Written by David D. Troutt
We vowed to play music together one day, Keith Aoki and I, him on bass guitar, as I recall, and me on drums. It never happened, but it was one of the few conversations I had with Keith about things outside of law teaching and scholarship, and it suggested something exciting and unexpected about our private loves outside the academy. Otherwise, I didn’t know Keith as well as I would have liked except through his prodigious work. News of his illness explains the unrequited e-mails. His tragic passing this week is devastating, the profoundest loss to his wife and girls, a painful void for colleagues, and something for the rest of us to mourn from afar.
In even the blink of reflection, every death is made personal. Keith and I had a lot in common beyond music, including being a year apart at Harvard law School, spending time at Hunter College in New York City and waking daily to the glorious gaze of two daughters. Yet what connected us most was our scholarly interests in the strange trio of intellectual property, local government law and racial justice. The alliance of these areas is not so strange if you really think about it, but I have yet to find another taker. As law professors, some of whom practiced, we all think about praxis, even to reject it. In Keith’s writing, however, you could always sense how at a deep level of the analysis he was working the praxis among his disparate interests, or between academic theory and practical lawyering. It was a quiet weaving of priorities, obscured sometimes by the sheer complexity of the ideas he discussed. Those ideas intersected from a dizzying array of origins—technology, music, metaphor, critical theory, governance, fine art, comic books, space and, more recently, the very seeds of the food we eat. I was a fan of the work, typically reserving a moment to discuss his theoretical takes in my own articles. I didn’t always agree (or even understand) everything he wrote, but Keith’s was a singular guidepost, a necessary stop on the way to some conclusion in music copyright, regional equity or the racial roots of spatial identity. For me, Keith’s work was a pillar of smartness to be reckoned with, wondered about, often saluted, from the other side of the country. It was always good to know he was there.
Sometimes we do call and response in the work with scholars we never come to know at all. The dynamic may be explicit in the text or implied in a footnote. After all, law professors are not jazz musicians, who make a point of studying their peers. We often come into the profession shy and hyper-intellectual yet critical about most of the vast landscape of other players. Odd notions of hierarchy seem at times to prevent us from acknowledging a good idea in others. But I like to think Keith and I occasionally exchanged the long, slow echo of scholarly riffs in article tempo, even if we never played music together, enjoying a different style, both of us hoping to bring a difference. He did for me.
I especially like two other aspects about his life—that every effort I read was a full, true attempt to make honest contributions of his integrity, and that Keith had so much integrity to give.
Most of us are known only by are writing, yet most of our writing goes unread. Articles take years to write (at least for me) and days to read. Life, we know, is short. Still, as my friend the poet June Jordan used to say, quoting, I think, the writer James Baldwin, “Leave a shelf of work, if you can.” Keith Aoki, in too little time, left a shelf to know him by, and on that shelf are books and articles and essays, and in those words are the countless hours of a courageous mind on fire, now at rest forever. We never really know what we have or how long it will last. And so, with the greatest appreciation, we read him.