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  • The Metaculture of Law School Admissions: A Commentary on Lazarus-Black and Globokar
  • Bonnie Urciuoli (bio)

What does it mean for law school applicants to become, as Mindie Lazarus-Black and Julie Globokar put it, “what the ranking[s] count[]”?1 What does it mean for foreign applicants to develop responses to the application process by writing essays in certain ways, to project themselves (again as Lazarus-Black and Globokar put it) as “commodified persona[s]”?2 The application process analyzed by Lazarus-Black and Globokar exemplifies what Greg Urban calls metaculture: cultural forms that point actors toward recognizing and understanding what they do as exemplifying a particular cultural pattern.3 Metaculture is the mechanism by which culture is reproduced, moving through time and space. The admissions process is metacultural because it defines who one should be as a law student while spreading that definition (quite literally) throughout the world. Lazarus-Black and Globokar lay out the entextualization4 of law school admissions essays by illuminating the details of that process, which, as Mertz shows us, is just the beginning of an extended project concerning engagement with [End Page 113] institutional metadiscourse and consequent socialization of law students.5

Writing the admissions essay is part of a larger picture regarding law schools specifically and educational institutions generally being represented by their “signature” students in the education market. Foreign law school applicants learn to fit themselves into such representations.6 Their narratives are not just what they think admissions committees want to hear. Some agency interpellates them,7 “hails” them toward particular expressions of subjectivity, such that foreign applicants select the same particular range of possibilities of self-performance as U.S. students do, as modern and especially as neoliberal subjects.

The new international networks and the shifting forms of commensuration and governmentality-influencing student selection evidence metaculture on the march. Culture and metaculture are mutually constituted. People recognize cultural forms as familiar occurrences because they share a set of understandings that establish what the type should be. Metaculture thus builds on the concept of metasemiotic regimentation8—the notion that all discourse makes sense to those involved in it because of the interpretive frames people share and to which they continually refer—in the ongoing process of pragmatically interpreted discourse.9 In this way, culture can be thought of as a process that continually moves through time and space, carried by (primarily discursive) social interaction, which is also a process continually moving through time and space.10 Cultural forms manifest themselves in some physical way, even if that physical way is as ephemeral as moments of discursive production. But through metacultural mediation, people understand what those forms are, what [End Page 114] they compare to, and whether they are the same as or different from other forms.

Change is incremental. The process of transmission involves some elements that are relatively inertial and some that accelerate toward innovation, the latter “reshap[ing] social space by harnessing different strands of extant inertial culture.”11 Urban proposes a contrast between relatively static metacultural movement (as is the case with relatively localized metacultures of tradition) and movement spreading out through space, the latter characteristically emphasizing newness, as is typical of what he calls a metaculture of modernity.12 In a metaculture of modernity—and I argue that this includes a metaculture of neoliberalism—social actors become increasingly invested in innovation and acceleration. As this metacultural ideology develops and cultural objects become reconstituted in practice, those cultural objects are understood and valued increasingly in terms of what is emphasized in metacultural representation. Yet, ironically, innovation cannot be too “new” (e.g., “new and improved [insert name of detergent or toothpaste]”). Prior related forms must structure innovation, or innovation would become unrecognizable. Finally, Urban argues that while every cultural transmission involves time, a metacultural emphasis on innovation (especially technological) is also connected to emphases on dissemination and reproduction across space, as is the case in regimes of globalization.13

What does all this have to do with foreign students writing admissions essays? First, the admissions essay itself operates as a metacultural form; it does not simply provide a self-description, but also points to its author...


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