Thinking between words and traditions

An interview with Thanos Zartaloudis, on The Birth of Nomos (EUP 2019). By Tristan Webb

Earlier this year Thanos Zartaloudis kindly accepted my request to ask him some questions about his recent book The Birth of Nomos; a book I was reading and finding to be a rare and thoughtful work, with unfamiliar but intriguing perspectives that seemed to make its topic of study both distant and central to my own.

The publisher’s description presents the book as follows:

“In The Birth of Nomos, Thanos Zartaloudis assembles a complex genealogy of the ancient Greek word nomos, elucidating the complexity and the richness of the uses of a word that was later to become famously known as a key classical (and modern) term for ‘law’ and ‘law-making’. Collecting and analysing for the first time in the field of legal studies a large number of primary ancient sources in the original and in translation, this volume opens an interdisciplinary pathway of scholarship into the ‘foundations’ of ancient legal history and invites a new and comprehensive understanding of the Western legal tradition.”

My opener was a simple question about a complex work: why is there no concluding chapter?! Zartaloudis’ fascinating answer traversed allegorical forests, maps, poetry and more, in an interview of answers spanning more than an hour. A reviewer of The Birth of Nomos had described the book as “a treasure to mine over and over” (there are yet more effusive reviews), and as a doctrinal student with philosophical questions I have found Zartaloudis’ responses in the transcript below also capable of similar description.

The late Professor Antonio Cassese wrote, in the preface to his collection of interviews with ‘five masters of international law’:

For certain readers, an interview may prove less interesting than a fully-fledged academic paper. However, interviews have the advantage of allowing a lively and fresh exchange of views. They also vividly reproduce a person’s train of thought. The ponderings of the interviewee run in a sort of fluid discourse, not having been crystallised yet in the immutable propositions of a paper. Hence, interviews also make easy reading. This was recently confirmed by a distinguished member of the International Court of Justice, who told me that he had enjoyed reading [an earlier interview by the author] while comfortably lying in a deck chair on the beach, without the constraints of sitting at his desk to take notes, pencil at the ready.” Antonio Cassese, Five Masters of International Law (Hart Publishing, 2011)

I could not have independently reached Cassese’s conclusions from my interview with Zartaloudis alone, since the latter’s published work already contains the advantages ascribed by Cassese uniquely to the form of an interview. Nonetheless, Cassese’ words still ring true. Though readers might not find the answers to be the same treasure as I did (given as they were in response to my own basic questions), I am sure they might be of value to some others, if only by encouraging further interest in this rare work and author, and for that reason have typed them up and post them here.

A biography of Dr Thanos Zartaloudis and a list of his published works can be found on his staff profile

Tristan Webb (interviewer), hereafter ‘[TW]’:  There’s no conclusion! This was the first thing that struck me. I mentioned this in passing to you, and you suggested this was perhaps intentional…

