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  • "We the People," Who?James Baldwin and the Traumatic Constitution of These United States
  • Shireen R. K. Patell (bio)

That the tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are tremendous is certainly not even a question. But these are dealt with in contemporary literature mainly compulsively; that is, the book is more likely to be a symptom of our tension than an examination of it. The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves from the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.

Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are. In a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will be no easy matter.

—James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

For James Baldwin, this nation, any nation, is ordered as much by " hidden laws" as it is by the manifest ones; he tasks the American writer with unearthing these hidden laws and foundations, gauging their effects, revealing how the "possibilities" of American life may be covertly allied with the very "tensions" that appear to threaten them. Literature seems tied to another scene of law, toggled to other laws, with which the law as institution is often blind, despite the determining pressure of these hidden laws. One might understand institutional law as adjudicating the effects of those hidden laws, law as an institution in the cleanup position for law's own blindness. [End Page 356] Literature engages with the traumatic conditions of institutional law that give rise to a rather complex economy inasmuch as this law is also overtly devoted to addressing disruptions, breaches, and traumas of all kinds, from the apparent calculability of torts to more viscerally disturbing scenes of violence. Attending to the intricate economies of these hidden and manifest laws, Shoshana Felman's The Juridical Unconscious draws an impossible map where trauma, law, history, and literature seem to intersect but somehow never to meet. Tracing this map of gaps, abysses, bypasses, impasses, and aporias, impossibly traversed by bridges remarkably strong and fragile at once, Felman painstakingly examines the "hidden link between law and trauma," a link that never simply links but that exposes a wound in the law from which law endlessly seeks to recover.1 The law tests itself, putting trauma on trial; witnessing brutality, it calls history to account and finds itself under the sway of what Avital Ronell calls the "test drive," a kind of force always pushing limits, which commands a space that is "circumscribed by an endless erasure of what is."2

Powered by the velocities of the test drive, law erases its abyssal origins and is blind to the traumatic site that it is. Law as justice is tasked with treating the traumatic conditions of law itself, but because of law's split in being, its formation around and over a traumatic abyss, it can never completely fulfill this task. From this "very tension between law and trauma," writes Felman, "literature emerges as a compelling existential correlative yet differential dimension of meaning."3 Literature opens the cases that law deems closed; it "encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given legal case refuses to be closed and cannot be closed. It is to this refusal of the trauma to be closed that literature does justice" (8). Literature accommodates the unsettled and unsettling nature of language, affords ambiguities free range, indulges the complex and nonclosural, and thus testifies to that which the law cannot admit into evidence, that which cannot be responded to within the stark framework of "yes" or "no" but that relentlessly demands subtle accounting, an other accounting, a would-be narration of the unnarratable, nonetheless.

This article surveys the traumatic landscape of law, history, and literature mapped by Felman from the vantage point of James Baldwin's work, focusing ultimately on his harrowing short story "Going to Meet the Man"—a stomach-turning journey into...


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pp. 356-387
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