A Matter Off-Course
Over the past year, we have had to think anew about how to foster meaningful and compassionate intellectual communities. While the virtual world can enable some kinds of connection and overcome access barriers (such as travel, money and time), it is not always very good at sustaining conversation for conversation’s sake—the free-flow of ideas we associate with coffee breaks, dinners, and lingering after a Q&A session. Ballakrishnen and Dezalay’s Invisible Institutionalisms is a rare experiment, in the mould of an edited volume, the goal of which is precisely this. It puts diverse interlocutors in conversation, meditating on shared disciplinary and methodological concerns around law and globalisation.
Invisible Institutionalisms is structured as a six-course dinner at ‘The Long Table’, as the editors put it; the table is set for a dinner party, enabling organic, egalitarian conversation between all participants. Each course consists of one empirical chapter, exploring an aspect of legal globalisation in the Global South, followed by shorter responses from scholars across disciplines, geographies, and intellectual heritages. The empirical chapters themselves focus on (in)/visible institutions in local politics, markets, courtrooms, and regulatory systems, mostly in South Asia with one chapter on Latin America. The method that Ballakrishnen and Dezalay employ is iterative, with each piece revised in an ongoing dialogue with its counterparts. The connective tissue across these chapters is an impulse to push back against convenient preordained scripts from the Global North—models that ‘push three-quarters of the world outside of mainstream categories of knowledge’ (p. 270). Each chapter asks, in a different way: what can we see when emancipated from pre-existing ways of knowing? What kinds of knowledge can we create instead? In doing so, it compels us to consider how processes of globalisation can be uneven, reciprocal, and provoke resistance.
The second central preoccupation of the collection is with the positionality of those doing scholarship. Each piece engages (at varied length) with how the position, experience, and identity of its writer impacts their analysis, making visible what is frequently uninterrogated in academic work. The volume makes this commitment to reflexivity and story-telling concrete by closing with seven ‘refraction notes’. These are written by established scholars in the field, all reflecting on their own trajectories—the dominant narratives they once successfully destabilised, and the questions these journeys have led them to. Through this, the place of the intended audience, the conceptual tools used, and disjunctures with hegemonic ways of seeing are emphasised. An overarching ‘invisible institution’ the contributors visibilise is that of Western scholarship itself.
Like all conversations, the book ebbs and flows. Some of the response pieces engage more substantively with the chapters they are in conversation with—Roy and Kroll’s pieces bring in new conceptual insights, while Natarajan and Naudet’s responses powerfully question the frames and premises of the arguments Lleras and Basheer respectively make. Other response pieces take the empirical material as a provocation: sometimes to consider issues that the writers grapple with in their own work and life. Sheikh contemplates the conditions of possibility for research on queer lives, de Sa e Silva and Williams consider the prospect of forging real transnational connections, while Prasad and Weissenbach ask questions about the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries and the credibility needed to speak in scholarly spaces. Some of these are productive tangents, that extend the world of the empirical material into new territories. At other times, the responses risk not engaging with their interlocutors on their own terms. There are also missed opportunities to consider whether conceptual tools from the Global North can be destabilised by knowledge production from the ‘shadows’. Could this collective thinking trouble existing norms? Is it that these lenses are inapplicable to the Global South, or might they be limited even within their originating contexts?
It is hard to transcend the shape of the dinner table—while we chafe at disciplinary boundaries, we still need a surface over which we talk and share. Invisible Institutionalisms experiments with the form of this space, focusing on resisting hegemonic framings and reflecting critically on legal scholarship. It marks an exciting step in conceiving of the edited collection as a location for conversation, rethinking the purposes and aims of scholarship. It is also an invitation to its readers to unmoor themselves from their existing perspectives—to maintain openness and remain curious (p. 175). In this sense, it is a testament to the possibilities of thinking alongside one another.