Towards a Less Constitutional Constitutionalism
On November 12, 2014, Stacy Douglas, assistant professor at Carleton University and constitutional scholar, visited Osgoode Hall Law School as part of the Law.Art.Culture Colloquium Series. She presented on the problem that constitutions, often considered to be the primary devices with which to construct new political communities, have a tendency to conflate the everyday management of populations with the vast horizons of political possibilities. Her legal interests are motivated by broad questions about theories of democracy, the role of the state, the relationship between government and the governed, and processes of decolonisation.
Stacy Douglas speaks of the need to interrupt the constitutional “fetishizing” in the political community.
Currently, she is tackling issues related to monumentalizing the constitution and the need for counter-monumental memorializing in order to interrupt constitutional “fetishizing” and decentre the constitution in the political community. Her research focus is on exploring ways to un-think the hegemony of the liberal subject in the sovereign community, and looking to the museum as a possible place that can function as an external site where radical reflexivity is possible. Prior to her presentation, I had the opportunity to interview Stacy to explore what inspired her research, and the importance of writing the interruption to transform the political community.
Michael: So I read a couple of your articles, your latest ones on constitutionalism and museums. Reflecting on my visits to museums, I never considered them as manufacturers of community, but it’s an interesting thought. What first got you interested in this area of study in the first place?
Stacy: My manuscript begins with an anecdote about me as a young person growing up in Peterborough, Ontario, going on class trips to museums. In particular, I talk about an experience of going to a museum where the staff asked us to assume roles in order to relive history; the role they wanted us to relive was that of settlers coming to Canada. Staff told us, “Pretend you are all immigrants fleeing Europe and you’re getting on the Mayflower and coming to a new land.” I remember distinctly being asked to get into bunk beds that were supposed to help simulate the trip; we all crammed in. They asked us to effectively think and feel the story of who belonged to the supposed history of Peterborough.
That memory has persisted in my mind, begging questions about community and belonging and what kinds of histories are presumed to “belong” to Peterborough. Many of my classmates were not European immigrants, so it wasn’t their story, and it certainly wasn’t the story for my Ojibwa classmates. It’s that narrative force of the museum and its authorizing power that has constantly returned to me.
M: How do you relate how museums function to that of constitutions?
S: That’s a good question. I talk about it in a lot of different ways in my work. The most succinct way I can put it is that both museums and constitutions are sites where imaginations of political communities are launched. They both tell stories about who belongs and who doesn’t belong. They both tell stories about the kind of parameters of community and jurisdiction. And they do that in numerous ways. One example is the use of time—specifically teleological time—the use of linear time to anchor their imaginations of the political.
Crucially, however, even though museums and constitutions have these similarities, I also argue that museums can do things that constitutions cannot and that difference is important. Different kinds of constitutional theorists have tried making the constitution reflexive; what I say there is that the attempt to do so, especially about their boundaries and borders, is not possible. Constitutions delimit; that is what they do. If it’s not delimiting political community or claiming to then it’s not a constitution; it has to have a body politic to found itself.
Museums, even though they have this long history of also delimiting in this way, can actually undo that by adopting counter-monumental memorializing practices. This term, I borrow from South African scholars; they have written a lot about their relatively new constitution (1996), and on the problematic ways it is lauded as a quick fix for their problems. I argue that one of the ways we can attend to this problem is to look at the museum as a site with which we can interrupt that monumentalization.
M: I recently heard Jeffery Hewitt speak on Aboriginal law and evidence, and he was talking about the progression of Aboriginal rights through the Constitution. One thing I took from his talk was that although Aboriginal peoples have rights enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1982, those rights are imposed upon them by, and interpreted through, the sovereign structure in which the Constitution was founded. Museums, on the other hand, are places that don’t have that inherent limitation. Are museums then a source of political community where other people’s narratives, rather than just the dominant one, can be told in a space where we can interact and learn about them?
S: What I am trying to get at are the inheritances of the Western liberal individual that come through our juridical structure. How do we deal with that while simultaneously attending to the everyday need to make decisions, to navigate, and negotiate conflict? While I am aspirational for a juridical structure that gets away from that inheritance of sovereignty, I don’t know how that’s going to happen, I don’t think we can fix it within the system. As long as that system exists, what we should do is to work on not fetishizing it as the sole site of political community. As thinkers dedicated to figuring out how to change our political horizons, we need to stop centering the constitution, or at least realize the limitations of it, and look to other sites from which we can attack these footholds.
M: That’s interesting. A lot of what I’ve heard about Aboriginal law cases, those cases didn’t happen by accident. Aboriginal people violated the law purposefully in order to challenge the law, bring the legal issues to court, and progress their rights through the constitution. It’s also interesting that there may be a second path, outside the Constitution and within the community itself, that can at least advance the cultural narratives on how our communities should look like rather than how they’re imposed on us by the structures of our society.
S: Part of what I’m saying is that it’s not only the constitution that pulls on these inheritances of sovereignty and the Western liberal individual. I think part of the problem is our delimitation of community and our thinking about who is in and who is out. I draw on the work of Jean-Luc Nancy in this regard. Nancy argues that every time we draw a border around community, or any other absolute for that matter, anytime we make this solid, circular boundary and say this is a thing on the inside and it is absolutely autonomous, we are telling a lie about that thing. What happens is that every time we draw that border, it is always exposed to that which is outside of it. It is always in relation. So whenever we say, “Here is the absolutely autonomous individual or nation or community,” whether it is a romanticized indigenous community or a romanticized left multitude or a nation state, any of those things, we’re always telling a lie about that structure, about its autonomy, its sovereignty. Continue reading