by Ruth Miller. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. 248pp. Cloth. $60.00 ISBN: 9780804762564. E-book. $60.00. ISBN: 9780804772426.

Reviewed by Renee Ann Cramer, Drake University’s Program in Law, Politics, and Society. Email: renee.cramer [at]


The night before I sat down to draft this review, I read a (pretty bad) mystery/thriller. It was about a woman (Sarah) who works with her dog (Monty) to rescue victims of natural disaster, some of which are being engineered by a mastermind sociopath bent on mass destruction, for very personal and pathological reasons. I read the book in one day – mostly because I wanted to have it done, and not because it was that compelling – and I spent much of my time reading it reflecting variously on the loveliness of my own sweet dog (Clementine), the recent earthquake in Japan, and how much more compelling a different book on a similar topic, LAW IN CRISIS: THE ECSTATIC SUBJECT OF NATURAL DISASTER, by Ruth Miller, is.

In this contribution to Stanford University’s series on “The Cultural Lives of Law,” Miller engages legal and cultural texts from a wide range of settings; her research spans a vast geography and time frame. Though she focuses primary attention on four earthquakes: 1894, Istanbul; 1906 San Francisco; 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama; 1999 Istanbul/Marmara, Miller engages much more in this volume. Most importantly, she draws on, and contributes to, several strands of political theory. Among them are colonial and postcolonial theory, rhetorical analysis, and theories of the everyday. Central, though, are her connections with and contributions to feminist political theory, and legal theory.

Miller's argument is that the normative subject of lawmaking – long thought to be the rational, bounded subject – is in fact the “ecstatic” subject. For those, like me, tempted to read “ecstatic” wrongly, it is helpful to note Miller’s meaning of the term (a return to original meanings); ecstatic subjects are those “shattered, displaced and beside themselves” (p.1). She argues that disaster law “defined broadly here as the legal and political structures that appear in the aftermath of crises such as earthquakes, floods, or fires” has a dual purpose, “first, to make the disaster intelligible by, second, assigning a politically normative function to the subject in ecstasy” (p.1). Returning to what she sees (rightly, in my view) as a missed opportunity growing out of critical theory-building work thirty years ago, Miller understands ecstasy, and the ecstatic subject, as central to law, rather than at it’s periphery (where it is more commonly understood).

Because the “subject in ecstasy endow[s] [disasters] with [their] meaning” (p.54), that same subject endows law, not merely disaster law, with its meaning. Miller’s point moves beyond the law of disaster; her larger argument is that the boundary between disaster and the [*371] everyday, between catastrophe and the mundane, is a blurry one at best; so ‘disaster law’ is (mere) law, they are both, for Miller, constituted by the ecstatic subject.

After a richly textured introductory chapter, and a second chapter on historical and contemporary writings about disaster (focusing on earthquakes and their political meaning), the heart of the book lies in three chapters with evocative titles. The first, (chapter 3) “Gift of Life: Blood, Organs, and Virtues,” examines law regulating transfusions and transplants. Of this law, she writes, “the subject of this law is – quite concretely – in ecstasy and off-center. The subject is dismembered … the disaster becomes intelligible when its legal and political subjects are quite physically beside themselves” (p.56). Chapter Four, “Respect in Death: Ghouls and Corpses,” examines the relationship between “democracy and decomposition” in several geographic and temporal contexts, and argues that, in liberal democracy at least, the dead body is “more politically and legally real than the live individual” (p.86). And, in Chapter Five (“Seismic Space: Camps, Cemeteries, Squares, and Monuments”), Miller argues that chaotic camps and ghoulish cemeteries are, in the aftermath of disaster, “natural space[s] of democratic engagement,” while the space around squares and monuments – organized, ordered, rational space – becomes (or already was, perhaps) meaningless for democracy and law.

Miller’s concluding chapter brings us to contemporary disaster – to Katrina and FEMA’s response, as well as the development of the Office of Homeland Security in the wake of the attacks on the United States in 2001. It is here where, after 173 pages of disaster, dismemberment, chaos, and catharsis, Miller illuminates for us the optimistic spaces potentially held by ecstatic subjects. She reminds us of her initial question, “what does it mean when the law seeks to define a disintegrating or ecstatic subject as the political norm?” (p.180), and answers that, if we understand ecstatic space and ecstatic bodies in the way she proposes, then “legal ecstasy can … be a mode of positive activity” (ibid.) In an examination of policymaking by FEMA, she argues that “the ecstatic subject necessarily eludes this policymaking process. That ecstatic subjects render themselves outside of FEMA’s governance highlights the “fractures” within the policies made (ibid.), and allows Miller to conclude that “the ecstatic subject of the politics of security arguably personifies the disintegration of any effective authoritarianism” (ibid.).

These are counter-hegemonic conclusions, rendered through a series of complex and deeply thoughtful arguments. The book, though exceedingly complex, is also exceptionally well written. Miller avoids sensationalizing the disasters she discusses, but she doesn’t sentimentalize them, either. Her analysis is straightforward, and often presented in a way that reads like dialogue. She tells the reader when she is aware that she’s stretching an argument, or reaching a counter-intuitive conclusion; she clearly marks, within her text, the transitions she makes and the arguments she anticipates. She summarizes and restates in ways that make clear the several pages prior, and invite their re-reading. And, she offers wit (not inappropriate levity) [*372] when discussing the “ghouls and corpses,” and “seismic spaces” that generate disaster law. Even better, Miller dialogues freely with the authors whose work she engages, pointing out where she agrees and disagrees – and what a lively, far-ranging conversation it is! It is exhilarating (and humbling) to read work that so elegantly creates a conversation among these participants: Nussbaum, Butler, Foucault, Lefebvre, Anghie, Mbembe,

As you can imagine, given the list of topics and theorists Miller engages in it, the book itself is a bit of an ecstatic read. We zoom from a New York City courtroom in 1912 to the San Francisco earthquake 8 years prior, to a 1994 discussion of blood transfusions in Japan in four pages (pp.53 – 57). Later, we move from Justice Cardozo’s decision in PASLGRAF to the trial of Abdullah Ocalan (“a Kurdish political figure accused of terrorism and separatism “ by the Turkish government), to Charles Singleton “a mentally incompetent prisoner” who’s involuntary medication, by U.S. court order, would render him mentally competent and “fit for excecution” (pp.115-116) in less than four paragraphs.

Miller’s mastery of so many subjects, and comprehensive review of such a sweeping range, is impressive. Her ability to tie them together, and make theory from them, is often breathtaking. This is a book that is fun to read, in large part because it is fun to watch the author advance her argument. Every ten pages or so, Miller reminds us “this chapter is not actually about [the story with which I began it], it is about [rather, this:]” (p.56, and variously). Miller decenters our expectations, renders them ecstatic, and as such reframes our normative reading. It is a fascinating process to watch unfold in the text, and to be subject to.

Though she does not make it explicit, I hazard that this writing style and set of text conventions relates to her own understanding of law. In fact, Miller’s arguments about and understandings of law are quite interesting to me, and are likely to prove challenging and interesting for readers of the Law and Politics community of scholars. She writes:

I pay equal attention to the literary and cultural discourse of disaster law – and deliberately ignore the boundaries that are thought to exist between legal texts with legal meaning and cultural texts with cultural meaning … I answer two questions: first, how is it that a poem or a pamphlet can be as effectively legal – as much ‘law’ – as a case or a statute, and second, how is it that the subject in ecstasy can operate within this broadly defined legal sphere?” (p.25).

Just as law creates political and legal subjects, Miller argues, so too do poems and other cultural texts. This is fruitful and important work; it is exciting to see the examples she brings to light, and read them as legal-meaning-making texts. That I am not always convinced by the power of the example she offers is at times disconcerting; however, by the end of every chapter, I am rather convinced of the connections she draws among seemingly disparate (ecstatic) subject matter. As I elaborate further, below, I am not convinced that Miller’s view of how the ecstatic subject operates is ‘correct,’ or comprehensive, but given that she is offering a reading of multiple texts and events, perhaps ‘correct’ is not [*373] the proper metric here. Her reading is certainly a compelling one; it is one that has instantiated itself into my readings of current disasters.

As I write, for instance, I am mindful that a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri earlier this week, and that theorizing about disaster law offers little solace to those affected, and does little to bring needed supplies and healing to the region. An NPR story covering the aftermath focused on the “7 mile long swath of destruction,” caused by the nearly 200 mile per hour winds. As I listened, I thought about how to donate useful items, how to prepare our basement better for when we spend evenings in it listening to sirens and weather radio, and my gratitude that friends in Missouri are safe. I also thought about how right, how intuitive, Miller’s analysis now is, to me, in reading these disasters – and the ways that they construct the very law that will govern them. As Miller would have us expect, the report focused on death tolls, dismembered and ecstatic buildings and people, inarticulate (too choked up to speak, shaking too hard to speak) survivors, and the relief efforts consisting in large part of encampments and demarcations.

Her book is like that; once you read it, it seeps into most thinking about disasters: earthquakes, tornados, floods, and the human responses (mourning and burials; riots, looting, and encampments; policymaking and legislation) that accompany them In fact, there hasn’t been a natural disaster, since I read it, that hasn’t made me think about it, and her inversion of expected understandings of disaster, law, survivors, and spaces. At times, that compulsion of thought, the consistent return to her categories, convinces me of their validity, and of the power of her argument. At other times, that very compulsion and consistency renders me suspicious: has Miller created a reading of disaster and disaster law in much the same way, seeing it everywhere in part because she’s constructed the expectation? Is she following anecdotes and essays, news reporting and doctrine, while under the sway of a particular view of the ecstatic and law, which reinforces the interpretation, while not ‘proving,’ it? Is she finding connections because she is looking for them, thus ‘creating’ them more than ‘discovering’ them?

