A life in critique

This was my opening presentation for the seminar in honour of Ari Hirvonen’s life and work, organised by the Finnish Association for the Philosophy of Law (SOFY), 25-26 August 2022.


For many, the experience today must be bittersweet. As for me, as much as I miss my dear friend and colleague, I don’t want to take up your time to mourn. I think that we can safely now move on to honour Ari by celebrating his life and his work. Even Ari himself was more of a celebrator than a mourner. I’ll concentrate on Ari’s earlier years in a slightly more biographical manner because I know that other colleagues will take a different approach.

Ari, circa 2017.

I don’t think we know who took this portrait of Ari. It’s from a webpage dated June 2017. But this is how I want to remember him: a handsome social critic and public intellectual who did not fear to speak his mind regardless of whether we were talking about the plight of paperless refugees or about enjoying a cold beer in a public park as a human right.

The latter may raise a few eyebrows. In the late 1990s, the police in Helsinki interpreted a municipal bylaw regulating disorderly conduct in public places in a way that defined all public consumption of alcohol as disorderly. This included the leisurely enjoyment of ‘keskiolut’ or low-alcohol beer that you could buy in all general stores. The police confiscated any beer in sight and poured it away. In an opinion piece written for the daily Helsingin Sanomat in 1999 [€], Ari argued that this presumption that all public consumption of alcohol must necessarily be disorderly behaviour was unconstitutional. First, if you can buy the beverage from any general store, it can hardly be considered a controlled alcoholic substance. Second and more importantly, because the bylaw limited the scope of constitutionally protected freedoms, it had to be implemented strictly. So instead of the presumptive approach, only alcohol consumption that was de facto disorderly could fall within the bylaw’s scope of implementation. Ari’s argument eventually won, and the new more lenient interpretation allowing for the ‘orderly’ enjoyment of beer in public parks came to be known, at least among his friends, as Lex Hirvonen.

Ari didn’t of course always look like this.

As students, Ari and I spent a lot of time in Lepakko or the ‘Batcave’, a squatted former shelter for homeless alcoholics that volunteers renovated into a cultural house. One key activity was to provide rehearsal rooms in the cellar for the numerous bands that existed at the time.

Ari’s ‘musical career’ began as a member of The Pin Ups, a post-punk band. Ari’s moniker in the band was Sally Flesh — apparently everyone had a moniker then. Contrary to what the photograph below may suggest, Ari did not know how to play any instrument. But he knew how to make noise. His band mates who later went on to become professional musicians recalled that after they had been recording in a studio, they heard on the tapes an unidentifiable noise in the background that did not belong to the intended mix. It was Ari fooling around with a guitar. Most of the remaining expensive studio time was used trying to get rid of that noise. Ari’s band mates went on to become a proper rock band called The Nights of Iguana. They dedicated a song to their friend Sally Flesh that begins with the words: ‘The one and only Mr Flesh is faster than a jet plane …’ Indeed!

Manta (Maria Hänninen) and Sally Flesh (Ari) in squatted cultural house Lepakko, 1982. Photo: PM.

The picture above is from one of Lepakko’s rehearsal rooms. It represents the second phase of Ari’s musical career as frontman and vocalist of Sally Flesh and the Stompin’ Chickens of which I was a member too. Ari didn’t really sing but recited poetry that he had written against the screeching wall of sound that the rest of us created. The band never made a recording or played a gig. We advertised for a drummer, and that’s how we met Maria, the woman on the left. She, too, would later become a successful professional recording artist. Ari thought that she was already then much too good a musician for his arty punk band, so he sacked her. In all truth, I think Maria was quite ready to go anyway.

Ari was already then well versed in continental philosophy. And like with everything he did, he lived the part to the fullest. In the photograph below from London in early 1984, Ari has taken the ‘existentialist pose’ made famous by the French philosophy periodical Magazine Litteraire.

Ari in London, 1983. Photo: PM.

As many of you know, Ari and I were not originally legal theorists but, rather, theoretically oriented critical or cultural criminologists. We found a welcoming home in criminal law where we both wrote our Masters’ theses. Ari’s theme was abolitionism, that is, the movement striving for the total abolition of all sanctions involving the deprivation of liberty. Imprisonment was deemed both ethically wrong and ineffective.

Ari’s first intellectual hero was Norwegian legal sociologist Thomas Mathiesen whose books The Defences of the Weak (1965) and especially The Politics of Abolition (1974) were hugely influential for the young scholar. Mathiesen’s strategic insights in the latter book gave Ari’s work a touch of ‘action research’ which, I would insist, always remained there.