Dr Thanos Zartaloudis (interviewee), hereafter ‘[Zartaloudis]’: Yes it was, it was intentional in one sense, at least after a certain point. Though it is of course hard to know exactly what goes on in one’s mind! I mean if I may say one thing that can relate to the absence of a conclusion, and that relates also to what you were saying to me earlier before we begun as to doctoral research, maybe there is no accident also in the idea that one has no premeditated ‘basket’; we joked just before we started this interview that there is a kind of presupposition of expectation in research scholarship, as in when one goes to a forest to pick up fruit and you have a basket expecting to fill it or to half-fill it or what-have-you (despite the fact that ‘research’ is not a fruit to pick in the first place, this image remains for many poignant). In a way for me research is akin to that experience, even if it may be a romantic sort of image, or a silly image even, yet one has to have (to construct) an image of thought, an image of the experience of researching or thinking, right? Otherwise it’s not possible I think to grasp what it is one is trying to do. So for me, if you like, the idea of having an image of thought for one’s action, one’s research, what-have-you, is helpful as a starting point, for it both sets and exposes one’s presuppositions also from the start. And so when you say that you came with no basket to me, for this interview, that is meaningful, because it means that we have an image of your own thought as a starting point, and that is useful to share between us. I think the same happens to me often, and it happened to me while I was writing this book. I don’t think I intended from the beginning to not have a conclusion. In fact, this book was written in such a way that I would say I have not experienced before in my academic writing, so, in one sense, it ‘came about’ I should say—I think that’s the right phrase to use—and in that sense it developed kind of organically, if you want, or step-by-step, and eventually it became or it defined an overall, wider, approach towards studying ancient cultures, of the creating and thinking ‘laws’ and ‘norms’ or ‘normalcies’. Now, how I ended up with no conclusion has to do also I think, at least in part, with my image of what that research entailed as I was experiencing it on the way. And that image perhaps was that of a forest, if we are to use that romantic, fairy-tale imagery, a forest, or field of inquiry, that is of course in one sense well known as no other than paradise entails certain unexpected experiences! The fields of classics, of philology, some degree of research in the relation between legal studies and classical studies that is already established and so forth; I have to say in fact that most of the work that has been done this far has been from the side of classics rather than from legal studies, though one of the things I’m interested in, in passing, is to develop a new, in a way, and I hope the book helps towards that, call for other researchers in legal studies to take up the interest of ancient legal cultures and in doing so to undo some of the conventional presuppositions about their understanding of law as a social and historical phenomenon, which I think will be of use to the field in the longer term. But to go back to the image of thought and its experience: for me if there is a ‘forest’ of research here, even though it is to an extent well established—and that is something to emphasise given that I, above all, learned a lot, actually, from exceptional philologists and classicists, who incidentally have a very different modality of working than perhaps legal researchers do, i.e. they are more collective, they are relying on each other a lot more and a lot more respectfully so if I may add; and note one more thing: they are also much slower than legal researchers tend to be –sometimes findings (because they have to be corroborated or influenced by other fields like archaeology) take decades, if not a century, to be mature enough to be published or to be commented further upon. There is a nice modesty to that collaborative or collective work, and also a collegiality to that work that I respect enormously and of which we can talk about another time, or later if you like, but that image, even though it was, here in my case, an established and richly mapped out field to some extend—I found myself in it partly out of a gesture of pure love for the material, and some curiosity as to what may still be open to thought; and we can talk about what was my curiosity as well if you want, what it means to me, or meant to me, so that I had to reimagine that ‘forest’—my simplistic image of thought for this research for the sake of our conversation—as indeed lacking a map, even though there are some such ‘maps’ available to guide you through the field, as I said towards this or that direction. And the result—this book—is in fact I think a result of this relatively new attempt at a cartography from another field, or a de-cartography, or even an un-cartography. I had to pause for a moment through my early study, though as ever in a modest manner, to at least with a genuine passion for the enquiry entailed for it was leading me towards a peculiar situation, one where I had to say that I needed to travel this path as if on my own as well as along others, as I think any piece of research must do, including as we have discussed before a doctoral thesis. So without a cartography, one has a dual feeling of loss—because you lose the ground that could support you (of course you always have some guidance, or guides, and I did have wonderful guides in the field of classics, as well as in the field of philosophy, which I aim to inter-relate in this book); but one has also to take a distance from this pseudo-safety. And I’m not stating anything extraordinary here as is obvious; I think it’s a common step towards one would say a ‘genuine’ (which is to say open-ended, risky etc.) experience of research. Genuine in the sense that I would say that any research or research pathway has to be opened and reopened, and opening a research pathway, not necessarily an original one, but opening it up for yourself is an act that requires a little bit of risk (that has to be felt), and a little bit of acknowledgement (or love) so that you’ll have to re-examine certain things ‘genuinely’, again without necessarily wearing a predesigned hat of, equally, ‘tradition’, ‘critique’, or an attitude of general nihilistic ‘negativity’ towards an established field and so forth (we often start by thinking of another view as that of an enemy, but I think that may be a useful starting point only when you are more youthful, without leading one very far in the end). It can happen of course, sometimes, that one needs to do that (to adopt a critical interpretation or stance), and in some, few, cases I do that in the book, but again I hope in a collegiate manner towards my peers (that to me is very important, more important than ‘critique’ or ‘politics’…). But an unmapped territory then (which is a paradox!), in a way, was the image of my research-in-its-making, if you like, of my thought process, but also what led to the lack of a conclusion, and that was in part the reason why there was no conclusion or summary, the work just arrived at the point of an ending.

Another perhaps even more crucial reason I think for the absence of a conclusion in this particular case is also because I don’t think there can be one. And to me that is actually a perfectly sufficient conclusion to arrive to, if it is not forced or a mere pretence. I like very much the idea that this leaves quite open a number of possibilities for others, and for myself if I choose one day to think this through again. It’s quite exciting to not have a conclusion in this sense. Especially since this can be so despite the fact that people do know something about the word or words nomos before they read any book on it, that is, a relatively standardised understanding of nomos—the one you referred to yourself in one of those quotations of praise to the book, of nomos as ‘law’(with or without quotation marks, it depends who you’re talking to or whom you read!). So anyway, I digress because I enjoy your company, but I think this is a very important part to the thinking that just happened, let me say, i.e. that went behind the thinking as I was writing the book: I arrived at the ‘end’ and I really didn’t have a conclusion because I don’t think there could or should be one. I am fairly sure there can’t even be one, but after all who knows!

