By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Symbols and Their Meanings: Law and Feminism

My new friend from China told us that nowadays, the images of the once great Chairman Mao are revered, at best as some sort of religious icon, almost like a goodluck totem to whom people may pray for good fortune say being kept safe from traffic accidents!

Over time and given different contexts, symbols acquire and are given many different meanings by many different cultures. In the age of globalization and the ever present "media," the possibility for having and assigning similar (or even identical) meanings to symbols is perhaps more likely, spanning otherwise unfathomable cultural gaps and distances.

On the other hand, media theorists like Marshall Macluhan were actually more concerned with how "mass media" (his generation's electronic media) not only conveyed meaning through "signs" but how media itself influenced (at times tended to dictate) ways of thinking.

When Macluhan said "We shape the tools and then our tools shape us," he was pointing out how media (any media and in fact he discussed the development of language both spoken and written at length), in time has limited our means not only to express ourselves, but also our means of understanding things.

Of course when I think about ways of learning and knowing and LIMITS, I think of law school (where I teach) but also because law school (from where I come from and possibly in most other places), has a very distinct culture of reifying the TEXT, whether it be legal text (laws) or narratives of law's application (jurisprudence).

TEXT afterall, is the BOX, law primarily belongs in. A culture of documents, documentation, texts and decisions, it is difficult to think about law anywhere else but primarily in its "textual" expression and articulation.

The hardest thing to do when teaching a subject on Feminism is grappling with how best to help students unlearn a lot of what they were taught early on in lawschool not only to recognize but to master as well: LEGAL FORM and LEGAL METHOD.

Feminists like Carol Smart have opined that perhaps law is impervious to the feminist challenge. That is to say, in engaging law, feminists have not been all that successful in making lasting changes through law. Mary Jane Mossman, another feminist legal theorist suggested looking into not just the substance and texts of laws, but to actually also challenge legal method.

In so saying, law's primary and most basic symbols may be "words," that is "text," BUT definitely, the legal system (of laws and institutions) is a much more complicated set of symbols, and symbolisms and even symbol creation. In short, analyzing legal method and legal reasoning is breaking down no less than "meaning making" in law.

Yet, even in wanting to change law, challenge legal systems, and transform social relationships, it hasn't been easy for feminists to get around a consensus about the uses and role of law in feminist advocacy and strategizing.

The good thing that I think has come out of all the post-modern theorizing by feminists though is to show us that it's no longer sufficient to take "law" for granted as a given, nor its value and uses, as fixed at any one given time or place.

As much as law still "legitimizes" claims, ours is also a context where the one single institution upon which "the law" is founded (THE STATE),is ever changing and undergoing dynamic shifts in terms of its essential characteristics and in more ways than one, is also being challenged in its legitimacy, in its mandates and in its power-holding.

In current contexts where a lot of states are asserting legitimacy not by good governance or (some claim of) democratic and popular support, but by virtue of sheer military and police power, "fiat of law" (that is, state sanction) also assumes less of an ideal aspiration than it would normally would under different circumstances.

In the end, in aspiring for human rights, and women's claims, doesn't end with just reworking law or even dealing with the state, but rather ultimately, it is enagaging the very notions of "state and law." For this, there is no formula and at best, feminist analysis and ideology offers a valuable standpoint for challenging the many foundations of power relations, foremost among them, sex/gender, in their varied contexts and sites. It is for this reason that even an over emphasis on "legal strategies" within feminism, deserves the movement's collective reflection. What does LEGALLY founded feminist strategizing and emphasis symbolize for the feminist agenda? To be sure there is no single answer for the many levels of feminist engagements across cultural boundaries. Eitherway, the question remains an important one to ask for feminists everywhere.


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