Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Martha Minow suggests the importance of looking outside of court-rooms and the law to find ways of speaking about social and family violence. Her article underscores the difficulties of breaking silence, and yet the power to impose silence is integral to violence itself. We are called upon, however, not only to speak, but to listen. Respectful listening indeed may be a prerequisite to attempting to frame words and actions of intervention and resistance. We are called upon to speak, but we are hard pressed to summon public language that does justice to private pain and anguish.

Robert Cover, in his article "Nomos and Narrative," argues that an inseparable relationship exists between law and the stories that we tell: both participate in the creation and maintenance of a world of normative meaning.' Courtrooms, however, are locations where legal talk is narrowed--killed, according to Cover--by the imposition of singular interpretative meaning; boundaries are drawn, precedents established,and voices silenced or privileged through a strict hierarchy of speakers.Both Cover and Minow maintain, therefore, that the law itself constitutes an exercise of violence.' Most disturbingly, in cases of "domestic"violence, voices may be reconstrained within a structure of silence and inaction. In contrast, outside the courtroom an uncontrolled cultural field remains; people continue to tell stories that are possessed of persuasive normative vision and transformative promise constituting a domain of unsanctioned legal and ethical reasoning. The law functions within the context of a virtual anarchy of claims about rights, justice,and communal responsibility and expectations, which the law, in turn,attempts to contain.

Professor Minow relates her experiences in reading works of fiction with judges, raising the difficult question of whether literary texts might serve as moral exemplars or at least might move readers to more sympathetic or alternative understandings about the nature of family violence. She poses a series of provocative questions: Can words stem violence? How do we find words to describe violence that resist making it seem routine? What constitutes violence? With whom does responsibility for violence against children and women rest? Whose voices are heard and whose voices are silenced? How are legal meanings generated and maintained, and how might they be challenged? As a point of departure for reflecting on some of these themes, this Comment briefly considers how normative order is constituted in two passages from a classic literary text.