Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Unbound: Taking Something Bad and Making it Worse

By Ori J. Herstein

Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left is one of the seventeen journals published by Harvard Law School. As far as I can tell it is a fairly new student-run electronic publication. Unbound seems to aspire to provide a forum and a home for leftish legal academics with a bent towards continental style theory; a place where such thinkers will not be required “to justify [their] existence to unsympathetic critics.” I view this rhetoric as a reaction to unreflective bashing and snobbery often directed from within analytical circles at intellectuals of the continental, post-structural, and post-modern variety. A particular grotesque example of this anti-intellectual trend is the infamous NY Times obituary of Jacques Derrida. In trying to make a small contribution to combat this regrettable phenomenon I actually wrote an article defending Judith Butler from such uncharitable criticism (apologies for this shameless plug). Thus, even though I am a card carrying liberal and aspire to be an analytical thinker, I am sympathetic to the plight expressed by the founders of Unbound.

That said, one thing that gives post-structuralism, post-modernism etc. a bad name is the tendency (of some practitioners) towards unreflective negation and dismissal of any and every category, value, or structure. As if the practice of deconstructing or “unbinding” is of value all unto itself. Unbound’s editorial policies show signs of this unfortunate tendency.

The ills and benefits of the student-run law journal are well known. The review process is not blind and editorial decisions are made by students who lack the knowledge and expertise to judge the quality and originality of the submissions. The positive aspects of student-run publications include the high quality of citation checking and close proofreading they often produce: elevating the form of the publications and helping students develop skills that employers look for in junior attorneys.

Unbound seems to have chosen not only to adopt all the ills of the current system but also to discard the few positive aspects of the student-run law journal. Unbound’s section on article submission begins very dramatically, proclaiming that it seeks to “undo the traditional hierarchies of the student-edited legal journal.” When I first read this I thought to myself “finally, someone is taking a stance against the entrenched system wherein students, prestige proxies, and cronyism determine the intellectual landscape” (on the biases of non-blind review see here; I take it that the problem with non-peer reviewed journals is self evident). Alas, this hope was shattered by the very next sentence, where Unbound proclaims that “[t]o that end, writers are responsible for their own citations, and student editors will provide substantive feedback on the arguments made. We’re interested in intellectual interaction – not housekeeping for authors”!

In the name of undoing a “traditional hierarchy” Unbound essentially does away with the primary redeeming quality of the student-run publication. I honestly fail to see why the common practice (a “tradition”) of students proofreading and cite checking articles (a “hierarchy”) is so awful. I also wonder what exactly does the journal’s small army of fifteen editors – Unbound’s website does not seem to list any staff members who are not “editors” – do. Especially considering that, on average, the journal seems to only publish about seven articles per year. Let’s hope that there is plenty of “intellectual interaction” going on.

Of course all this does not reflect in any way on the quality of the articles published in Unbound (except, perhaps, on the accuracy of the citations). For example, the current issue headlines a piece by Noa Ben-Asher whom I personally know and think is very good. I am sure that the students themselves are equally terrific. My concerns are purely with the way Unbound is set up and with the precedent it may establish.