Visual law: An exegesis of vernacular jurisprudence in popular media

Bainbridge, Jason G. (2005). Visual law: An exegesis of vernacular jurisprudence in popular media PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Bainbridge, Jason G.
Thesis Title Visual law: An exegesis of vernacular jurisprudence in popular media
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2005
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Alan McKee
Frances Bonner
Total pages 377
Collection year 2005
Language eng
Subjects L
410302 Cinema Studies
390100 Law
751004 The media
Formatted abstract

This thesis takes Thomas McLaughlin's idea of vernacular theory as a basis for considering how popular media representations of law (film, television, novels and comic books) can be constructed as an alternative philosophy of law, what I term - a vernacular jurisprudence. Vernacular jurisprudence can be thought of as a cohesive body of thinking about law, produced by vernacular theorists - the writers, producers and directors of popular media representations of law. Like traditional jurisprudence, vernacular jurisprudence interrogates the so-called objectives of law like "truth", "justice" and "happiness" - but uses them in two fundamentally different ways. First, as a way of exploring limitations in the present legal system (by locating them, with the exception of truth, outside the discourse of law) and secondly, as suggestions for what a future system of law could be. 

Through the McKee/Hartley form of textual analysis (a poststructuralist close reading of the text) a broad range of texts are analysed and a number of the popular media's ideas about how law functions are outlined. First, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that law is contestable and capable of modem, premodern and postmodern articulations - all of which are still currently circulating in the mediasphere. Second, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that truth is constructed by lawyers through both their rhetorical and physical performance in the courtroom. This is especially true of the American system, where the lawyer is given more latitude to perform. Third, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that the English and Australian systems of law (requiring more formality than the American system) are constructed as rituals of degradation rather than performances, with formality recast as repression in an attempt to make the law appear objective and secular when in actual fact it is profoundly contextual, affected by things that go on outside the courtroom, from the personal issues of participants to the business dealings between them. 

Fourth, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that justice is often located outside the courtroom - in the police interrogation room, by the lawyer bending the rules or otherwise acting outside their role as lawyer and, in extreme cases, in the form of the superhero (as exemplar of justice) - demonstrating the continuing prevalence and relevance of premodern ideas of law in the modern world. 

Fifth, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that the law cannot provide happiness - but rather, monetary compensation. Instead, happiness is most often located outside the legal system - by becoming postmaterial, either in the sense of returning to a "natural" state, through social/familial interaction or by finding a private space of one's own, whether that is a living space, a working space or a fantasy "inner world" space. 

Sixth, vernacular jurisprudence suggests that litigation is the commercial arm of law, based around capitalism and research and development. Litigation involves lawyers finding new ways to make money. In a positive sense, it pushes the legal system ever-forward, trying to find an answer for every wrong, a ground for every action. But negatively, litigation becomes the only way of communicating, the only recourse in society, as it cuts across every aspect of public and private life with litigation perpetuating more litigation. 

It is concluded that vernacular jurisprudence is not only as interesting as more traditional philosophies of law, but actually more advanced in its thinking because it considers subjects usually outside the focus of jurisprudence, because it intersects with, and rehabilitates, postmodern jurisprudence thereby overcoming many of its perceived deficiencies and because it reconceives popular media sites as Petrie dishes wherein alternative theories of law - and alternative theories more broadly - can be tested. 

Keyword Law in mass media
Legal television programs
Lawyers in popular culture
Culture and law

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar
Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:41:04 EST