Balkin received his A.B. and J.D. degrees from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University. From 1982 to 1984 he was a litigation associate at the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
Balkin's 1998 book, Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, argued that ideology could be explained in terms of memes and processes of cultural evolution. He argued that ideology is an effect of the "cultural software" or tools of understanding that become part of human beings and which are produced through the evolution and transmission of memes.
Balkin coined the term ideological drift to describe a phenomenon by which ideas and concepts change their political valence as they are introduced into new social and political contexts over time. Along with Duncan Kennedy, Balkin developed the field of legal semiotics. Legal semiotics shows how legal arguments feature recurrent tropes or topoi that respond to each other and whose opposition is reproduced at higher and lower levels of doctrinal detail as legal doctrines evolve. Hence Balkin claimed that legal argument has a self-similar "crystalline" or fractal structure. Balkin employed deconstruction and related literary theories to argue that legal thought was structured in terms of "nested oppositions"-- opposed ideas or concepts which turn into each other over time or otherwise depend on each other in novel and unexpected ways. Although he draws on literary theory in his work on legal rhetoric, Balkin and his frequent co-author Sanford Levinson contend law is best analogized not to literature but to the performing arts such as music and drama.
Balkin and Levinson argue that constitutional revolutions in judicial doctrine occur through a process called partisan entrenchment. The party that controls the White House can stock the federal courts with new judges and Justices who have views on key constitutional issues roughly similar to those of the President. This shifts the median Justice on the Supreme Court and changes the complexion of the lower federal courts, which, in turn, eventually affects constitutional doctrine. If enough new judges are appointed in a relatively short period of time, changes will occur more quickly, producing a constitutional revolution. For example, a constitutional revolution occurred following the New Deal because Franklin Roosevelt was able to appoint eight new Supreme Court Justices between 1937 and 1941. Balkin and Levinson's theory contrasts with Bruce Ackerman's theory of constitutional moments, which argues that constitutional revolutions occur because of self-conscious acts of democratic mobilization that establish new standards of political legitimacy. Balkin and Levinson view partisan entrenchment as roughly but imperfectly democratic; it guarantees neither legitimate nor correct constitutional interpretation.
Balkin's work on the first amendment argues that the purpose of the free speech principle is to promote what he calls a democratic culture. The idea of democratic culture is broader than a concern with democratic deliberation or democratic self-government, and emphasizes individual freedom, cultural participation and mutual influence. A democratic culture is one in which ordinary individuals can participate in the forms of culture that in turn help shape and constitute them as persons. Balkin argues that free speech on the Internet is characterized by two features: "routing around" media gatekeepers and "glomming on," i.e., non-exclusive appropriation of cultural content that is melded with other sources to create new forms of culture. These distinctive features of Internet speech, he argues, are actually features of speech in general and thus lead to a focus on democratic participation in culture.
Balkin has edited several books, including:
How to be a silly critic Hyping a pop-culture icon like Madonna makes her media touts look as ridiculous as she does
Aug 04, 1991; ON VACATION. Tomorrow, class, we discuss the anarchic vision of the postmodern void as a rebuttal to spiritual humanism. Your...