Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore
Sara Ramshaw, PhD, Faculty of Law, UVic
Friday, April 12: 12:30 to 1:45 pm
Recalling the collaboration between free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and French philosopher Jacques Derrida on 1 July 1997 at the La Villette jazz festival in Paris, this talk engages with justice as improvisation, as a negotiation between the pre-existent and the new, generality and singularity. Although improvisation is most often associated with the musical realm, Sara Ramshaw has written extensively about the fundamentally improvisatory nature of law and justice. As no two legal actions can be exactly the same, each judicial application of existing rules or past precedents to new facts creates, in fact, a new and improvised law. Novelty and creativity, however, must be subordinated to tradition and precedent in order for law to remain legitimate and commanding in contemporary society. Law, in other words, cannot be seen to be produced on the spur of the moment. To be just, it must apply fairly and equally and be known by all in advance. While not disputing the importance of fairness and equality in relation to law, Ramshaw calls for increased recognition of the improvised creativity that is at the heart of justice. One of the key tenets of critical improvisational research is the belief in improvisation’s emancipatory promise. Instead of being unplanned and purely spontaneous, improvisation self-consciously engages with tradition and convention, enabling resistance to past oppression and injustice. Justice as improvisation, thereby, opens up possibilities for new ways of being together in society, both locally and at the global level.
Sara Ramshaw is an Associate Professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. She held previous appointments at the University of Exeter (England) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) (Northern Ireland). After receiving her B.A. (Hons) from the University of Toronto, Sara obtained both a LLB and a LLM from the University of British Columbia. She then clerked at the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) and was called to the Bar of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 2000.
Sara’s doctoral thesis, completed in 2007, examined the legal regulation of jazz musicians in New York City (1940-1967) through the lens of post-structural theory informed by feminism, critical race theory and critical improvisation studies. Her monograph, Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore, published by Routledge in 2013, was nominated for the 2014 Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA) Hart Book Prize.
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