Conventions of Peers

BOOK THE FIRST.  Chapter the fifth.  Of the COUNCILS belonging to the KING.

This chapter describes the four different consular bodies that advise the King of England: parliament, the peers of the realm, the judges of the courts of law, and the privy council.  Among other things, we learn that along with parliamentary sessions, “instances of conventions of the peers, to advise the king,” were once common.  (p. 221)

One of pleasures of reading Blackstone is catching sight of the cultural ephemera he occasionally uncovers (or, for all I know, invents).  The sections on governmental structures have been particularly rich.  For instance, in an earlier chapter we were informed that a member of the house of lords, on his way to and from parliament, may, while passing through the king’s forests, “kill one or two of the king’s deer without warrant,” but only “in view of the forester, if he be present; or on blowing a horn if he be absent, that he may not seem to take the king’s venison by stealth.” (pp 161-62)  In this chapter, Blackstone mentions a real estate deal between Henry IV (1366-1413) and the earl of Northumberland, in which the lands’ value was to be settled by parliament “if any should be called before the feast of St Lucia or otherwise by advice of the grand council (of peers) which the king promises to assemble before the said feast.” (p. 221)  

I don’t know why exactly, but I find these evocations of aristocratic life in Ye Olde England oddly engaging.  I am not at all interested in the kind of detailed histories that readily provide this kind of information.  But there’s something about having it slipped in on the edges of a more abstract project that makes it kind of shimmer — little concrete bits of lived experience that are inevitably so much more involved than even complex legal rules and governmental structures.  Catching just a glimpse of this stuff out of the corner of one’s eye makes it seem mysterious and meaningful.  

The other thing that makes these descriptions resonant, I think, is the ritualization — which over the distance of centuries appears in all its strange distinction.  The customs Blackstone describes are part of lived experience, as opposed to the abstraction of legal doctrines, but not ordinary lived experience.  There’s a kind of performed formality that overwhelms intention here — I mean, blowing the horn before killing the deer?  (And by the way, are these tame deer that just stand around while people blow horns at them?  I mean maybe so — they’re in the royal forest after all — maybe they’re tame.  Ugh.  Surely not.  Maybe you’re supposed to blow the horn just after you’ve killed one?  That makes more sense.)  In any case, reading about the horn blowing and the feast of St. Lucia and the king “issu[ing] out writs under the great seal to call a great council” (p. 221) made me think of the observation in my new favorite book, that “ritual creates and re-creates a world of social convention and authority beyond the inner will of any individual.”  Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, Seligman et al. (Oxford 2008) at 11.

It so happens that when I read this chapter of Blackstone I was myself attending a kind of consular session.  It was a gathering of county election officials, voting rights advocates, and academics convened by a midwestern Secretary of State to advise on policy reforms.  And I began to reflect on all the ways the familiar forms of the conference that I usually take completely for granted might shimmer to some future observer as selected tidbits of ritualized twenty-first century governmental culture.   The shiny folders with the state seal on the front, those clear plastic pockets on braided black cords with the little aluminum clips that held the preprinted name tags we all wore around our necks.  The “working lunch” at round tables draped in heavy white cloths, with rolls served with tongs, little round butter pats molded into rosettes, and waiters in black jackets passing plates and pouring out coffee from brown plastic beakers.  And the clothes — the care each participant put into choosing what to wear —  the men in suits, or a least shirts and ties; the women in suits, too, mostly, and stockings, heels, makeup.  Local voting rights advocates wore brighter colors and drapier textures — as if exercising their prerogative to dress in this freer, livelier more comfortable style, as a reward, or a badge of honor, for eschewing official power, national visibility, and/or academic tenure, all of which for some reason demand clothes that are tighter, darker and less forgiving.  

It’s easy to trivialize or mock the modern equivalents of the ceremonies accompanying the policy convocations Blackstone describes.  These days, any mention of such details generally signals an intent to do just that.  But I actually think these things are important. Without them you have a lot of smart, experienced people who would be better occupied at home by themselves thinking and writing and maybe talking to each other sometimes, but you don’t have a council, you don’t have a conference, you don’t have a convention.  It’s the conventions that make the convention.  And, in some sense, it’s out of this kind of conventional formality that policies get made.  Otherwise you just have ideas. Policies are something more concrete than ideas — though maybe not as concrete as, say, practices.  

