2013 Stevens Award for Best New Essay

Martin Stevens Award
Award Year: 

Work: Curran, Kevin. “Treasonous Silence: The Tragedy of Philotas and Legal Epistemology.” English Literary Renaissance 42, no. 1 (2012): 58–89.

Curran’s essay, “Treasonous Silence: The Tragedy of Philotas and Legal Epistemology,” is a game changer, turning everything we’ve learned about performative speech acts and “how to do things with words” upside down. Words, even those used in a recognizable dramatic context, as in the Tragedy of Philotas by Samuel Daniel, an under-appreciated English Renaissance dramatist, are overshadowed by the consequences of not doing things with words, but rather with silences that speak just as provocatively as a public speech or a written text. Situated within the historical context recounted by Curran, silence had the capacity to convey meaning threatening enough to lead to charges of treason, a “capital” crime in what might be described as an age of paranoia. There is no “right to remain silent,” in this world, in other words, and the gap we assume to separate reality from its representation is narrow if not nonexistent. Rather “thought crime,” or what Curran calls the “treasonous imagination” grows to be as incriminating as any deed. Curran’s careful and well-researched recounting of a legal epistemology beginning with the statute of 1352 and his equally careful scrutiny of the historical contexts within which thought could be policed and prosecuted makes for an intriguing read, akin to well-wrought detective fiction in its ability to unfold the mystery incrementally. Ultimately the author exposes the problematic nature of laws focused more on an alleged perpetrator’s silence and less on concrete evidence and fair-minded judicial procedures. As he points out, such laws introduce ambiguity where there should be certainty, chaos where there should be order. Treasonous silence is, in Curran’s words, “a unique kind of guilt, one that signifies almost categorically as innocence and which consequently confounds conventional juridical categories and the knowledge-making practices which serve them.” The jury proclaims the defendant guilty of making an eloquent case for an intriguing topic.