CDTS Speaker Series: Professor Richard Kernaghan

When and Where

Thursday, February 01, 2024 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Jackman Humanities Building
170 St. George St. Toronto, ON M5R 2M8


Professor Richard Kernaghan, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida


About the Lecture:

"rivers in nomos: sounding law from transit through Western Amazonian terrains"

What do landscapes bring to legal relations? How might reliefs of terrain move in manners that interrupt, modify, and even generate entanglements of law? This talk draws from sounds and soundings of river transport along the Trapecio amazónico in order to stress that landscapes are not merely prior to nation-state commands but crosscut them in ways obvious, if seldom considered. In a region where territorial borders of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil touch and blur, the material forces of rivers dominate in seasonal variations that are increasingly losing precision as climatic prediction. Even so, matters of transit bear witness to legal phenomena that can and do arise from riverine landscapes themselves, becoming apparent up close, because experientially direct. In the bellow of motors, filling and rattling an expanse… Or, in the metallic confrontations with glare and heat that slice waves and currents, all the while vulnerable to hidden, below surface threats of wood, rock, and other sedimentary debris. 

One aim of this talk to give the notion of legal relations a broad, encompassing sense, irreducible to dictates and presuppositions derived from European imperial histories. Here, an idea of nomos, emergent in those same histories, unfolds as a conception of law inseverable from the earth. In contemporary, critical thought on jurisprudence, nomos, a word always traced to Ancient Greece, seems to reappear, if in the most varied of inflections—from founding acts to colonial land appropriations to nomadic transformations of territory and more—whenever there are suspicions about the origins of law or a need to find something adjacent, upstream, and forgotten in law’s ultimate sources. And if so, then rivers would become—within a gesture insisting on proximity—a good place to listen, to describe and, through repeated encounter, to begin to think. A second purpose of this talk is to weigh, in conversation with recent work by anthropologists, how atmosphere and terrain meet in ways that support a vibrant and vitalist understanding of legal phenomena, precisely where rivers themselves never fully detach from other bodies of water. Most of all, I will wonder how noise and clamor extend a salient across which territory and physical reliefs coincide, such that sound, tone and texture grasped ethnographically as material vibration no less than historical resonance can return an immanence, a needed concreteness, to the study of law.

About Professor Kernaghan:

Richard Kernaghan is an ethnographer of aesthetics and legal relations. Intrigued by how vitalities of political time—memory and forgetting—find expression in rivers, roads, and other features of landscapes that move, his research has examined aftermaths of war and everyday experiences of law in the Upper Huallaga Valley: a settler frontier and region of Central Peru where illicit economies have entwined with (counter)insurgency. Kernaghan’s first ethnography Coca’s Gone (Stanford University Press, 2009) reflects on local narratives of turbulent pasts as they carry forward traces of law-making violence at the margins of the state. His recent book, Crossing the Current (Stanford UP, 2022) documents transformations of territory through oral histories and practices of rural transit operators in the twenty years following the military defeat of the Maoist Shining Path. Drawing on lived encounters, photographs, sketches, videos, and other fieldwork images, Crossing the Current asks how transitions to a postwar era can be grasped aesthetically through the subtle but deliberate ways people craft everyday itineraries between town and country. Kernaghan is working now on an ethnographic and archival study that explores histories, descriptions, and techniques of river travel in western Amazonia. Through the lens of transit practices—their obvious changes and sometimes secret continuities—this new research aims to understand how riverine terrains, by way of their variation, inflect legal relations in a triple-border region of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru that was, not so long-ago, disputed territory of Spanish and Portuguese empires.

Contact Information

Katharine Bell