It’s almost as if you take the participants’ theories and ideas and memories and suggestions and mix them with the concretized ritual practices and objects of the conference — the milling and talking, the hugs and handshakes and pecks on the cheek, the agendas and water pitchers and cardboard name placards and little gelatinous chocolate mousse cylinders and somehow the very concreteness of these predictable “conventional” acts and objects mixes with the abstract content of people’s thoughts, opinions and proposals and becomes that abstract-practical hybrid thing:  policy.

Then I had to come home from that convention of my peers because my mother — who is 91 — fell down.  And on the plane I was thinking how picky my generally easy-going mother was until quite recently about a certain few things, for instance the way she drank her coffee (the cup had to have a thin lip) and the way she always opened up one corner of the little sugar packet and poured in just a few grains and stirred, stirred, stirred with a spoon and then set the spoon down on a napkin — and how if there wasn’t a spoon or a napkin she kind of acted like civilization might just be coming to an end.  And I was thinking, well, maybe so.  Because, as Seligman et al. put it, such rituals “create[] a shared and conventional world of human sociality.” (p. 17 ) And for my poor mother, the loss of the ability — or inclination? — to drink her coffee in her own particular ritualized fashion snuck in there sometime shortly before she lost the ability to drink coffee without spilling it, and really seems to have been the beginning of the end of the world.

Blackstone’s Sister

BOOK  the First.  Chapter the Fourth.  Of the KING’s Royal FAMILY.

This short chapter is mostly about queens.  Blackstone explains that there are three kinds.  Most of the chapter is about the queen consort —  the wife of the king.  The others are the queen dowager (the king’s widow) and the queen regent, regnant or sovereign, who holds the crown in her own right and “has the same powers, prerogatives, rights, dignities, and duties, as if she had been a king” (p. 212).  Blackstone describes some of the ways queens’ legal status differs from that of ordinary women — and why.  He explains, for instance, that unlike other married women the queen consort is allowed to own property, in order not to burden the king with her affairs (pp. 212-13). But he doesn’t offer a reason why at a time when ordinary married women lost all public and legal identity, the queen regnant actually got to be the most public person of all — that is, the king.  

Maybe it’s because in some ways a king is more like a girl than a man.  Both kings and girls live life more from the outside in, more as the object of knowledge, curiosity and reverance than the one who knows, inquires or reveres — more seen than seeing.  To paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon’s famous line, one’s body is, for both girls and kings, that which is at once most one’s self and least one’s own.  

I’m speaking, of course, in generalities — skipping over individual differences and, maybe more important, centuries of change.  Still, ruminating on the Queen Regnant, I find myself in a place where I seem to end up again and again — staring in disbelief at how little change there seems to have been, really, about this business of women’s bodies.  Whatever else has changed for girls and women since Blackstone’s time, and whatever we individually choose to make of those changed opportunities, our appearance is invested with meaning.  Like kings, from infancy our bodies are the subject of much more attention than the average man’s– both other people’s and our own.

Eight years ago (can it really be that long now?), when my daughter was a new baby girl, I was struck by the intensity and persistence of our society’s attention to feminine appearance.  Over forty myself, and thus having stepped well out of the spotlight shown on young women’s bodies, I was shocked by the extremity of the responses my curly-headed tot elicited. Strangers would drop to their knees before her stroller on the sidewalk and cry “oh, what a beautiful little girl.”  (I should explain here that while my daughter is a perfectly nice-looking little girl, she is in no sense spectacularly or even unusually beautiful.  And, indeed, I soon noticed that most little girls receive these accolades.)  Every piece of clothing and physical attribute is ritually catalogued and celebrated — “that’s a pretty dress,” “ooh, look at those sparkly shoes,” “what long lashes she has. . .  those cheeks, her smile . . . .” Or the whole package may be lauded together.  To this day a neighbor, himself a strikingly tall, white-haired man reputed to have once been Mayor Lindsay’s bodyguard, hails my daughter from his yard as she walks by on her way to school — “Hello, Miss Lovely”!   

