Constructing a Legal Self


Former Leitner Center Distinguished Visiting Professor Daniel Bonilla Maldonado returned to Fordham Law School on April 11 to share insights from his new book The Legal Barbarians: Comparative Law, Legal Identities, and the Global South.

Bonilla Maldonado, who taught at Fordham from 2010 to 2013, is a leader in comparative law, constitutional law, and public interest law whose work as an associate professor at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, focuses on cultural and property rights, Fordham University Professor Sheila Foster noted in her introductory remarks.

During his talk, Bonilla Maldonado outlined the three ideas he sought to advance in The Legal Barbarians: how narrative gives unity to self; comparative law as a critical part of modern law that creates the narrative that gives unity to the modern self; and a genealogy of comparative law that attempts to trace the key components of the narrative created by comparative law. Modern law as framed by comparative law, he noted, is “very influential in imagining ourselves as legal subjects both in the Global North and Global South.”

“This legal subject is profoundly and deeply territorialized, so who we are depends on where we are and how our law is taught and how we think about the law,” Bonilla Maldonado told the audience of faculty, administrators, and students. “Not only about the Global South but the Global North and how it’s territorialized and how they are intertwined. They don’t live in separate dimensions but are strongly connected.”

The Legal Barbarians is part of the same academic project as Bonilla Maldonado’s previous work, Constitutionalism of the Global South. In that book, Bonilla Maldonado seeks to describe and analyze the legal identities of the Global South by teasing out likenesses of legal understanding in places as far apart as Colombia, South Africa, and India. The book addresses how diverse members of the Global South use the law to promote access to justice, social and economic rights, and cultural diversity.

Bonilla Maldonado argues that narratives of legal systems are constructed in such a way as to create a troubling dichotomy—one in which European laws and politics are viewed as original and valuable while the Global South’s laws are perceived as degraded and primitive, as minor iterations of the law of the Global North.

“This narrative plays an important role in how you imagine the other and how you imagine yourself, because the other is inside yourself,” Bonilla Maldonado said. “It’s not something that’s out there. It’s something inside yourself building up an important part of who you are.”

Comparative law controls what can be said about modern law because it constitutes the narrative of self and the other that exists between the Global North and Global South.

“I believe the main power of modern law is its capacity to create a legal subject, a particular individual who imagines himself in certain ways and is located in particular geographies and has very particular histories,” Maldonado added.

Bonilla Maldonado further explained that his work aims to reinterpret and reconstruct the narrative around the Global South in ways that are more useful to their needs and wishes, and contribute through his analysis to a greater understanding of who these countries are as legal entities.

The Fordham Law School Office of International and Non-J.D. Programs, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, and the Center on Race, Law and Justice co-sponsored the event.


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