Is Miller’s ecstatic subject, in other words, not the law’s normative subject, but her own?

Some of my concern here would be addressed by a mere word change; whenever Miller has written that a particular ecstatic subject is “the normative subject of law,” I feel more comfortable replacing “the” with “a.”

But, I also wonder if perhaps the rational, bounded subject is still the/a normative category of law – and whether the ecstatic, to the extent it appears normative, is primarily the dichotomous other of the bounded and rational? Perhaps even if the ecstatic subject is normative in and for law, it is such only insofar as law desires it’s putative opposite? Miller writes on page 81, “It was the triumph of a legal system … that took as its normative subjects those subjects in pieces, in ecstasy, hysterical, and beside themselves.” I respond, in the margins, that this may be so – but, again, it may be so precisely because the triumph of the legal system lies in the process of “making them whole” again, [*374] and in defining what remains ecstatic or broken as, for legal terms at least, now whole, rational, and bounded.

And my compulsive return to Miller’s text, re-read in the aftermath of recent disasters, leaves me asking some questions about queries she steadfastly refuses to pose. As I hear on NPR about the prayer meetings in Joplin Missouri, and recall the particular brand of Christianity that says “God” rains down tornados and earthquakes on sinful populations (in Haiti, for instance), I wonder about the role of religion and spirit and belief in the construction of and comprehension of disaster. I find myself asking where, in this book, and in the responses to disaster Miller chronicles, is the sacred? Where is the religious? Miller does raise issues of religion and the sacred in a number of points in her text – most promisingly, the early section on historical contexts of disaster writing (pages 34-45). She writes here about the conceptualization of disaster as God’s displeasure being made manifest in destruction. At one point, these disasters were “logical” (p.35), and later an illogical, and illegal disaster (p.37). This is a fascinating section, but much more could be made of this, especially insofar as this is work of feminist and legal theory-building around the relationships of modernity, embodiment, subjectivity, ecstasy, and the state.

In a book that wants to help us make sense of how law makes sense of disaster (and, more, uses disaster to make legal sense), Miller’s refusal to even raise notions of how meaning is made through religious or spiritual interpretation confounds me. Where, for example, in the discussion of metanoia (repentance, a turn about, a change of mind/heart) is the discussion of grace, the grace so often invoked by survivors? And, yes, the cemetery likely does function in the political way she theorizes and explains; it also though seems just as likely to operate in ways that offer solace to individuals apart from the construction of political subjectivity. Yes, the mosque sites in Turkey do important rhetorical work, especially regarding whether they are constructed as open, or not, for prayer; they also serve as gathering places for faithful (and not) people. The state and the gathered people might ascribe different meanings to the gatherings; it seems that an examination like Miller’s, which understands law so broadly, would attend to the unofficial understandings of those gathering spaces, as well.

While Miller could, of course, reply with integrity that the state and legal operations of these spaces and bodies are of primary interest to her, I think that response would dodge a bigger set of issues, a set of issues I would appreciate her perspective on. What is the relationship between the sacred and the state? Between religious conceptions of rights and law, and state conceptions? Because she discusses Rousseau and Voltaire, I would appreciate an extension: what is the relationship among natural law, the ‘state of nature,’ and the ecstatic? And, in her discussions of the earthquakes in the United States and Turkey, in particular, is religious fervor to be understood, or read, as ecstatic production and/or subjectivity itself? How does all of this potentially fit within the discussion of the rational/irrational paradigm so important to feminist theories? [*375]

After having read the book, closely, twice, I am, clearly, still left with questions. The fact that I have more questions at this point than answers, I take to be a mark of good theory! This is the kind of book that invites – almost necessitates – conversations. It would be lovely reading for a graduate seminar, even better for a faculty reading group, or an author-meets-reader at an annual meeting or conference. Miller writes with such a generosity and clarity that I cannot imagine anything other than a lively and far-ranging conversation with her. Any scholar interested in feminist theory, legal theory and law (from the points of view of doctrine, disaster law, cultural studies and law, sociolegal studies, legal history, and comparative law), colonial and postcolonial theory, or theories of the ‘everyday’ should read this book. And, as you do, I recommend that you find friends and colleagues and students with whom to discuss it. Or call me – I would welcome the chance to revisit, reengage, and re-evaluate, and I will likely be at it again next week, when a tornado, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, hits some part of this world.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Renee Ann Cramer.