[TW] Yes. What you’re saying there about the lack of conclusion… Professor Stathis Gourgouris‘s final part in his praise, where he says: “a real gem to behold, a treasure to mine over and over” underscores that point that it’s—mining it over and over—it is a reference work. And what you’ve said echoes something you raised in our discussion group [our weekly class on postgraduate research training at Kent Law School], about the possibility of leaving questions within our work for other people to pick up on and contribute to, which seems a technique that can encourage that sense of collegiality and community within a group of scholars, by inviting others in that way through providing questions as you go.

[Zartaloudis] Not sure if I’m interrupting you, but just to say one thing as you mention it, this idea that Professor Gourgouris also mentions in his quotation about this work being kind of a reference or reference work, is I think accurate in some sense because, well, maybe I am also of the type of writer and reader who appreciates this kind of referential work; I do like finding detailed guidance with writers who go full out in the research field and gather the material for years and pay great attention to detail and to complexity. And I think that is a very worthy sort of act, and I have learnt of many such attentiveness. So what I wanted to do in my vocational field—because in a strict sense I’m not of course a classicist, and I’m never going to be a classicist proper, let alone an archaeologist which is another field I refer to—to bring some of that attentive gathering in the legal history field which most often remains quite narrow, or legal thought more generally, to me was in itself important or even sufficient in a sense. So I am hoping, without being able to claim that I have done a definitive gathering at all naturally, that this may be helpful in the future to those that may pick up this kind of work and take it further or, I hope, to a completely different direction; there will be enough guidance I think between the text and the footnotes and the bibliography and that would please me to see, whether I agree or disagree with the work produced.

[TW]: Absolutely. I mean, how many pages is it [the bibliography]? 80 pages is it?

[Zartaloudis]: It is long, yes.

[TW]: And the provision of original language material is immense, with not just your own translations, but the engagement with the literature—it’s extremely thorough. Which brings me to the second aspect which struck me with regards to the form of the work, the first being how it was structured, being quite difficult for someone new to the topic to gain an immediate sense of the conclusion and therefore it requires us to try to step in a lot more to get that, but the second aspect was that—putting aside the content—the text is incredibly dense, written with, I mean, original pre-archaic, archaic and classical Greek sources, with a lot of very technical terms from different disciplines brought together; but the syntax which puts this together is very light, and the structure is very clear. Furthermore your coining of phrases is, as Professor Gourgouris said, poetic. This contrast between being extremely dense and engaging very closely with some very technical and narrow arguments and points that span a great range of time and disciplines, but at the same time being very light, strikes me as similar in a sense to Derrida, whom we were reading earlier this week in our graduate research session…

[Zartaloudis]: Right; Derrida’s light-heartedness, it was the case at times I believe. I appreciate what you say in that I think you’re right to the extent that an author writes a book and can still associate themselves to it, I would say that there is an element of lightness in the work, sure. At the same time, with what, you know, in academic settings we call rigour, or scholarship, or what-have-you, attention to detail, that kind of ‘thing’. Maybe it is because I’m somewhere in the middle: I personally appreciate both very much so, and yet one has to think through what lightness or rigour may actually mean. Attention to detail, I appreciate as a researcher, as a student—we are eternal students, in a way—but I would not enjoy it, I would not love it at all times, unless the purpose itself of a book is to allow for a reader to get lost in a positive sense within extensive and comprehensive material. So, I read quite a lot of austere, so-called ‘serious’, pieces of scholarship in, for example, writing this book and I generally do enjoy that. I didn’t necessarily enjoy them at all times, but I borrowed and learnt a lot from them. But for me the point of having this so-called rigour, having the attention to detail as a guide and at the same time a certain lightness, …which maybe we should specify a bit further to make it more meaningful to others; lightness is a significant sort of gesture, if you like. So, on the one hand, I think this kind of work is inevitably dense, to address one of the things you rightly raise, and I do hope that readers of this book will not be discouraged by its density. The density is I think inevitable, because the whole purpose of the work is to encounter the significant range of literary evidence. And the literary evidence which is mostly poetic evidence, from Homeric and post-Homeric poetry of various forms, has to be encountered if we are to think of the cluster of words I examine in the book. Hence, in a way there is a forensic element, or a sort-of an attention to detail that is nearly obsessive, which I think, in the academy, one can admit without fear! I am a sort of obsessive analyst of evidence at times, and I really enjoy that, and I hope that some of that is conveyed in the work. So, there is a heaviness there, a density, but at the same time you’re right too, I made a clear effort in this book to keep it as clear or ‘light’, as possible. So I think it is fair to say that the syntax is light, the structure is, I hope, clear; but there is also the presence of, I don’t know what’s the best way of putting it, a certain creative scope in the structure and content of the book, it comes and goes as the pages and the sections of the chapters go, without a particular pattern, it spreads fragments and sporadic ideas without a strict plan; so my occasional more direct interventions if you want from a poetic or philosophical point of view, or the analytical sort of twists that I try to show, are not ordered in the sense that there is a particular section in each chapter for example, which I know would have been very helpful to provide the reader but…, precisely because I wanted the experience to the reader to be as near to the experience that I had, I think more random, more …emerging rather than an imposed way of experiencing reading. I hope there are here things to be discovered. Thus, I think there is something about that experience which I wanted to keep, in both the writing process and I hope in the reading experience. And I don’t know to what extent it will be conveyed, but to me that is important anyway, there has to be lightness, for lack of a better word, in heart of the density of a work, for otherwise the seeming certainty is self-blinding and ultimately dull.

