Vanderbilt Law Review


Michael Ryan

First Page



If I were to sum up the revolution that has occurred in the humanities (and increasingly in the social sciences) in the past two decades, it would be to say that what was before seen as substance is now seen as representation. One could expand on that statement in several ways:what was before seen as nature or reason is now seen as convention or artifact; what was before a logic of necessity is now a highly contingent,even random relation of terms whose connections obey no necessary order; what was before a ground or foundation from which reasonable derivatives could be deduced and applied to different situations is now itself the effect of contextual situations and systems of signification;what was before rationalist axiomatics is now rhetorical agonistics. At stake here, of course, is a very old battle; we have been hearing about it for at least 2500 years, ever since people first began to feel the need for written laws and interpreters, philosophers and judges. With those developments came a sense that the terms in which social order--and with it, as always, social power-would be defined somehow had a bearing on the terms in which that world would be represented in the dominant forms of social knowledge. From the start, how we represented the world to ourselves had something to do with how we came together in societies, how we forced other people to do our labor for us, how we dealt with those who disagreed with our particular conception of what it meant to be part of our society. If a certain difference in representation would always have something to do with social change, the elevation to dominance of certain very powerful representations would also always have something to do with how societies immunized themselves against social change.

In this Article I will suggest some ways in which the philosophical revolution of recent decades, which is usually associated with post words like post-structuralism and postmodernism, might help us think about the way societies are held in place by regimes of representation. I am particularly interested in how this revolution allows us to imagine new ways of formulating and constructing the societies in which we live.I will discuss first the relationship between power, representation, and violence. I will then suggest some ways in which representation can be a lever for undoing the power that is so important for the maintenance of a violent and unequal distribution of resources and responsibilities under western capitalism.