He seems like a really nice man.  And I feel churlish for even suggesting there’s anything wrong with the well-intentioned appreciation he and other well meaning people have lavished on my child.  One of the great joys of having a child is the way the quotidian world cracks opens and serves up this amazing outpouring of appreciation and, yes, love.  But isn’t it obvious that being showered with this kind of  attention before you can even speak is going to set you on a course quite different from the one you would be inclined to take if you were not constantly being reminded of how important your appearance is?  

Not to everyone, apparently.  At the same time all this was going on I was having conversations at the swing set with other 21st-century liberal moms who were saying things like, “you know, it really is amazing how different they [i.e., boys and girls] are; we’re always trying to give her trucks, but she really is only interested in dolls.”   The idea that girls “have naturally, that is from their birth, independent of education, a fondness for dolls, dressing, and talking” was already subject to critique in Blackstone’s time. Mary Wollstonecraft (quoted in the previous sentence), considered this viewpoint, which she attributed to Rousseau, among others, “so puerile as not to merit a serious refutation.”  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  (Ch. III) (1791).  Noting that she “probably had an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy than J.J. Rousseau,” she contended that girls’ fondness for dressing up their dolls basically reflected the interest all the grown ups around them showed in dressing up the girls. Id. Two hundred years later on the playground in Brooklyn I had nothing to add to that argument, and it was just about as effective as it had been in Blackstone’s and Wollstonecraft’s England.

Of course some things are different now, among them the fact that women can be lawyers and law professors and publish writing about law.  (Although, I note that in a recent survey of the top 10 most cited law professors, not one is a woman.) I wonder how our different treatment of little girls and boys physical appearance is implicated in the ongoing professional gender divide.  In particular I wonder if it is part of why we are not producing more women mathematicians, scientists and engineers.  It strikes me that in the quantitative world of lab science, hard drives, and pure math, there is so little narrativity that the presentational self all but disappears, at least until the point at which a few stars emerge to win prizes. In professions women have entered in large numbers — doctor, lawyer, professor — physical presentation of self is definitely part of the game.  To be sure, that presentation is a source of conflict and confusion for professional women. (Must I wear a skirt for that appellate argument or do I chance the pants suit?) But it may be even harder and more confusing to find one’s way in a profession that virtually does away with physical image.    The sheer anonymity may be too hard for women to accept.  It may be impossible for most young women to imagine themselves into these disembodied roles — both because they sense they will fail at the requirement of corporeal invisibility and because they are afraid that if they do succeed, they will be totally erased. 

So far, I’ve been writing as if I lived somewhere apart from the feminine attachment to physical appearance that I’ve been describing. Of course it is not so.  Nor is it the case that I always experience that attachment as onerous.  Sometimes it seems like this life on the outside gives women an opportunity that men lack to connect more readily with other people. Actually, it can really cheer you up.

On my way home recently from a meeting in Washington, D.C.  I stepped up to the Amtrak counter, to change my ticket for an earlier train.  The ticket agent looked weary, already yawning at nine in the morning.  He punched up the numbers for my exchange, took my credit card and asked me for the obligatory post 9/11 picture ID, which I produced.  Glancing at it, he remarked, “good looking.”  I was feeling depressed.  “It’s an old picture,” I said.  At this, something in this man woke up.  Looking me in the eye he said, “Well, now that’s something they can’t take away from you.  If you got it, you got it.”  The kindness of his statement was all the more apparent because the statement was so obviously untrue.  After all, physical beauty is quintessentially, paradigmatically transient — the part of one’s self that time most certainly does carry away.  For some reason it makes me think of something I only just found out about physical identity — that it is not in fact only skin deep.  A friend who is having to go through a slew of internal medical examinations tells me that one of her too many doctors explained that people’s insides are as different from one another as their faces.  It turns out that the shape and spatial relationship of a person’s heart, lungs and liver are as much her own as the parts of her that are more routinely visible.  I find this comforting.