by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey (eds). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 184pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN: 9780804756839.

Reviewed by David Schultz, Graduate School of Management, Hamline University. Email: Dschultz [at]


Law and catastrophe are inextricably intertwined. Catastrophes give rise to the law, whether it be the Hobbesian state of war or Locke’s state of inconvenience, legal norms address catastrophe by bringing order to society. Even with the more mundane effort of contract law to plan for the future, the legal process is constituted to regulate catastrophes. Conversely, the law also constitutes catastrophes, both in the sense of defining what they are or perhaps even in the sense of serving as an impediment to the easy resolution of problems that often build and then take on a larger than life problem. In the former, “acts of God” are distinguished through the law from human catastrophes, such as the Holocaust or genocide in Africa. In the latter, events such as Hurricane Katrina were only made worse by jurisdictional disputes and bureaucratic ineptness that compounded the misery nature first inflicted.

LAW AND CATASTROPHE is an edited collection that explores this inextricable and symbiotic relationship between these two concepts in the short span of five chapters. It presents to the reader a witty and often engaging group of literary essays that dissect various guises of how law and catastrophe interpenetrate. After the editors begin with a chapter that introduces the topic, Linda Ross Meyer uses the biblical story of Job juxtaposed against the World Trade Center destruction and the Great Plague to explore how catastrophes transform us. With 9-11, the now often trite “It changed everything” mantra is the justification for many of the excesses of the Bush administration. The point for Meyer? Catastrophes challenge our Weltanschauung and dictate new definitions of what the law can handle or address.

Ronen Shamir explores the language of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and suggests that its impetus is rooted in the neo-liberal project to dismantle the state. Much in the same way that neo-liberalism prefers markets to government activity, the CSR movement is an effort to delegitimize the state by instilling the belief that regulation is not necessary to police the market. CSR, along with the spirit of volunteerism, define a world of social relations that do not depend upon the law. Instead, one can respond to catastrophes beyond the state, and socially responsible corporate actors will lead the way.

Sylvia Schafer explores catastrophe in Balzac, Tocqueville, and the French Revolution. The goal here is to explore how liberal regimes depict and constitute disaster and catastrophes ranging from false or premature declarations of death to revolution. Here, the remaking of the world in Liberalism’s image emphasized [*815] a transformation of the Ancient Regime into a new order that grew out of the human catastrophe of 1787.

Ravit Pe’Er-Lamo Reichman uses Rebecca West’s reports of the Nuremberg trials to capture the ways in which the law prosecutes the disorder of the Holocaust and holds its agents accountable. Much in the same way that Hanna Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolph Eichman described the banality of evil, West’s day-to-day account reports the efficiency of victors using Nuremberg to forge a new legal order. In both cases, the routine uses law to reconstitute a world terribly upset by human injustices by individuals who claimed they were merely doing their jobs.

Finally, in Chapter Five, James E. Young explores the use of catastrophes to facilitate a national memory. The focus of this discussion are the Holocaust memorials in Israel and the United States. Young queries the extent to which the law can use legal recognition of catastrophe to forge civil or nationalistic bonds, especially at times when a nation is becoming more diverse. Does legal recognition via a national holiday and monument cement the event in national memory, or trivialize it as yet another Monday holiday? Should the United States create a day of recognition around the events of 9-11? Again, as we see with the Bush administration, the memory of that day can be appropriated for all types of political purposes. Conversely, Turkey’s denial of an Armenian genocide feeds into a nationalism for the latter than would perhaps diminish were it acknowledged by the former.

What do we learn from LAW AND CATASTROPHE? Absent a concluding chapter that is needed in this book, readers are on their own to distill the moral of the stories told here. Yet the various chapters suggest a complexity with law and catastrophe that many of us might not normally ponder. The law defines what we can control versus what is foisted upon us, as with Job. The law is exploited by elites to affect political power, and major events are the occasion for legal transformations that redefine human relations and a sense of order. After reading LAW AND CATASTROPHE one is left with many subtle and big picture questions, the type of which we seldom consider in our daily lives but which affect how we live.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, David Schultz.