosis and the “thang”

When the author says “I’ve never been able to figure you criminal-law types out,” Robinson responds, “it’s just some deep need to get as close as I can to the whole thing. To the essence of the thang.”

Criminal Law and Civilization's Pathology

Following this idea of “thang” is a linkage between criminal law and civilization. He characterizes criminal law as a representation of civilization’s pathology. I believe this statement about civilization is the first clue that could lead to deciphering of what the “thang” is.

It is important to note that Robinson describes “criminal law” as civilization’s pathology, and not the criminals. The conventional wisdom is that criminals are pathologies of our society. Most people believe that criminals commit crimes (especially mala in se crimes) because they are evil or pathological. In the simplest sense, the conventional belief is that there is something different between us (normal) and the criminals (pathological).

However, I do not believe Ronbinson shares this conventional wisdom. In fact, he distinguishes between “civilization’s pathology” and “pathology of our criminals,” hinting that crimes are not necessarily related to pathological states of individual’s minds. Instead, he seems to suggest that system of criminal law represent pathology of civilization. Another statement that highlights this idea is, “some of the kindest people I’ve ever known are rapists, and some of the most despicable animals on the face of the earth are rapists.”

Then, what is civilization? Robinson describes civilization as “our idealized sense of what makes us human.” Robinson, for this discussion of criminal law as pathology of our civilization, is concerned about “local” civilization: civilization in America culture where the “deviances” are explosive rather than implosive. In contrary to the “implosive” civilization of Japanese culture in which someone who could be a danger to our idealized vision of humanity is hidden, “explosive” civilization of American culture is one of which people who may threaten our ideals are out there, manifesting the threats. In other words, in American society, inhumanity of one human towards another is expressed publically. What this means for criminal law system is that there is a strong need to confine these people out of our idealized society. Therefore, criminal law serves a function of confining those who threaten our idealized notion of civilization. As a consequence, criminal law creates a division of those that we feel are fit under our definition of civilization and those who are not: thus, creating a distance and disassociation between us and “them.” The criminal law, thus, facilitates the conventional wisdom that there is something distant and different about the criminals and us.

Vietnam and "the reconciliation of freedom and the state."

Another clue that could lead us to understanding to the “thang” is Robinson’s experience in Vietnam. When the narrator asks about Robinson’s experience in combat, he responded that it was “the reconciliation of freedom and state.”

In combat, soldiers are not only allowed to kill but also ordered to kill. However, there is always an option of non-participation in combat. In spite of this choice, soldiers participate, claiming that it is under their duty to do so. Relating back to civilization, our idealized vision of what makes us human would be, first, not ordering people to kill one another, and second, even when ordered, respecting sanctity for human life by not abiding by the order. But under the guise of the state order, people are acting contrary to our idealized self. Therefore, this war experience blurs the line between those who represent civilization and those who manifest inhumanity of man against another.

Having witnessed this tension, Robinson is trying to dissociate himself with the act of killing by describing his experience as a “reconciliation between the freedom and the state,” almost hinting the notion that he had to compromise his free will for the order of the state.

Other pathways to the “thang”


In addition to the text itself, there are other clues that can lead us to discovering what the “thang” is. Robinson mentions “Conversations with Kafka” and a quote well-discussed in class, “I am, after all, a lawyer. I am never far from evil.” I read the segment of the book that contains this quote to explore what Kafka might have meant and what Robinson might have understood from this statement. I want to follow this idea to what Robinson meant by quoting him.

This quote appears when Kafka criticizes the idea of publication when he, himself, is a published author. After blaming his friends for being responsible for publishing his work, he admits that, “I make circumstances stronger than they actually are.” Kafka’s act is not abiding by his idealized vision of who he is. And just like we dissociate ourselves from murders and just like Robinson dissociates himself with the act of killing, Kafka dissociates himself with the act of publishing that he despises.

By the phrase, “I am, after all, a lawyer. I am never far from evil” thus signals more than a literal notion that lawyers are around criminals or crimes (evils in society). Robinson, by quoting this phrase from Kafka, wants to communicate that lawyers are never far from evil because they themselves witness blurry lines between civilization and pathology through mystery of man’s inhumanity to man.


Following this clue, my aim is not to find an answer for Robinson but to decipher what Robinson meant by the “thang.” The clues lead me to the idea that the “thang” is the mystery of man’s inhumanity to man. And the dissociation that one has to make between the act of inhumanity and oneself to sustain the idealized sense of what makes us human.

I think you made my idea do, here, about how to define "the thing," pretty well. You are too literal in some parts of your effort, and not always precise: Robinson did not say Vietnam was the reconciliation of freedom and the state. When asked about combat, he responded "with a lecture" on that topic. The point is to characterize what combat is without actually talking about it. A dissociation, one close to the permanent fundamental dissociative requirement for behaving towards another human being as though she or her were not like oneself. You can write about it, but you have to perform the careful analytical reflection on correspondences without limiting yourself to those correspondences. This constitutes a parallel with the problem of, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, "tacking" back and forth between ethnography and cultural interpretation, between trying to record the results of seeing the world as "natives" or informants see it, and trying to grasp what, from an interpretive point of view, it means.


Webs Webs

r10 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:45 - IanSullivan
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