Lief H. Carter


This essay extends the remarks I made at the symposium, "Language, Law, and Compulsion," but it tries to retain the style and spirit of my oral delivery. Indeed I must retain that spirit if I am to practice what I preach. This essay suggests that the rhetoric of formal academic discourse and our experience of formal academic argument differ vastly from the rhetorics and experiences which sustain everyday political communities. We distort political processes and experiences badly simply by converting them into academic rhetoric at all. For example, the processes that create and sustain communities presumably do not depend on thorough footnoting. The letter killeth, and so on. The very act of thinking and writing in formal academic fashion about law, politics, and the humanities can blind us to the poetic, musical, spiritual, and other mysterious aspects of human bonding. I mean here to preserve some appreciation for the emotional and nonrational qualities of political life that have traditionally concerned the humanities precisely because they are central to our experience of community itself. Hence I write without footnotes. Readers who prefer a more conventionally academic treatment of these issues might consult the last two decades of mainstream writings in ethnomusicology, beginning with John Blacking's How Musical Is Man?, 1973.

The organizers of the Symposium asked us - Sunstein, Levinson, Boswell, and myself - to wrestle with the following questions: How do oaths of allegiance and other speech ceremonies serve to create and foster attachments between self and other? How do we constitute communities through words which bind? The oath of loyalty to a company of strangers and the marriage vow to an intimate friend differ on almost every psychological dimension imaginable. Nevertheless, my nutshell answer to both these questions as they apply to nationality and marriage is the same: Speech ceremonies and words that bind are, in the grand scheme of things, not very central to the constitution of intimate attachments or of communities.