Margaret Siu: Why are you interested in literature?
Dr. George Christian: I’ve always been interested in literature. I like stories. I think people need them. I think people tell them in order to situate themselves in the world and try to understand their place in the world. I’m very interested in how people arrange their realities so they can live through it. I think literature is a really important means by which people survive their own experience. You know, I think literature requires some kind of trauma. Language came into the world to mediate trauma. And so, stories to me are the expressions of some of the deepest sources of human intelligence. You learn about their environment. I think they say something about the truth of the human experience that aren’t that accessible to other kinds of disciplinary languages. So I think literature is kind of a—I hate the word ‘universal’, it sounds so utilizing and dominant, but I think all cultures tell their stories and I’m interested in everybody’s story. I think there’s an equality in it. Literature allows anyone to tell their story, allows anyone to use language, even if it’s not their own language, to make that language their own in, at least for some, a space in which they can articulate their own responses. It gives them real agency in that moment. So I think literature is very liberationist in its ideal form. I like it, even though I’m not a very good storyteller myself, I try to understand other people’s stories.
MS: Why is law important? Why does it matter to society?
GC: I don’t know exactly. Why is law important? Well to me, I mean, I’ve thought about that for many years. I practice law and I’ve come to appreciate it differently than I once did. I think law is a kind of fiction. It’s a literary expression too. And what it tries to do is abstract from individual experience. I think of the words “rule” and “regulation”, but it’s a standard of conduct. In some ways law embodies a respect for boundaries and any kind of social organization. You can’t just walk over somebody else’s personal boundary without awareness of that. A sanction says, “We don’t let you into that space.” I think a lot of law is about that. I think it’s about managing relations between individuals in a social organization in a way that appears to be regulatory and maybe punitive in some ways, but also recognition. But also it’s trying to preserve some kind of zone of autonomy for people, so I think it’s important for that reason. So I think of it that way and I appreciate it that way and think about it that way. So I think certainly our legal tradition is an attempt to actually embody some kind of value of social contract. People, at some level, have some agency and consent to their government, to the way they organize themselves. Even if sometimes it isn’t a fully realized agency, it’s a little like the reason I like literature, it recognizes the space for that. I think lawyers as professionals, a lot of the good ones I know, they see that. They practice with that in mind. I think what I like about lawyer generally is they’re ethical people. That ethics is not only something you have to learn, it’s also something you have to do in legal practice. And so your ethical responsibilities are front and center in law. And that’s what I like. I like the practice of that.
MS: What are you passionate about? What gets you going? What keeps you excited?
GC: I get going about injustice. That burns me up. I’ve always been sensitive about it since I don’t know where in the past. I’ve become particularly upset by how powerful people and powerful institutions deal with minorities. That probably makes me the maddest. The disregard, even the punishment of dissent or resistance. They ways some powerful people and institutions work is to demonize or dehumanize their enemies. That makes me the maddest of all when I see that. Once you’ve dehumanized your enemy, what happens? It’s not good. And when I see that happening and when I see people going along with that, it gets me mad. It gets me going. Which is why I like literature, because literature tends not to take that position. It recognizes that nobody can take that position without question and without understanding the consequences of it. So one reason why literature is so attractive to me is that it rehearses the way, I think, people should respond to that kind of discourse of power. One way you respond and resist is that if you have that kind of language to respond by and if you use it properly, and sometimes I’m not that perfect about it, sometimes I’ll attack ad hominem in the public realm, what you do is you attack a belief system, not the people, that produce people who act on those beliefs. So that’s what makes me upset.
I also just really like talking about books. That’s another thing that gets me going. People accuse me of treating the book as if it were real life. That it’s really happening. But, it is really happening. When people talk to each other, what are they doing? They’re abstracting in language their experiences, their feelings. That’s what books do! They’re just as real as conversation. They’re just as real. They’re material. They do things. And so when you’re talking about them, you doing the same thing you do in any language relationship. I would say: “well they are real.” I talk about characters like they are real people. They’re just as real as I am. I make up stories about myself. I talk about myself like right now, it’s just as fictional, sometimes, so I don’t see how it’s any different than Hector or Achilles. I mean, when we talk about them and say “no, they weren’t real”—no, they are real. They’re absolutely real. Agamemnon’s real. That’s what I mean by ‘real’. They’re not some kind of mummies from a pile of dust wrapped up. No. When you read that stuff, the immediacy of it just grabs you. I totally identify with Rostam. The Shahnameh brings up father-son concepts. Okay, dude, if you’ve ever had a father, you just go, “yeah, that’s the way it is.” So you don’t know if you’ve been simply living through the kind of stories told about father and sons. You just so internalize that you just act that way. That’s just the way it really is. Either way, you feel that, I mean, you feel the reality of the relationship, even if it’s stylized in epic form. Literary genres are ways of expressing in different frames.
