World Cultures General Glossary
Law

   While all cultures have some system of social regulation and conflict resolution, law is a distinct phenomenon. Law is written and adminstered retribution and conflict resolution. It is distinct from other forms of retribution and conflict resolution by the following characteristics:


General Glossary
Lex Talionis

Mesopotamian Reader
The Code of Hammurabi
Administration
Law is retribution or conflict resolution that is administered by a centralized authority. This way retribution for wrongs or the resolution of conflicts does not threaten to escalate into a cycle of mutual revenge. For all retribution invites complimentary retribution: if I punish you for hitting me, you'll punish me for punishing you, and so on in a cycle of reciprocal violence. Of all cultural anxieties, the specter of uncontrolled reciprocal violence haunts nearly every aspect of cultural practice. Law, as administered by a central authority, takes the responsibility of retribution out of the hands and puts it in the hands of the state. Being both impersonal and powerful, people revenging themselves on the state is unlikely. You can still see the powerful revenge aspect of the law in famous cases such as the Polly Klaas killing in northern California. What's important to realize is that the parents of Polly Klaas, no matter how much they desire the death of the killer, are not the ones who decide on or who carry out the punishment.

Writing
Law is written; in this way, law assumes an independent character beyond the centralized authority that adminsters it. This produces a sociological or collective fiction that the law controls those who administer the law and that the "law" exacts retribution, not humans. Law, in the human imagination, stands apart from the human world as something independent of human vicissitudes and instability.

Retribution
Law is at its heart revenge; the basic cultural mechanism for dealing with unacceptable behavior is to exact revenge. Unacceptable behavior outside the sphere of revenge initially did not come under the institution of law: it was only much later that disputes that didn't involve retribution would be included in law. So the earliest code of laws we have, the Code of Hammurabi, is almost entirely concerned with retribution. These first laws take the form of a lex talionis, or "exact retribution": an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97