15-17 May 2014: Legal Bodies: Corpus / Persona / Communitas

LUCAS (the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society) will host a three-day conference on the various ways in which literary and artistic texts have represented, interrogated or challenged juridical notions of ‘personhood’. The conference will take place from 15 until 17 May 2014.


The conference brings together established and young scholars to discuss how literature, the arts and law have reflected on issues of personhood. The received enlightenment notion of ‘personhood’ – a central term in both the domains of the law and in the humanities – has recently been challenged by developments in the medical sciences, in biotechnology, and in the context of global-political developments. The implications of these shifts have been at the heart of a growing body of work by scholars in the humanities, the social sciences, philosophy and the law. This conference seeks to contribute to these debates by discussing how literature, art and culture might form domains in which the limitations of legal, political or medical conceptualizations of personhood can be thought through, and in which alternative understandings of personhood are offered.

Personhood on different levels

The guiding assumption behind our conference is that ‘personhood’ is not a (biologically) given, stable property of human beings (which precedes their interaction with the law), but that ‘personhood’ is assigned to selected (and historically varying) ‘bodies’ by discursive regimes, such as those of law, medicine, politics, religion, and education. During the conference we will study how literature, art and culture form domains in which the implications and scope of legal, political or medical conceptualizations of personhood can be dramatized and thought through, and in which alternative understandings of personhood can be proposed and disseminated.

The symposium broaches the question of personhood on three different levels: those of the body, the individual and the community. Questions to be addressed include (but are not limited to), firstly:

  • From which discourses did notions of bodily integrity historically emerge? Which social, political and medical developments are currently challenging these notions? How do artistic, cultural and socio-political phenomena (such as bio-art, body horror, the right-to-die movement, etc.) invite us to rethink our notion of the human body?

  • Second, what literary and rhetorical figures made it possible to think of legal personhood in antiquity, the middle ages and the modern era? What is the legal status of ‘not-quite persons,’ such as children, illegal immigrants, the mentally disabled, the unborn and the undead? What could ‘animal personhood’ entail?

  • Finally: how do collective bodies acquire personhood? How did art and literature represent legal entities such as the medieval city, the seventeenth century trade company or the nineteenth century corporation? Or what is the legally defined status of sects, networks, conspiracies, and resistance movements?

Programme Thursday 15 May

Venue: Scheltema Complex, Marksteeg 1, Leiden

  • 10:00 – 10:15: Opening

  • 10.45 Introduction Day One by Yasco Horsman, LUCAS, Leiden University)

  • 11:00-12:30: Panels 1 (three parallel)

  • 12:30-13:15 Lunch

  • 13:15- 14:30 Keynote 1: Jeanne Gaakeer (Faculty of Law, Erasmus University), “Sua Cuique Persona? Some Reflections on the Fiction of Legal Personhood.”

  • 14:30 – 16:00: Panels 2 (three parallel)

  • 16:00 – 16:15: Tea

  • 16:15 – 17:30 Keynote 2: Daniel Heller-Roazen (Comparative Literature, Princeton University), “Of Missing Persons.”

Programme Friday 16 May

Venue: Lipsius, Cleveringaplaats 1, Leiden

  • 9:00-10:30: Panels 3 (four parallel)

  • 10:30 – 11:00 Coffee

  • 11: 00 – 12:30: Panels 4 (four parallel)

  • 12:30 – 13:15 Lunch

  • 13:15 – 14:00: Introduction Day 2 by Nanne Timmer (LUCAS, Leiden University)

  • 14:00 – 15: 15: Greta Olson (English, Giessen University), “Like a Dog’: Rituals of Animal Degradation in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Abu Ghraib Prison."

  • 15:15 – 15:45 Tea

  • 15:45 – 17:15 Malick W. Ghachem (History, MIT), “The Forever Company: How to Narrate the Story of an Eighteenth-Century Legal Person (The Case of the Compagnie des Indes)"

Programme Saturday 17 May

Venue: Regentenkamer, Oude Vest 159a, Leiden

  • 10:00 – 10:45: Introduction Day Three by Frans-Willem Korsten (LUCAS, Leiden University)

  • 10.45 – 12.00: Claire Colebrook (English, PennState University), “Exceptional Disasters”

  • 12:00 – 12.30 Coffee

  • 12.30 – 13.30 Closing remarks

  • Festivities

Organisation, registration and contact

The conference is organised in cooperation with NICA (the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis) and is made possible by LUCAS, the Leiden University Fund and NICA. 


The conference is free and open to the public. If you want to attend, please send an e-mail to LUCAS@hum.leidenuniv.nl to register.


Last Modified: 04-04-2014