Rollercoaster ride through the city

Urban Excess and the Law
May 10, 1996

Chris Stanley, recently appointed to the Quintin Hogg research fellowship in law and social theory at the University of Westminster, has written an important book on the intersection of a number of disciplinary approaches to law, desire and transgression in urban culture at the end of the millennium.

Though it draws on much that would be labelled "postmodern" theory, we are effectively past the post here. As Stanley himself confesses, the context of the work changed as he was writing the project from "an interest in postmodern culture ('Who Cares!')" to "concern for the expression of justice in the communities of the city ('Who Cares?')" .

Exploring space and desire in a novel and provocative way, he reintroduces (com)passion into the quest for the retrieval of a (lost) humanistic justice. Despite its sometimes dense writing style, the book is an indispensable read and at the cutting edge of contemporary critical legal and cultural studies.

Its theoretical references and stories of urban excess are wide ranging. Recognising David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity as a contribution to a political economy of postmodernity but also as a flawed, reductionist account in comparison with, say, Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition is a justifiable conclusion. Reading Stanley feels like a free-falling rollercoaster ridethrough French poststructuralist and postmodern theory. The usual suspects, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari are all there alongside Lyotard, and Stanley makes innovative and instructive use of a carefree plundering, mix'n'match style.

Pop and youth culture has always celebrated this ripping out of context (bricolage) and an academic approach to cultural politics and the politics of city cultures which concentrates on elements of urban dissent and transgression benefits from a similar "magpie" approach to star theorists. I for one have never been able to see the point of the (unrealisable) desire for the coherence of a Baudrillardian, Deleuzian or Foucauldian "school" and we certainly do not get anything like that in Stanley's book.

Modern French cultural thinking has usually made most sense when used this way, and Stanley is an astute, thoughtful and very well read theory pirate/thief. It is a breathless reader who arrives at the central parts of the book, namely the stories of urban excess. These are in my view the most interesting, challenging and controversial sections.

We are treated to analyses of white-collar crime in the City and narratives of dissent in the city (hacking, joyriding, raving), and "deviant" books like Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and the Law Lords' attack on S/M lifestyles in the case of R vs Brown. The theory parts of the book really come alive in these well-told stories and the conceptual questions of regulation and deregulation that permeate the whole text are particularly clear in these sections.

As Stanley himself admits the book he has written can be disorientating, and often disturbing, but it is worth pursuing to the end where the reader is, at last, "reoriented".

Steve Redhead is reader in law and popular culture, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester.

Urban Excess and the Law: Capital, Culture and Desire

Author - Chris Stanley
ISBN - 1 85941 209 2
Publisher - Cavendish Publishing
Price - £19.95
Pages - 226

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