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A small sailboat floats somewhere between sea and the night sky
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.

Weird Law for Weird Times?

A small sailboat floats somewhere between sea and the night sky
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.

We seem to be living in what can only be described as Weird times. We engage with Weird culture through bizarre internet memes and online communities, listen to Weird politics on the radio, and are increasingly beset by Weird weather as we feel the ripples of our changing climate. For most, the concept of the Weird remains a relatively loose term to describe a general sense of unease we have at an insecure world where things seem off from what they once were. Jobs are shorter and more fragile, politics more vicious and bizarre than the past, people are just, well, weirder than before.

Yet, what if the concept of the Weird could do more? What if, in fact, the Weird could be the key to understanding the world unravelling in front of us? Indeed, several scholars and academics have taken this approach and began to critically use the concept of the Weird in their own disciplines. Despite this Weird turn within the academy, the discipline of Socio-Legal Studies is yet to take on the mantle and, for lack of a better term, get Weird. However, I argue that a sustained and purposeful engagement with the Weird has much to offer the study of law, crime, and the legal system more broadly.

Before I go on, we first need to define what we mean when we talk about the Weird. To my mind, the best definition comes from the late Mark Fisher, who classified the Weird as: ‘that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation).’

The Weird is thus something unsettling, out of place, divergent, or odd. It is something that intrudes into normal space and unsettles by its presence. A further enumeration of the concept comes from the religious scholar Erik Davies. Davies goes further than Fisher in arguing that the Weird can be understood on three dimensions. First, aesthetic; the Weird as a genre of culture embodied in books, films, art, and music such as the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, the films of David Lynch, or even the post-modern pastiche of internet memes. Second, social; the weirdness of groups that deviate from social norms such as religious cults, ecstatic communities, fringe political parties, or even conspiracy theorists. Third, ontological; that is, understanding the Weird as a way of experiencing reality that breaks down or unsettles traditional modes of knowledge or perception. Within his own work, Davies examines individuals who claim to experience extra-dimensional voices, astral projections, and psychedelic visions which distort their understanding of consensus reality.

As interesting as this may all seem, the question remains as to how legal scholars can use the Weird fruitfully in their research. To this, I answer that Davies’ typology once again provides a blueprint for potential engagement. First, we might ask ourselves, what the Weird as a genre of culture has to say about law and the legal system. How does Weird fiction, art, or cultural products conceptualise the law and what messages do they pass on to their audiences about the legal system? Second, we can ask how Weird social communities interact with the legal system. Here there is already a great deal of work to draw on which has examined how fringe, or deviant sub-cultures understand or interact with the law, particularly the criminal justice system. Finally, and most unsettling to the positivist legal mind, we might ask how Weird ontology relates to experiences of the legal system itself, or even how the legal system might induce such experiences. After all, if the Weird is that which unsettles, then surely, we can understand how legal proceedings may appear as deeply strange to the layman – an unfamiliar, and frankly, Weird experience. In unsettling and deconstructing, Weird scholarship may fruitfully build from the work done by Queer legal theorists who similarly seek to blur boundaries and expose legal norms to unsettling transgression. The Weird then, allows legal scholars to consider how the insecurities of Late-Modernity might worm their way into popular understandings of the law and turn it into something that is deeply unfamiliar and unsettling. As the famous scholar of Late-Modernity Jock Young frequently discussed, the social period we find ourselves in consistently provokes a sense of vertigo and disorientation. We are exposed to rapid social, economic, and cultural changes whilst our traditional sources of stability, be they family, employment, or community, are undermined and increasingly atomised by the social forces of capital and globalisation. Things that once were familiar are thus increasingly becoming twisted and altered, turned into shadows of what they were. In this environment, we must ask if the legal system has fallen afoul of this process as well. Indeed, when the Criminal Justice system is increasingly overburdened, where political debates rage over the legitimacy of the legal profession, and where novel digital tools are becoming increasingly normalised in courts and beyond, is it not expected that some people who face the law might feel the sense of unease, disorientation and lack of familiarity that characterises the presence of the truly Weird? Thus, in an age of anxiety and fear, the Weird might be a key theoretical concept that allows legal scholars to understand what appears to be the prevailing cultural mood of unsettlement. Perhaps it’s time to get Weird.

About the Author

Headshot of Dr Joseph McAulay

Dr Joseph Patrick McAulay

Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford

Dr Joseph Patrick McAulay is a Leverhulme Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. His research interests lie in the intersection of conspiracy theories, criminality, and digital sub-cultures. He is currently undertaking a study of British “Truth” social movements.

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