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Originalism, Colonialism, Supreme Court, Language analysis, Cultural translation


Originalism’s critics have failed to block its rise. For many jurists and legal scholars, the question is no longer whether to espouse originalism but how to espouse it. This Article argues that critics have ceded too much ground by focusing on discrediting originalism as either bad history or shoddy linguistics. To disrupt the cycle of endless “methodological” refinements and effectively address originalism’s continued popularity, critics must do two things: identify a better disciplinary analogue for originalist interpretation and advance an argument that moves beyond methods.

Anthropology can assist with both tasks. Both anthropological analysis and originalist interpretation are premised on the goal of cultural translation—that is, on rendering holistic worldviews from another time-place intelligible to the translator’s own context. Likewise, both anthropology and originalism often rely on a particular interpretive device—the Reasonable Man (or Reader)—to achieve their translational goals. This Article is the first to recognize the true goal of originalism as applied cultural translation.

But analogizing to anthropology also reveals that originalism’s greatest weakness is political and ethical rather than methodological. Pressing cultural translation into the service of state power is an inextricably colonialist endeavor: it does violence to those against whom translational insights are applied by taming and supplanting their worldviews based on racialized and gendered disparities of power. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonizing powers often literally used anthropological research to buttress their authority over colonized peoples. Today, originalist jurisprudence intentionally reinforces the political oppression of historically marginalized groups within the United States by magnifying the views of their historical oppressors. But whereas anthropology can exist independent of its use by political powers, originalism is inseparable from statecraft. By drawing on lessons learned in anthropology, this Article demonstrates that originalist analysis—however methodologically sound—is problematic because it uses the past as a colonialist resource.

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Duke Law Journal