We can view our lives differently. I can tell my life in genre form. I can make a hero out of myself a la Donald Trump, who believes himself to be a hero, I think, and adopting this kind of persona. He’s telling that kind of story about himself. He’s very good that that. People believe it. It’s more than just a performance. I think he’s living it. Whether he’s self-conscious about it, I don’t know. It’s really persuasive. I think people want to believe in that kind of epic, shall we say, hero. They just tell their stories as epics rather in other ways they don’t want their stories to be told. We change the genre, basically. We go from President Obama, who I think—this might be totally off the wall—wanted to see society as heterogeneous and full of dialogic relationships and not limit people in to certain kinds of identities. His genre was the novel, right? With all of its voices, all of its characters, all of its experiences put together. It had comedy, you could laugh at pretentions, but it’s also a medium where you can experience catharsis and understand people who are repressed. But we’ve changed the genre now. We’re an epic, only dealing with people way up high in society and all of us are down below here. But people identify with an epic hero, like Hector’s men. That’s the way I’ve seen what’s happened. Look at us changing genre here. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. It’s been a while since we’ve had a hero figure as a president. I don’t know what happens when you try to restore an epic in this world. There are other leading figures in the world who are hero figures. They believe that they embody the nation themselves. They really believe that. People follow this.
Anyway, I think people should read literature so that they understand how self-representation takes form. You can take a more critical view of what’s going on. I think everybody’s duty as a citizen is to take a critical view.
MS: So you also teach—I did a little bit of research—on 19th century British Literature and Law. So what’s that class about and why did you decide to teach that class?
GC: I haven’t taught it in a while, but the idea of it was to look at legal literature, legal history, legal writing, in conjunction with literary works and explore the connections between them. I guess I’m somewhat of a specialist in British Literature. I’m just very interested in how British institutions frame literary discourses, how important they are, the possibilities of literary discourse and it seems to me to help you understand literature a lot better if you have access to certain kind of institutional structures like the legal system, or the church, and there are other ones. It’s hard to read a British novel and have no concept of the law and human character, the common law system, or the property laws. I mean, you don’t understand why things are represented as they are in a novel, why women are treated the way they are, because the legal relations in that world, they set limits on the kinds of subjectivity. What the course was designed to do was to introduce students to legal relationships and then show in literature how those representations determine certain things. And so you start to see how deterministic things are. We’re all identified as legal personalities before we’re born in a system and we’re not really conscious of that. The minute you come into the world you’re a legal personality. There’s certain things you can and can’t do. There’s certain things you can and can’t be. You have no idea if that’s true until you live through it and then you go “wow that really was true”. And so that’s why I’m interested in that connection with law. I’m teaching a course abut that right now and right now it’s even more important than it ever has been. We’re talking about putting people back into boxes possibly that people have been trying to get out of for a long time. And that should concern you. And that should concern people.
MS: What does advocacy mean to you?
GC: I think in order to be an effective advocate in the world today and even of yesterday, you have to really believe what you’re saying. And so I won’t make an argument for one thing if I have to convince myself that it’s right. I have to do my research and understand it. So, I’m with Socrates on that and his critique of the sophists. When I see an advocate who doesn’t believe something because they’re being paid to believe it, you see through that in a heartbeat. I mean, it’s not convincing. They’re just saying, “Well, I’m just falling back on what they paid me to make the argument.” If you’re going to play that way, let’s play that way. Let’s not waste each other’s time arguing about the merits of the issue when I know you’re not interested in the merits of the issue. I am interested in the merits of the issue. There’s no point in arguing any of that. If you don’t believe it, let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about other things. I think advocacy comes from belief and a reasonable justification. If someone has a reasonable justification that’s all I can ask for. That’s what I think. I like to argue with people who have reasonable positions.
We can at least get somewhere and that’s why, just jumping the subject a little, that’s why our education’s so damn important. And why some people don’t want you to have it. It’s because they don’t what people to be able to reason themselves into a real belief. They want to impose or dictate a belief. Our education says, “Now wait a minute. Where are you coming from on that? Explain that.” “We don’t want to explain it.” That’s what higher education is teaching you to do. It’s not teaching you to be a lawyer, or be a doctor, or be a business person. You learn that from doing that. All those things. What higher education does is say, “You are a reasonable, rational animal or some kind and you have that ability. Here’s how you use it. Here’s how you do that. And here’s how you critically examine what people are telling you and come to your own conclusions.” That’s what higher education is. That’s why we practice that in our classes. That’s why I’m such a jerk about it and keep asking questions. What do you mean? I’m serious. I want to know what you think and introduce you to different ways of thinking. Have you thought about this or that? I do that same thing in my job—as a lawyer—as I do [in the classroom]. It’s the same thing. I’m just trying to get people to engage with me on the level of their reason. That’s it. That’s all. I do the very same thing. Same purpose.
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