As exclusively ‘revolutionary’ we would be ‘defined out’ as irrelevant; as exclusively ‘reformist’ we would be ‘defined in’ as undangerous. Regardless of which choice was made, it would constitute a neutralization.
Thomas Mathiesen, The Politics of Abolition (1974)

I remember that this quote from Mathiesen about the dangers of being made insignificant through either ‘defining out’ or ‘defining in’ was especially important for Ari. It was the motto of his ‘life in critique’: never allow yourself to be defined.

As ‘crits’, we all know what that exclusion as ‘defining out’ is about. Regardless of our expertise, we are never consulted. There’s a lesson to be learned here: if you’re a crit, don’t expect favours from the people that you’re criticising.

If, on the other hand, someone pays you a compliment, you might want to be alert. As a crit, Ari was especially sensitive to the dangers of being ‘defined in’ and domesticated. As an example, Ari worked for a number of years on a project led by sociologist Martti Grönfors on mediation as an alternative sanction in criminal cases. Liberal criminologists were all gushing about how alternatives would redeem us all from penal repression. But Ari quickly flipped to support the so-called ‘net-widening’ theory, that alternatives like mediation don’t in fact reduce the use of repressive sanctions at all, but they are simply added on to the arsenal of the criminal justice system and used in cases where the evidence is too weak to lead to prosecution. Ari made a lot of enemies in the liberal camp with this turn.

My argument here is that this type of sensitivity to the surrounding world trying to continuously neutralise the political effects of one’s research followed Ari throughout his career.

One aspect of Ari that doesn’t always come through in the stories about him is his wit. Sure, he was a force of nature too. But he had a very intelligent sense of humour which made working with him such a privilege.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ari and I were active in two critical organisations whose conferences we attended as often as finances would allow: the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control (EG), and the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA).

For the 6th ICOPA conference in Costa Rica in 1993, Ari and I both received funding from the Chancellor’s Travel Fund which, at the time, was the only way in which younger academics could secure long-haul conference trips. We collected our two papers together into a booklet that we distributed to the delegates. I don’t know whether anyone actually wanted the booklet. The cover image was John Tenniel’s ‘The Mad Hatter in Chains’ from Lewis Carolls’ Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There. We used the image as the logo of NEKROFIL, the collective for negative criminal philosophy that Ari and I founded earlier.

In the conference photograph below, the woman on the left is a colleague from the University of the West Indies. As part of the conference’s social programme, we are on a cruise boat headed for some Pacific islands which played an important part in developing Costa Rica’s eco-tourism industry.

ICOPA VI in Costa Rica, 1993. Photo: PM.

The photograph is, of course, staged. We are reading from some random paper on the deck of the boat with colourful cocktails in our hands, and we asked someone to take the photograph. After returning home, Ari and I both sent this photograph to the Chancellor as our ‘report’ of money well spent. The picture was accompanied with the text: ‘Discussing complex matters relating to criminal law with colleagues at ICOPA VI.’

The only thing to really surprise me about Ari was his fondness for all things classical despite the fact that he was actually a very modern individual. As we migrated away from critical and cultural criminology towards legal theory, our first proper project together was called ‘Polycentric Law’. Together with senior colleagues Lars D. Eriksson and Juha Karhu (né Pöyhönen), we wanted to consider what implications continental philosophy would have for the study of law. Ari chose the image below of the sleeping fury — or the Ludovisi Medusa, as it’s also known — as the logo for the project. Like Tenniel’s Mad Hatter earlier, this image was then reprinted on brochures, book covers, and so forth.

The Ludovisi Medusa. Photo: composite.

The supposedly ‘postmodern’ undertow of the project involving deconstruction, psychoanalysis and what have you caused a ‘moral panic’ in Finland and the Nordic countries. But it helped us forge a lot of collaborative networks in the English-speaking world that created the illusion of a ‘Helsinki School’ of critical legal studies, collegial networks that remained important for Ari until the end. ‘Polycentric Law’ as well as Ari’s participation in the sessions of the Cercle Lacan Helsinki provided the intellectual armature around which he then carefully crafted his masterful doctoral thesis. The thesis earned Ari the anecdotal epithet ‘a genius of a man, but clearly in the wrong faculty’ of which Ari was very proud.

The rest is, as they say, history.

Photo: PM.

A Dieu, mon frère.

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