Now, one last thing I would say perhaps, because to me this is again quite personally important, is it is not an accident that this relates to my experience with writing this particular book—and I don’t think I say this anywhere in the book so here is an exclusive for you!

[TW]: [laughs]

[Zartaloudis]: I have had an interest in poetry since my very early teen years, and I’ve always loved poetry as my home, so it is not accidental that I turn to ancient poetry here, although when researching the words in question in this book it is not like one has a choice: is is the case that the literary evidence that we have are exclusively or nearly exclusively in the period I’m looking at in the book, which is the archaic, or better the long archaic period, poetic. So you have to encounter the poets and that is something I used to say and joke about when I was much younger so it is quite strange that much later in life I was to find myself writing this. I always remain curious about poetry as an experience in itself; ancient modes of poetry to me are for this reason particularly interesting, a fascinating access I think, like with all literary evidence of course, but poetic evidence maybe even more excitingly so in some sense, because in poetry there is always the presence of love, a sort of linguistic dynamism that links in this case in the archaic period always a collective sort of communal experience, or the transmission of a tradition if you like through the ages, very much like the sagas of many cultures that we are familiar with in Britain but also beyond; and there is something really dynamic in other words in that kind of poetry which I find really fascinating as an experience, and an experience in common if you like, and also for me it was like there is a whole world that is represented (as much as taken apart) in a saga or in an epic, and which is in my case what I spent half the book on—the miraculous Homeric epics. So a happy coincidence for me that I ‘had’ to read a lot of ancient poetry here, no doubt!

[TW]: Thank you. Those are the questions I had about the form of your work, and there were a couple of questions I had about, well, the content of the work. It seems to me that, well, you say in your preface that you’re studying the term nomos, and how it has been used over a very large amount of time; in the Homeric and post-Homeric era, and it seems that, umm, if we think about Saussure, and his way of thinking about the relation between the signifier and the signified, and we take nomos as the signifier, that what you’re doing is looking at how the use of the term nomos has been used to describe, or rather what is being signified has changed in some way and remained constant in some ways; well I haven’t yet read your whole book, it’s rather embarrassing but, is that what you’re doing? You divide it into the Homeric and post-Homeric, is that in a particular sense in this regard?

[Zartaloudis]: Well, the division between the Homeric and post-Homeric was an attempt at an ordinary formal economy to the work, because otherwise there would not even be parts. And, in fact, (and I don’t say this in the book, explicitly) the division is artificial: because while chronologically you could say there is a division between the Homeric and the post-Homeric, obviously, the Greeks did not use that division as such; although in the mid- to late-classical period there are categorising attempts as to the traditions of past-traditions of poetry, including the Homeric, but the division remains an artificial yardstick dividing the book between two parts, mostly for the reader. It could have been avoided but I think maybe it helps one’s breathing patterns… So, interestingly, the lack of a conclusion is also the result of a lack of a sub-conclusion in the two parts; i.e. you don’t have a summing-up of the so-called Homeric era. And the same goes for the merely architectural use of the term -post- in ‘post-Homeric’; the thing aboe all is that the Greeks, nor have we ourselves in my view, never surpassed Homer.

