Microliteratures: The Margins of Law, Columbia University Seminar

Can literary theory, can a theory of literature, a theory of reading, writing, and glossing help us to encounter law and legal theory?

Jesús R. Velasco (Columbia University) invites graduate students to think about the potential of literature studies as well as literary theory for engaging critically with law – that is to say with legal studies, legal texts and manuscripts, with law as and without a discipline.


The law has many margins. The most obvious are the very margins of the books that actually contain the text of the law. And then, the symbolic margins of illegalism and illegalities that wander around the law. This seminar proposes a research into the question -what does it mean to inhabit the margins of the law, with special focus on the micro literary interventions that take place along those margins.

Readers use books’ margins to pencil in their ideas about the texts they are reading. Writers comment on their own production, self-glossing their poetry or their prose. Glosses and marginal commentaries, from the ordinatio of the text to the scientific grounds laid down by footnotes, evince the authority of some institutions, like academia itself. Industries, from university stationes—old models of the university book production—to the Web 2.0 on the Internet, struggle to gain control of the uses, location, and spread of marginal texts.

In this seminar, we will explore, in historical terms, the development of the legal discipline, legal discourse, and legal vocabularies from the microliterary margins of legal manuscripts and printed books from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. While many marginal interventions are of a textual nature, others fall under the category of “jurisgraphisms,” that is, images and designs that may have legal value or that engage in legal thinking.

The examination of these manuscripts and printed books will allow us to advance theses and conclusions about the uses of the margins to develop new kinds of legal literacy and a specific strand of critical thought that is central to the marginal commentary of the law and the legal discipline.

Among the primary sources we will engage with are works by Averroes, Maimonides, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, the Corpus Iuris Canonici, the glosses and commentaries of authors from Bartolo de Sassoferrato to Christine of Pizan, and then from Francisco de Vitoria to the Siete Partidas (in several editions with different sets of glosses). We will also read muslim fatawa or legal resolutions, as well as other documents with microliterary elements. In terms of theoretical readings, we will engage with Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, the cognitive legal scholar Steven L. Winter, Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Yan Thomas, Judith Revel, Bernard E. Harcourt, and others.

More information on the course, such as date, time, registration, here.