Tracing a friendship

In early January, I received an email from Shelby Fitzpatrick on a mailing list including Peter Fitzpatrick’s friends and colleagues. Peter was ill, and apparently there wasn’t much time left. Shelby asked for ‘thoughts and recollections; anything you feel like sharing would be a great boost to us’. The aim is to bring together facets of Peter’s life-long dedication to the academy and to document personal connections. Perhaps I should have done this earlier. But for whatever it’s worth.

As is often the case, we remember old friends as ‘constellations’ that are made up of mnemonic traces, of scattered points in time and space but that, all the same, seem to come together as a coherent whole. Like stars that can be light-years away from each other in three-dimensional physical space, some of which may even have burnt out by the time their light reaches us, but that appear to the eye as a familiar asterism like, say, a plough or a cross.

I first met Peter in the early 1990s. I was still a postgraduate student, and Peter had somewhere picked up on my ‘francophile credentials’ which at the time were starting to make a lot of sense in legal studies. So I was invited to present a paper at a staff seminar that Peter ran for the benefit of his postgraduate research students, for both those that he supervised himself and others whose critical interests Peter wanted to support. Here Peter introduced me to, among others, Colin Perrin who has remained a good friend ever since, and Veronique Voruz who was a dear colleague during my time at Leicester.

At that meeting or immediately after it, Peter asked if I would review The Mythology of Modern Law that had just come out. I agreed to do it, and Peter had already found a home for the review in the prestigious Journal of Law and Society. It would be my second publication in English. At some point before the review was submitted to the journal, we ran into each other again, perhaps on the conference circuit, and Peter asked me how things were going with the review. I then told him that a good part of the review would use the book’s cover image by Edward Curtis as its springboard playing on the notion that Curtis’s photographs were often staged and so did not really ‘document’ anything. As I was talking, I could see a certain horror appear in Peter’s eyes. Not only was this young academic taking a simple ‘book review’ too seriously, but Peter himself was also sensitive to criticism. All academics are! We put our names on what we write, and it’s extremely difficult not to take whatever is said about our writing as comments about ourselves. This was also Peter’s first major book, so it may have had a special significance that I was not aware of. In any case, my review was inspired by Roland Barthes and argued that any attempt to ‘reveal’ the mythical nature of something is caught up in the myth itself. I think in the end Peter was fine with that argument even if I may have ‘tried too hard’.

Shortly after Peter co-organised a seminar in Oñati. Either Peter invited me to participate, or I ruthlessly requested him to invite me because the themes were relevant for my work. Be what may, Peter himself never made it. He had boarded the airplane in the non-Schengen UK with his Australian passport in his bag, and in Bilbao, the Spanish authorities refused him entry because, as an Australian, Peter didn’t have the required visa. Ironically, of course, Peter had a UK passport as well, but he had left that at home. So even in his absence, I went on to present my paper on Jacques Lacan’s ideas on truth, knowledge and the ‘conjectural sciences’ that I had specifically crafted with him in mind and that ended up as the opening chapter of my doctoral thesis. As to leisure activities outside the seminar room, I remember taking a long taxi ride to San Sebastian for some fine dining with Marianne Constable and Peter Goodrich, as well as smoking cigars while watching a Saturday night pelota match with Boaventura de Sousa Santos. So even if he wasn’t personally present, Peter introduced me to the right people.

Over the next ten years, a lot of our joint work efforts revolved around the annual Critical Legal Conferences that Peter often played a part in organising. Sometimes he used his authority to enable one institution or another to organise the whole event, while at others he merely put together streams that would allow the participation of individuals whose work he wanted to support. This way he also encouraged some of my younger compatriots into ‘international mobility’, as it would be called in contemporary parlance. This is a good example of Peter’s limitless generosity.

The following time when our paths crossed properly was on the occasion of Ben Golder’s PhD thesis defence in 2008 at which I was external examiner. Ben’s thesis was excellent, very well researched and argued. But here we once again ran into those ‘differences in academic opinion’ that would sometimes startle Peter. Ben’s work on Michel Foucault was, of course, completely original and independent, but one could hardly not notice the influence of his supervisor who had been advocation a particular reading of Foucault for some time. Those of you who knew Peter personally will remember that he was the gentlest of men. I think that, as such, he found it difficult, perhaps even distasteful, to deal with ‘crude power’ even as a theme of research. To me, the crux of what had been published of Foucault’s work at the time was specifically about power, about the ways in which power is used both to hinder ‘worthy’ causes and to further them. But there was no absolute indicator as to what makes one cause ‘worthy’ and another less so. Peter was, I thought, trying to find ‘ethical’ indicators that were not in those texts. Subsequently Ben and Peter joined forces and put their research efforts together to write the hugely influential Foucault’s Law, while I, for my part, included some of my disagreements in a much less influential book review.

Later Peter and I kept in touch annually over the holiday season through a regular exchange of greetings. It began on my part with a tradition of digital greeting cards that I would send to friends and colleagues towards the end of the calendar year. My first greeting was from 2005. The card included an image of a red-breasted bullfinch against a snowy background which is a typical motif for seasonal cards here in the North. In his response, Peter kindly riposted:

Dear Panu,
Thank you for your beautiful card, my admiration for which has to be tempered by the elevation of the bullfinch, a creature that plays havoc with our apple buds.

Indeed, in addition to his family, Peter’s constant source of joy was the garden of the beloved Old Vicarage at which I once had the honour of staying (and was first-hand introduced to how cold an old English house can be even if the weather outside is much more temperate than in my native Finland). Peter’s own greetings would often include pictures of the garden like the ones you can see below.

I was never quite sure whether these pictures had just been taken for the purposes of the seasonal greeting, whether they represented some sort of magical ‘wintry blossom’ at the Old Vicarage, or if they were summer photos that Peter had saved on his smart phone (Did he have one?) and that he could then admire on a tedious commute to London or on a long flight to some distant destination. I can imagine that this is where Peter always longed to be. And as I understand it, his wish will now be fulfilled.

PS (23.5.2020)

One form of academic friendship is hosting each other’s work. Peter, of course, hosted me. After the original posting, I remembered that I, for my part, hosted Peter in Helsinki in 2002 for a one-off when I was at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. I’ve been designing posters for academic events for nearly two decades now, and this is the oldest that I have on file. It’s, of course, inspired by the cover of The Mythology of Modern Law.

For a socio-legal agenda

During the course of this calendar year, I have, together with a few colleagues, been pushing for a socio-legal agenda at the Faculty. I have no mandate to do so other than my personal concern for our future as a quality research unit. But I have personal experience from which to draw ‘inspiration’, if you will.

In the spring of 2007, a small delegation of Leicester colleagues approached me to ask me if I was available for Head of School beginning the next academic session. I had apparently been mentioned by many as a good candidate. This was the Leicester way. All members of staff were first consulted in person after which the results of the consultation were reported to the appointing Vice-Chancellor. I was genuinely surprised that my name had come up. But as I had just brought one research project to conclusion, and perhaps also feeling somewhat flattered to be asked, I was happy to respond affirmatively.

I took on headship a little belatedly at the beginning of 2008 after a semester’s research leave in New York. It was all supposed to be a smooth ride. My predecessor had taken care of the School’s submission for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 a year before, and we were expecting the results to be in line with the previous exercise in 2001. So I was looking forward to a comfortable three years.

When the results came in a bit later in January, it was a shock for us all. After a 5A rating in the RAE 2001 results, Leicester could fairly confidently claim to be in the top 20 law schools in the country. In RAE 2008, the ranking was closer to 35th. With this fall, I had inherited a headship that I certainly hadn’t signed up for.

The catchword for the work that began soon after the results had come in was ‘modernisation’. According to the analysis I made together with my team (particularly Mark Bell as Deputy Head for Research who I have a lot to thank for), our poor results were due mainly to our predecessors’ ill-conceived submission strategy (i.e. overestimating the quality of the outputs submitted). But partially the results were also a reflection of the type of research that the school prioritised. If we compared our work to that of equivalent law schools who had done better, we came across as an old-fashioned ‘doctrinal’ law school with too many senior members of staff focusing their research efforts on authoring textbooks. There was much less socio-legal work done which was also evident in the very modest amount of external funding that we had been able to generate over the assessment years. ‘Modernisation’, then, meant abandoning doctrinal textbook authoring and a decisive turn towards more socio-legal approaches.

Over the next few years, recruitment took on a much more socio-legal flavour. In addition, we consulted experts in the field like Professor Dame Hazel Genn and Professor Sally Wheeler about ways in which we could improve our performance. Improvement was intended to cover both the quality of publications and the amount of research income that we generated. This work continued even after I left Leicester in 2011.

And yes, there was improvement in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 results: 20th in terms of outputs, 23rd in terms of overall results. So not exactly a bonanza, but hopefully a new leaf had been turned over.

Helsinki is very much like the Leicester I knew. It’s an old-fashioned doctrinal law school where textbooks are called ‘research monographs’ and where staff are reluctant to let go of traditions that they deem valuable. But unlike Leicester that was more than ready to acknowledge its shortcomings, the research culture here is too smug to realise what needs to be done. In terms of standard metrics like the amount of quality international publications or research income, Helsinki is not doing particularly well in relation to its size (about 120 FTE), and a relatively small group of individuals carry most of the burden for the successes. It banks too much on its status as a capital city university. It adopts a few ‘buzz words’ like ‘globalisation’ and ‘digitalisation’ for recruitment purposes, but it lacks a clear vision for turning those ‘buzz words’ into results.

Hence this socio-legal agenda ‘in the broadest possible sense’. None of us involved have the institutional authority to steer the Faculty into this direction or that. We’re just opening up this avenue to anyone who feels that whatever it is that’s now on offer is not providing them with the best chances for professional development and career advancement.

The photo

Too many questions about the default header image of this particular WordPress theme (the cactus-like plant). So I quickly found something presentable from my archives. The photo that’s there in place now was taken on the island of Atløy in Norway some two hours on a fast boat north of Bergen.

Note to self: find something more appropriate.

Update, 11 May 2019

This was the original photo referred to above.