How can you summarize Robert M. Cover's "Violence and the Word"?

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Robert Cover was an American law professor who taught at Yale Law School. One of his most impactful essays is “Violence and the Word.”

This essay examines the undeniable link between the law in the form of legal literature and the inherent violence associated in law.

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Robert Cover was an American law professor who taught at Yale Law School. One of his most impactful essays is “Violence and the Word.”

This essay examines the undeniable link between the law in the form of legal literature and the inherent violence associated in law.

Cover notes that the idea of legal interpretation is “a social construction of an interpersonal reality through language.” This is at odds with “pain and death,” which are visceral emotions which impair one’s ability to interpret.

Similarly, when a judge “articulates her understanding of a text,” someone experiences violence, namely in their loss of “freedom, his property, his children, even his life.” Legal interpretations also consider previous acts of violence, which led to the judge’s interpretation and ruling. Victims are left behind and “lives have been torn apart,” which make the act of interpretation impossible to understand without understanding both the past and future violence associated with the interpretation.

This idea also extends to the act of interrogation. Cover contends that interrogations are “rarely designed to elicit information.” Instead, interrogations is designed to “demonstrate the end of the normative world of the victim,” much like the initial act of violence ended the normative world of the initial victim.

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In "Violence and the Word," Cover argues that the written and verbal "interpretations" of the law that judges use to sentence those convicted of crimes inevitably lead to acts of physical violence. To have any power, the law must be enacted in the physical world. This enacting is not innocent, much as the judge in the courtroom might be shielded from its worst aspects.

Looking at sentencing from the point of view of the prisoner, the prisoner understands that his body is subjected to all sorts of coercion. He can't not comply with the order, for example, that he go to prison: he knows will be dragged out, probably beaten, and possibly killed if he does not walk out as commanded. In prison, beyond being locked up, his body is subject to various forms of violence from guards and other prisoners.

Cover wants his readers to understand the very physical notion of justice, which centrally involves control of a human body. As Cover puts it,

The "interpretations" or "conversations" that are the preconditions for violent incarceration are themselves implements of violence. To obscure this fact is precisely analogous to ignoring the background screams or visible instruments of torture in an inquisitor's interrogation. The experience of the prisoner is, from the outset, an experience of being violently dominated, and it is colored from the beginning by the fear of being violently treated.

Cover emphasizes the disconnect between the judge's perception of a sentence and a prisoner's. If the judge tends to overlook the violence inherent in sentencing, the prisoner tends to feel it in a magnified way.

Just as the torturer and victim achieve a "shared" world only by virtue of their diametrically opposed experiences, so the judge and prisoner understand "punishment" through their diametrically opposed experiences of the punishing act.

Cover is at pains to emphasize the reality of the violence judges inflict:

The judges deal pain and death.... From John Winthrop through Warren Burger they have sat atop a pyramid of violence, dealing.... In this they are different from poets, from critics, from artists. It will not do to insist on the violence of strong poetry, and strong poets. Even the violence of weak judges is utterly real—a naive but immediate reality, in need of no interpretation, no critic to reveal it.

Having discussed the way the law deals in coercion of the human body, Cover leaves it to readers to experience increased empathy toward the incarcerated and perhaps to try to alleviate some of the pain and fear inherent in the experience. The experience of the victims is worse than we can imagine: a measured dose of punishment can go a long way, Cover argues.

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“Violence and the Word” by Robert M. Cover discusses the implications of legal interpretations of violence. According to the author, judges have the power to determine the fate of a person’s life based on their individual interpretations of the law. Because of their decisions, many defendants are led into a life in prison, where violence is the norm. The author holds the view that it is impossible to understand the association between legal interpretation and violence fully because the current literature does not address the relationship between the two. He further implies that legal interpretation and violence go hand in hand. Cover writes:

A legal world is built only to the extent that there are commitments that place bodies on the line. (1605)

In other words, the writer suggests that different forms of legal violence have always been the consequence of engaging in unlawful acts.

Cover argues that legal violence is inevitable. However, it must be administered safely and effectively. To ensure that judges manage legal violence effectively, there must be systems in place that monitor and punish reckless, violent acts. Furthermore, several legal players must be present whenever interpretations are made to ensure that no single person can exercise his or her authority and give consent to a violent act. The author states:

The context of a judicial utterance is institutional behavior in which others, occupying preexisting roles, can be expected to act, to implement, or otherwise to respond in a specified way to the judge’s interpretation. (1611)

In this case, Cover claims that other legal entities always monitor the interpretations of judges. Despite this, the outcome is still violent action. The author uses an example of how defendants voluntarily go to prison after their sentencing because they know that pain will be inflicted upon them if they refuse. Cover implies that judges hardly understand the violent aspects of legal interpretation because they are never the victims.

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