I would say on the other side that the, yes, short answer as to Saussure’s image of studying the relation between the signifier and the signified, which you mentioned to me earlier, in this case could be used to describe the fact that the field of the signified was, or had to become, for me a question mark, even though important works like, for example, Ostwald’s to which I refer to extensively in the book, have done a kind of cartography of the semantic uses (or references) of the words nomos (and we should recognise, especially in the field of legal history and thought, that it has been almost always the case that one talks of a single ‘nomos’ when the words were, at least in one formal sense, two and their semantic uses multiple; and more crucially scholars write of nomos as if it is a straightforward matter of a ‘law-making’ tradition/transmission between the ages (even ours!). And there are significant reasons for, significant consequences of that in terms of how we analyse these words and the respective traditions, cultures and experiences they relate to. So yes, keeping the field of the signified open meant that, to go back to our dialectical image, that I could re-do a cartography, even if I was merely to repeat what others ended up concluding, or finding or maybe moving some of the furniture around; that would have been a result too, perhaps a parallel way of seeing the same but anew. I think that is a worthwhile exercise, to start anew sometimes and work beside and despite the work of others. And let me repeat that I find this is an exercise that is far more common in other fields than in the ever-narrower in late modernity legal ‘field’ (is it even a field now?!). As an analytical sort of investigation I think to me remains quite worthwhile. So yes as to how you put it, in that sense. Note also that that the multiplicity already established, not by me but by better others, of the uses of the words nómos and nomós (to use the accents) is undoubted. But I want to emphasize that when one encounters a multiplicity of uses, one has decisions to make (even if the decision is to attempt to allow for their co-observance). Often the decisions in past attempts have been to thematically categorise and reduce; so in a way I do this as well, in the way that certain chapters are categorised according to some thematic thread: so there is a chapter on the usage(s) of nomos in relation to land, another in relation to the so-called moira or ‘fate’, or some transgression of it, another as to feasts and sacrifices, etc. But to me what is more or equally important than this undeniable multiplicity , is rather the main tenets of a certain degree, I don’t think we can be categorical about this, a certain degree of open-mindedness, especially because our modern minds are particularly prone towards narrowing down almost everything to limiting graspable forms of realities, categories!, though we do not call them that even anymore; to keep an open mind though to state again the obvious is not only a good thing because we are encountering or attempting to encounter an ancient culture, a culture that separates us, even though I feel we are also related to those cultures in historical as well as imaginary ways, within continents, across and beyond them…

The other side to this for me is the nature of language itself. So one of the hardest things for me to grasp in this book, both in terms of research and in terms of writing it, was the thinking through to the extent that this is possible, of what the experience of language of what we call ‘meaning’ (and our modern obsession with it), of what we can call the uses of words, could have been like for a culture that is (was) of course very different, in some respects, to ours. And there are some, for example, key particulars to this. First of all, most of this book concerns literary evidence that we have inherited long after they were, quite literally, voiced (for at the core we are dealing with, early on, oral cultures). A significant volume of this work relies upon oral traditions, and oral uses of creativity, if you like, more widely. Secondly, as I show in relation to the vivid, for the Greeks, notion of mousikē (or misleadingly ‘music’ but as I explain, and great scholarship has shown, it was a much wider experience than that) in Ancient Greece in this particular period, the experience of speech itself was musical by its very nature. That alters, I think, and of course challenges our very ‘natural’ understanding of the relationship between the signifier and the signified too to return to your suggestion (what if language was ‘music’, and ‘music’, in turn, is not as such a language (at least in our current formal understanding of language)?). So if you notice I don’t use those structural linguistic terms in my analysis, because I think they can be useful in one sense, but also anachronistically problematic in another, given that they presuppose a division or a relation between words and things that I don’t think we can speak of as confidently as perhaps our modern minds would have hoped for. That is a difficulty that one cannot resolve, but just encounter I think.

[TW]: Yes, I see that it’s an important point about the presupposition of a division between signifier and signified that you’re challenging through this. My next question was going to be about is there some signified here that, I mean, I’ve never formally studied philosophy but I’m aware there’s a debate about whether something can exist in the abstract, some pure sense of something can exist and then we try to give articulation to that through our language which can never completely describe that thing. And then, I suppose, also another question lingering in my mind from earlier is about the lack of a conclusion—fine—moving beyond that, but thinking about the implications of your study: Giorgio Agamben for example, says “we need to rethink all of the themes that our ethical and political tradition has gathered around the word law”, and Professor Peter Goodrich says [the book] “redraws the boundaries of jurisprudence”… so, could you talk perhaps about these…

