Vol. 11.2, September 2007


Anne Wagner and William Pencak (eds.), Images in Law (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 328 pp., ISBN-10: 0-7546-4720-x, GBP 65.00 (hardback).


Semioticians on the Visual Aspects of Law

Semiotics is the science of signs and of communication through signs. Researchers interested in the language of the law sometimes turn to general semiotics for theoretical inspiration. Legal texts such as statutes or court decisions are then studied as ways of using signs affecting senders and receivers, authors and readers, protagonists and audiences. But the scope of semiotics is much wider than that of textual analysis. It also encompasses images. What can we learn about the law by paying attention to the way it looks, to the way it visualises its rituals, its institutional performances (such as the stylised manner of proceedings in a court of law)? What role do the images that are so important in our visual culture and the attending technologies producing visual or virtual reality play in the workings of the legal system? These are questions that usually escape the attention of legal scholars. This volume of essays, produced by an international group of scholars working on the semiotics of law, breaks new ground in extending what little there is of research into the imagistic side of the law. The editors trace the history of this endeavour to earlier round-table meetings on the semiotics of law for possible research directions. They distinguish various attitudes. There have been detached empirical studies (for instance, about the effect of court room dress on a lay audience or on jurors). There have also been more normative accounts, however, focusing either on the repressive nature of the law as a sign system in action preserving the social status quo or pointing out the potential for change and development that inheres in images of justice present in even severely constricting practices of law.

If these various attitudes pull the research efforts in different directions, this is unavoidable at the stage the semiotic research into law and images is in; there is clearly not yet a unifying theory available which is accepted by all researchers drawn towards semiotics. Most researchers in this volume refer to the semiotics of C.S. Peirce, however. Peircean semiotics, with its elaborate and precise categorization of different types of signs and processes of signification, lends itself both to empirical work and to theoretical elaborations. The result, as manifested in this volume, is highly diverse, more a set of different papers standing apart than a thematically coherent volume with a common purpose. Judging the quality of all these varied contributions to our knowledge of the image in law is a somewhat subjective affair, since nobody masters all of the disciplines the researchers combine with more straightforward Peircean semiotics. Who can earnestly say that she is a specialist in sociolinguistics, an expert on the history of Biblical hermeneutics as well as fully abreast of the most recent developments in digital communication technology? (Actually, I do know one such person, referred to in the book, but not contributing to it: Bernard Jackson…) Anyone with less exceptional interdisciplinary competencies, and I include myself, has but the option of following their own judgment. But even with this disclaimer, I still think a number of papers stand out. These papers by themselves make this book a valuable volume that I can recommend to all researchers interested in legal communication.

Deborah Cao wrote a fascinating paper entitled Key Words in Chinese Law. She examines the cultural history of the Chinese characters or words associated with law: fa (law), xing (punishment, criminal law), lü (statutes), and qüanli (rights). These key words are both verbal symbols and pictorial representations. The image at the root of the original character, created over 2,000 years ago, is still visible in the modern characters. Cao shows that the modern word ‘xing’, meaning criminal punishment, criminal law, as well as torture and corporal punishment, to all users carries the trace of its original imagery, containing images of a knife (standing for decapitation) and balanced scale pans (standing for justice). The way the word is pronounced links it to another ‘xing’ word, meaning form, and so suggesting that punishment is a means of re-forming men and that penal law is a kind of mould forcibly imposed from above. Cao follows this up with a quotation from Confucius’ Analects. In modern Chinese law, these historical annotations are not prominent, but what has remained is the immediate, automatic association of criminal law with severe corporal punishment, including the death sentence. This association is confirmed on the level of the images of the law used in communicating about it. The association between criminal law and corporal punishment colours all references to law more generally, Cao also concludes. There is a cultural legacy in spoken and written Chinese that inexorably links manifestations of law to sanctions and punishments. This makes it difficult to receive a modern and Western conception of law as an ensemble of rights. Having analysed the other concepts as well – and a fascinating analysis it is – Cao concludes her paper with a meditation on the problems besetting all attempts at translation in the law across cultures, warning us that we can make new law and devise new concepts of law to facilitate modern life, but that we must not forget the cultural history which is likely to create misunderstandings. It is interesting to read Cao’s paper in conjunction with the paper by Nicola Langton, set in a different domain of the book, where she discusses the conceptual and analytical difficulties that students in Hong Kong face in understanding their legal system which is orientated towards both the common law and the civil law. The translation problems this juxtaposition of two Western systems of law creates are already great, so that we can expect the difficulty in combining Western and Chinese notions to be even greater.

There is also a series of three papers coming from the sociolinguistic tradition of research (Gaines, Robershaw, and Shon). While the themes differ (making sense of jury instructions, analysing a record of jury deliberations, and understanding police directives in questioning respectively), these papers taken together are a rich source of information about practices of law enforcement and judging. In concert with an interesting paper on the court room etiquette for English law officials (Isani), these papers provide a useful anthology of the research done in this area. The volume contains many more subjects, which I must do the injustice of merely mentioning here, ranging from the imagery of foreign relations (Lippens and Werner), the analysis of visual materials relating to law (Mooney and Spiesel), speculations on the future effects of introducing multimedia software and digital visual materials in the court room (Feigenson) to conceptual studies of interpretations of family life in the Irish constitution (Cacciaguidi-Fahy) and racial discrimination in French legal practice (Wagner). Yes, this is a varied set of papers. I found them all interesting in their own way. The only paper that mildly disappointed me, perhaps because its title raises high expectations, was the final paper by Yelle, Law’s Trouble with Images: Fetishism and Seduction from Athens and Jerusalem to Madison Avenue. It turns out that this grandly titled paper only presents the general reader with some of the earlier and fundamental clashes over the meaning of images (such as the prohibition to worship images in the Bible which is then rather superficially compared to the abundance of images in our visual culture, especially in advertising). Yelle conjures up the many well-known historical prohibitions on the use of images and of other rhetorical devices, and then leaves it to the reader to ponder the question what to make of these historical materials. ‘If commercial advertising is a modern analogue of the ancient crimes of idolatry and sophistry…’ is a typical beginning of a sentence that does not address the claim that there is indeed such an analogy. The volume as a whole is open-ended. But that leaves room for further research.

Willem Witteveen
Professor of Jurisprudence and Legal History
Tilburg University, The Netherlands
August 2007



Cite as: Willem Witteveen, Review of Anne Wagner and William Pencak (eds.),Images in Law, vol 11.2 ELECTRONIC JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE LAW, (September 2007), <http://www.ejcl.org/112/review112-1.html>.

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