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‘Literature explores all sorts of things that the law is not yet ready for’

As Professor of Literature, Culture and Law, Frans Willem Korsten explores the interplay between literature and law. These are two disciplines that most people wouldn’t immediately connect, but Korsten can see a lot of common ground between them. ‘A fictional story can have a huge impact on law.’

Literature and law are both disciplines that focus on language, Korsten explains. ‘How does that language work? How do you argue in it? What role do elements like fiction play? For me, the Bible, Tanakh and Koran are fiction. But these books are the basis of entire legal systems.’

And there are a host of problems that law cannot yet solve, says Korsten. ‘A trial ends once a verdict has been reached but that is often not the end of the matter. Then you see literature and art taking over and sometimes still reflecting on this hundreds of years later. Conversely, all sorts of things are explored in art and literature that the law is not yet ready for, as in novels about robots, for instance. Robots do not yet have any rights in law but they do in literature.’

Unequal quantities

Robots do not yet count as legal persons in law but nature increasingly does. Korsten will oppose this international development in his inaugural lecture. ‘Alongside people like you and me, what are known as natural persons, the law also describes other legal persons, such as companies and states. Including states and businesses as legal persons in law means they can also be taken to court and have rights and obligations.

‘If you do that with nature, then you are putting it on a par with businesses’, Korsten explains. ‘Then there could be a lawsuit between, for example, Tata Steel and nature. To me, they are completely unequal quantities that are suddenly forced onto one legal scale. A business can poison nature, go bankrupt and then start trading again. But nature can’t start trading again and in the meantime is being totally trashed.’

Ground, land and earth

Instead of labelling nature as a natural person, it would be better to look at legal definitions and how they came about. In his inaugural lecture, Korsten will look at how the Dutch words bodem (ground, soil, Ed.) and grond (ground, land, earth, soil, Ed.) are defined by law and how this could be improved. He will apply his perspective and knowledge as a literary scholar. ‘The word grond is not mentioned in the current definition of bodem. Aarde (earth, ground soil, Ed.) is, but then it is not defined.’ Such legal definitions come about by consulting administrators, legal experts and people from agricultural institutions. ‘But they haven’t involved biologists and ecologists’, says Korsten. ‘Which is where things go wrong.’

Frans Willem Korsten. Photo: Anna Loh/Faculty of Humanities

What is missing from the law is seeing grond as a living thing, says Korsten. ‘If you manage to reach a broad consensus that grond is alive, then we can address issues very differently through the law. That’s why I am working towards a definition of grond as a living entity. If grond is inanimate, you can contaminate it but cannot poison it. That is a subtle difference. To contaminate it suggests that you may be able to remove the contamination. But if grond is poisoned, then it is dead. Have I killed something that can no longer be revived? That is a much more serious crime.’

Tom Poes and The Last Of Us

Korsten uses a variety of sources in his research. In his inaugural lecture, he will refer not only to legal texts but also to a Tom Poes comic strip and the game The Last of Us. How does he choose his sources? ‘I don’t look at strictly defined corpora (collections of texts, Ed.) but explore cultural forces. I look at a problem and that can be approached from many different angles.’

Law is not just shaped by laws and philosophical texts, Korsten emphasises. ‘A leading colleague of mine, Greta Olsen, says: “People’s feelings about the law or what they consider to be just are formed in a kind of cultural soup.” This soup is a very complicated interplay of all sorts of texts and is difficult to define.’

In his inaugural lecture, Korsten will advocate ecological justice. How can nature be better protected by law? And how do views of nature differ between law and literature? ‘The problem is an attitude towards nature that is ultimately dominated by economics. Much art and literature is critical of this. How come that literature has not affected the law? This is a fundamental issue in today’s world, which makes it important to explore how literature, culture and law interact here.’

Frans Willem Korsten’s inaugural lecture is on Friday 15 March 2024 and will also be streamed live.

Text: Tom Janssen
Banner photo: Unsplash

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