[Zartaloudis]: Sure, I’ll try. I think there is something about—you used the term ‘depth’ earlier in our conversation, and I think that is understandable to me. At the same time, I find the –and this is no criticism of yours, or of you—the use of the term depth problematic, and I think that while obviously in the sense of, how can I put it, the geometrical sense of our lives there is of course depth, in the sense of an image of thought depth for me is not particularly useful; maybe because historically it’s been used in ways that are problematic, like in the classic distinction between ‘surface’ learning as a pedagogical term and ‘deep’ learning (deep learning becoming either something that is to be achieved through some austere method, or in an another sense something to be avoided, as something that is not particularly considered experiential enough). These are old terms of course and not really in use much but the problem of thinking of depth in such or similar ways remains. At least, the Western versions of that are very problematic, because they are effectively quite almost tyrannical on learning I would say: there is a presupposed deep meaning which one is destined to arrive at, but it is a staged path as you know: and that is not any way to learn I think, it is the opposite of learning, it belongs to a logic of control. But I would say that perhaps in this sense, there is perhaps no depth in the analysis, the redrawn horizon that I am trying to provide with some kind of new cartography of this rich material: there is no depth, there is just a surface and its multiplicity. And I’ve always liked, I’ve had good teachers on this mind you, the idea that one finds in say the approach of Michel Foucault, that there is only a surface after all, and that in fact this is why everything is complicated, rather than the other way around. Everything that takes place on that surface, in multiple ways, crucially in coexisting ways, and that lies at the heart of my book as well, the idea of the coexistence of different but perhaps also related meanings/uses of the terms in question, which I think is one of my ‘conclusions’ in a simpler sense; and one thing we cannot say is, with no self-satisfied claim to clarity or absolute certainty, that any of those terms that I explore in the book became more important than others in the sense of acquiring a core, exclusive or imposing, meaning (prevalence occurs perhaps but with words it is hard if not impossible to suppose such hierarchies). Of course meaning and uses change over time, but that coexistence we see even in the later classical period (that’s why the book begins and spends most of its life in the archaic period, while it arrives at the early classical with the tragedians in particular, and with some crucial references to Plato and Aristotle). So to me that was actually quite a nice gesture to maintain in the book, in contrast to… I mean this is not something that classicists do anymore, but the common gesture in the past would have been to say that the archaic period, like all preceding periods to a sort of ‘classical’ period, whether it is the classical period of the Ancients or the Renaissance of the Moderns (or indeed the acclaimed modernity of our current time, even though it feels like we are regressing rather doesn’t it now?), what precedes is someone or something inferior or more chaotic, less articulate, less complex or important and so forth. To the contrary, I think that there is actually continuity in this multiplicity, complexity and importance of the uses of words and practices and the traditions that are built with them.

Now, the other thing, if I may, that I would say in relation to your question is that I wouldn’t say there is some kind of ‘natural’ prefigured contingency as a key sign in this abstract sort of horizon. In fact, the book tries to articulate this very difficulty, if I can say it like that, of the relationship between what the Giorgio Agamben calls ‘the relation between the linguistic and the non-linguistic’. The word and the thing (the abstract and the real, the intellectual and the material as people still say), and their continuous relation. That relationship, for me, remains perhaps, since Plato (who struggled with this but ultimately sided with the soul), the most significant relationship to think through and I, in fact, think I am merely stating the obvious thing to philosophers especially, when I say that this is really perhaps even the only relation that ever really mattered to the history of the act of philosophizing: what is our relationship to things, in one way or another and what is their relationship to us? Well, a continuous relation dissolves by necessity in my view the distinction that people make and especially when they call themselves materialists or contrarians to materialists etc. Especially when we continuously mediate, to the extent that we do mediate, our relation to things and theirs to us, through language; and things get inevitably both more interesting for human beings but also more complex. And, by the way, how do we manage to not take sides (like through the ages materialists and non-materialists do to no much avail for mostly political reasons), but rather maintain that relation as an open system (as Kostas Axelos said), a sort of open wound to thought, rather than some predisposed and quite closed ideological or other such presupposition of primacy, necessity and the like?

