Professor Desmond Manderson

BA (Hons) LLB (Hons) (ANU), DCL (McGill), FRSC
professor, Director, Centre for Law Arts and Humanities
ANU College of Law
T: 61255792

Areas of expertise

  • Law 1801
  • Legal Theory, Jurisprudence And Legal Interpretation 180122
  • Law And Society 180119
  • Poststructuralism 220317
  • Literary Studies 2005
  • Historical Studies Not Elsewhere Classified 210399
  • Cultural Studies 2002
  • Art Theory And Criticism 1901

Research interests

I undertake research across interdisciplinary studies in law and the humanities.  I have been instrumental in developing a more sophisticated and ambitious conversation about law and culture, with a particular focus on questions of authority and legitimacy; justice, law and ethics; rules, interpretations, and judgment. And I have been in the forefront of expanding the field’s objects of study to encompass music, art, and popular culture. These interdisciplinary connections offer new imagination and insights into our thinking about law and justice.

Through this framework I have researched in a very wide variety of areas, including drug policy, music history, children’s literature, popular culture, animals, the ‘war on terror,’ tort law, refugees, and Indigenous peoples; and my theoretical work including articles on Derrida, Bourdieu, Butler, Foucault, Levinas, and Bakhtin has contributed to legal and social theory, legal education, aesthetics, ethical philosophy and legal history.  My research uses detailed interdisciplinary case studies that often bring together surprising elements—a story, a legal problem, and a theoretical perspective, for example—in order to show how each facet illuminates the others. This scholarship has been pioneering both in its influence and in its restlessness. Yet beneath its diversity my work has consistently built new bridges and opened new dialogues in three dimensions: across disciplines; between critical theory and law; and with the wider community.

My current research interests include Bakhtin and Bourdieu, legal history and modernism in the early twentieth century (particularly through the work of DH Lawrence and Carl Schmitt), the rule of law, and the relationship between art and concepts of law and justice.  My principal research project is The Sight of Justice: Art and the Rule of Law (see below). 


Professor Desmond Manderson is an international leader in interdisciplinary scholarship in law and the humanities. He is the author of several books including From Mr Sin to Mr Big (1993); Songs Without Music: Aesthetic dimensions of law and justice (2000); Proximity, Levinas, and the Soul of Law (2006); and Kangaroo Courts and the Rule of Law—The legacy of modernism (2012). His work has led to essays, books, and lectures around the world in the fields of English literature, philosophy, ethics, history, cultural studies, music, human geography, and anthropology, as well as in law and legal theory. Throughout this work Manderson has articulated a vision in which law's connection to these humanist disciplines is critical to its functioning, its justice, and its social relevance. After ten years at McGill University in Montreal, where he held the Canada Research Chair in Law and Discourse, and was founding Director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, he returned to Australia to take up a Future Fellowship in the colleges of law and the humanities at ANU. 

Researcher's projects

Kangaroo Courts and the Rule of Law--The legacy of modernism explores the continuing legacy of modernism for the rule of law, the nature of legal judgment, and the relationship of law and literature. The research takes as its starting point the modernist movement and the intellectual crisis at the end of the first world war, addressing in particular modernist art and literature and connecting the work of D.H. Lawrence to contemporaries including Carl Schmitt and Mikhail Bakhtin.  Manderson argues that in Lawrence we can trace the emergence of a modernist theory of law and justice which rejects both the positivist and romantic ideologies it confronted—and that we still face—and offers ‘a way forward, not a way round or a way back’. The research draws on sources in history, art, literature, law, and philosophy, showing their relationship and relevance to legal ideas and steadily weaving new ways of understanding legal judgment, of connecting literature and the humanities to the law, and of imagining the rule of law itself. 

The Sight of Justice: Images and the Rule of Law will study the history, emergence, and modern debates around the rule of law through images. The rule of law is a critical set of ideas at the heart of global issues of legality and justice. Art and images have always been fundamental elements in the depiction, mediation, and transformation of public life. Bringing together these two research areas that have much to learn from each other, and yet have remained strikingly apart, the study aims to throw new light on the emergence and evolution of the rule of law, and on key issues and tensions within it. The project defends the role of the humanities in the study of law. It sets out a vision of the rule of law as part of the cultural and ethical discourse of society, invites a cross-cultural dialogue on law in new terms, and creates imaginative new avenues for social engagement with legal issues.


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  18 May 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers