16th Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Phillips

Adam Phillips, University of Brighton.

“Assembly” and the First Amendment


The concept of assembly has garnered much interest in both political and legal theory in recent years. Texts such as Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Assembly, claim the popular uprisings of the last decade such as the Arab Spring, the protests of the indignados, Occupy, Gezi Park, the Movement for Black Lives–as the direct inspiration for their work. The purpose of this paper is to elaborate some of the characteristics of assembly through a discussion of one of the landmark texts in the modern political and legal history of the concept. The first amendment of the United States Constitution inscribed assembly as one of the fundamental freedoms of liberal democracy. The text of the first amendment was drawn from various sources by a range of authors and had a complex history that in and of itself would disqualify any attempt to extract a true or original meaning from the text, but the various interpretations and discussions inspired by the term, especially in US jurisprudence, offer a wealth of material from which to build an idea of what assembly is, or at least what it does. This paper draws principally on the legal scholarship of John Inazu and Robert Cover and on the political theory of Sheldon Wolin to suggest that assemblies are expressive, through their words and through their practices, that they are creative of the narratives that give meaning to normative behaviour, and finally, that they provide spaces from which to disrupt consensus norms.