In terms of the particular implications, I think what follows from that, if I can ‘claim’ anything, I would say is that if we accept that this multiplicity of uses and meanings or whatever you want to call them of the words nomos is to be maintained, this leads us to rethink the conclusions of our past, or pasts, where, for example, the tradition (and transmission) of modern laws across traditions and cultures in the West and not only the West, our so-called West, have been based on what some have called ‘fundamental’ notions of law or of Right, whether in terms of the Ancient Greek nomos or the Roman ius etc. There’s a lot of fascinating threads throughout the history of modern law-making and law-imagining, and legal history narrating, self-defining, self-narrating and self-justifying, that reveals much more extensive (though often distorting) attention from the present to the past that we usually admit, the so-called ‘fundamental’ pillars of our culture, our legal culture too, drawing from a past in order to first make that past its ‘own’; and nomos has played, a reference to ‘the’ ancient nomos has actually played, quite a significant if not a key role in both establishing with the full weight of that word, a certain violence, a way of that word not only in the West but also in its modern colonies in some way, if I can say that, and of course also in scholarship, you know I was asked recently by some other colleagues from Brazil who were interested in the book, and I just remembered it because I think it relates to what you were saying, whether my book signifies a ‘return’ to the Greeks, you know as it has been claimed before in relation to others, and I’m flattered by the suggestion when Hannah Arendt comes to mind in this regard, but I am certainly not suggesting that one has to return to the Greeks in the way that the early Moderns claimed to return to the Greeks in this kind of Romantic, as well as very problematic colonial sort of sense, both at a cultural level and also the physical sense of colonialism. But there is certainly something interesting in the implications of that if we are to accept all that, since then certainly our foundations are shaken, in a sense, but not shaken in a naïve reactionary sense, I’m certainly not of the type that wants to claim for yet another ‘shift’ of this or that or another paradigm of this or that, I don’t believe that this is how research or thought works itself out best; its rather about small side-steps I think, amidst coexistent different steps and cultures, questions and conversations; though I would say that this necessitates that maybe, again without ever claiming that there is a necessity of a direct relevance or implication between my work and the present, yet I would say that one of the implications may be to rethink actually how we think of the phenomenon of law-making and law-transmitting, our experiences with law, of what we call law today, our making and remaking of traditions; and I think a lot of others are actually doing that from a variety of other fields which is a very healthy and very interesting thing, whether it is the race and colonialism studies, or feminist studies… there is a lot of interesting, challenging attempts to question how we think about the phenomenon of law within legal studies (thanks to the previous generations of critical and socio-legal scholars that, we should always remember, made this possible through great struggle within the generally conservative academy), in a non-monocular way, right? Something which in some corners of the academy is maturing constantly, I find, the need for attention once more to knowledge-making and transmitting; to me genuine legal study is actually now about starting to notice the coexistence of different people, cultures and laws and of how some have been silenced and some not, and there is a reason for that (and inherent legal orthodoxy if you like), and maybe we have means, you know the limited means we have as scholars in the academy, the depleted marketised academy as it stands today in the UK and only, to try and aid that exposure to a multiplicity, rather than a monocular nomos, i.e. a relationship between what we call law and our actual (and potential) living in relation to many ‘laws’ or ‘ways’.

[TW:] What you’ve just ended with, I think has made me look at this work in a different aspect, whereas previously I had been reading it—or dipping into it—to try and understand more about what is nomos, and dunamis (power, potential), this relation with dunamis, but with reference to what you had been saying earlier about how it seems to have often been sung—that laws were being sung—encourages us to think more broadly about the term law and what law can be considered as, and in that sense the whole work in a sense reminds me—in a lake of water, or a pond, sometimes if you stir the bottom of the pond, it releases nutrients which can stimulate life on the surface of the pond, and it seems to me that perhaps in a sense that is what you’re doing with this work, which is to go to the, you know if we look at the depths of the pond as going back in time, with the bottom of the pond being what we base our ideas of where our legal traditions have come from, by stirring that and encouraging us to rethink that, you are revealing the nutrients that can sustain new thinking new forms of work at the surface of the pond; that sounds a rather drunken statement!

