Archaeology of Criticism



I read books. Much of what I have read is lost in the vast reaches of time and internal circuitry of cognitive pathways. But there is often something that stands out, some passage that so illuminates an author's efforts that catches my eye and demands recognition. There is much worth knowing in what I have read, much to be saved. The miscellaneous collection of illuminations that make up this archaeology of criticism cannot capture and do not purport to represent the complexity of a writer's work; here they are called forth to represent what I might say if I were endowed with the knowledge of others. It is with fragments of borrowed words--the gift of others--that I fashion this intellectual mosaic. The order I impose on these fragments and my reading is an order discovered, and yes, an order imagined. With the archaeology of criticism it is made evident how dependent my knowing is on what has come before, what has already been said. With the work of others, I take my place on this common ground.

Another Preface (of Questions)

If we are not engaged in critical thinking and do not see ourselves as critics of the thinking of others that bears on our lives, then what kind of thinking are we doing? If we are not critics, what are we? What kind of life does critical thinking make possible? How does one become a critic (assuming that is what one might choose to be)? Maybe the better question is--how can one avoid becoming a critic?

What does it mean to be a critic? What do critics do? How do they see the world? What would it mean for each of us take on our purpose the idea that we would become critics of the world in which we live? And what obstacles might one face in living such a determination?

What are we to call those who adopt a critical mode of thinking, a critical perspective in politics, or a critical stance in the disciplines and professions? Critics? Radicals? Deviants? Guerrillas?

How has our idea of what it means to "be critical" gained positive and negative associations over the course of our the lives we have tried to live? What are the sources of our critical impulses?

How have our critical impulses (and the obstacles to those critical impulses) been factored into the story we tell about the decision to become a lawyer?

How does one actually begin to talk about a life built around critical thinking? Where does one start such a conversation, especially in that peculiar place we know as the law school classroom?

I confess to not knowing how one becomes a critic (or how one can be taught the skills of the critic). But, I have not given-up on the notion that one might "learn" to be a critic. If it is the case that we are born critics, then it is surely the case that something impedes the realization of our critical impulses as we become agents in the world. How critics get to be critics lies at the heart of the matter that we now set out to explore together.

I do not here define this "critical project" but undertake an archaeological exploration. In doing so, assume that the critical lawyer adopts a stance from which it is possible to imagine a more just world, a world in which just results in individual cases and more attention to social justice leads to the making of stronger communities that make it possible for more people to grow more fully to realize their potential and to create the kind of connections and relations with others that will strengthen our social bonds. The justice critical lawyers seeks would, over time, require fewer lawyers. Critical lawyers will lead more reflective lives, lives in which we are introspective about the work that we do as professionals, lives in which we "see" how our social and political commitments work and the harms they produce.       

James R. Elkins



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