[Zartaloudis]: No it doesn’t. To me it sounds very similar to what I am thinking actually, in the sense that, you know, which I’m not sure is going to be a painkiller for your head if you are feeling drunk of sorts, but it is at least something I can say, there is definitely something interesting about thinking what makes traditions ‘traditional’, what transmits and painfully in many ways makes them. And I think the transmission of a tradition, which etymologically is a tautology; traditions are transmitted, and they are also betrayals we learn from the Latin, as Agamben once said, at the same time they are traditions that become institutions; for me the pioetic (their making) transmission of traditions is the experience of tradition itself, like in the Homeric epics, where their oral at first transmission over centuries is quite interesting in itself; and if you read even just about what those so-called Homeric epics are and what we can and do know about them and their transmission, which is still an open field in some respects, you find an interesting image of thought in them as such. if I can round it up to one thing, whereby the transmission of a tradition is not necessarily that of the transmission of an ‘order’ or a ‘command’, as we often think, say in nationalist or imperial readings of a tradition; tradition is, in fact, painfully made in the first place, but it is also in itself never particularly ordered (and indeed the normativity that we hoped to find there, is not really ‘there’). We tend to fear that which preceded the transmission of ‘our’ tradition, but also whatever it is that deviates from a dominant reading of it. And so in this sense we have, each time it seems, a very monocular transmission of, or unimaginative transmission of tradition, as a very orderly, ordered, and a sort-of certainty, this is how we traditionally think or do things; which is revealing of the fragility of all traditions as much as of their strength as is known, our fears contain our strength and vice versa. Whereas I think as to the traditions with which I engage with in this book, everything is a lot less orderly, and yet not uncertain. There is some certainty in uncertainty, in the poetic transmission of these things that I find interesting in the book. And similarly perhaps with the idea of ‘law’ or ways of living according to a tradition, or the notion of nomos, and the very notion of the experience of linguistic being, ourselves and our institutions or traditions being in a sense artefacts, artifices, like the words nómos and nomós, yet real ones; but the point is one does not derive an order from them or a certainty, other than, each time, the drawing-up of a cartography, a tradition in this sense (one transmission at a time), of what we call in modernity a culture and its fragmented making. But without a static understanding of a culture, a tradition that remains unchallenged or that is supposedly airtight to paradoxes and contradictions, or that is as we should perhaps talk about it these days especially, ‘exclusive’. Which is not to paint a rosy picture of the Ancients—to the contrary—but it is to expose ourselves to a different way of looking at that which we supposedly consider fundamental to us. And I think to me the most interesting thing in writing this book has been precisely that.

[TW]: Thank you very much-

[Zartaloudis]: Thank you

[TW]: Is there anything you’d like to add?

[Zartaloudis]: No, I don’t think so. I enjoyed this, and I wanted to thank you very much for that was for me an opportunity to think about certain things to do with the book that I wouldn’t otherwise think about. You see even the introduction to the book does not really engage with the questions you pose in such a direct way so that is very helpful to me and perhaps to the readers of the book because of this opportunity you offered. Maybe the conclusion to the book can be conversations with the readers; I would very much like that!

[TW:] Oh; I have a question: what’s next?

[Zartaloudis]: I’m not 100% sure yet but a ‘follow-up’ to this book will probably happen, and currently I’m thinking of writing, without wanting to overclaim my luck before I actually start properly working on it, but I have been researching on the notion of physis, which is the Greek word for ‘nature’, or commonly translated as nature quite misleadingly, so a similar study to that of nomos, but with regards to this notion of ‘nature’ (or self-emergence) let’s say, of physis, in the archaic and classical period would be of interest and I am planning it. Partly because I have found it very interesting since a long time now to think of this notion of physis, but also partly because for those familiar with the nomos and physis debate in the classical period, or the so-called debate between the nature of law as a matter of nature, and as a matter of human artifice, or natural law and positive law if you like in modern terms, is central to the way moderns understood nomos. So anyone who has known anything about nomos in the legal field usually knows something about nomos from that particular (and in a sense limited while important) debate in the classical period, which we find in the dialogues in Plato (who is our main source to its protagonists the Sophists) and other sources (and of which we made a whole other segment of modern legal culture out of, quite astonishing at times to realise, the naturalists and the contractarians and the critical legal scholars!). But before maybe I turn into that towards the end of that new book, if I do write it, I would like to explore the notion of physis in a more detailed way, because again what I think we presuppose as physis and its uses, by the time of the classic period, is not represented in necessarily what supposedly precedes it. I think that’s my next project in relation to that but I am actually not sure what form it will take as yet, it may not be a full book. And then I’m writing something else which again will probably take me a long time but it’s to do with something that also emerges in this book very marginally, in some footnotes, the relation between ancient (legal) cultures and magic is also of great interest to me, so I’m hoping to work out something on that, in relation to ancient Greece first, and then in relation to ancient Rome as well.

[TW]: Fantastic.

[Zartaloudis]: Well, thank you very much for your time on this.

Dr Thanos Zartaloudis is Reader (in Legal History and Theory) at Kent Law School. He is also: Co-Director of Post-Graduate Research; Co-Director of Kent Centre for Interdisciplinary Spatial Studies; and Co-ordinator of Research Group for the study of Juridification and Political Theologies.

Tristan Webb is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Postgraduate Research student at Kent Law School