ON SEEING LIKE A LAWYER: VISUAL LITERACY VS. BLACK LETTER LAW*
From Wittgenstein to Foucault to iPhones, the studied confluence of the verbal and visual deeply inflect representational ethics. For lawyers, the printed word is foundational. Yet more and more we live in a visual culture. The notion of “black letter law” as a set of established rules or principles is thought to go back to a time when legal precepts were inscribed in Blackletter (otherwise known as Gothic) font. Metaphors such as the “letter of the law” imagine writerly precepts as the ultimate measure of law’s implementation. And “reading law” is the process by which practitioners were—and sometimes still are—apprenticed, dating back to times well before there were law schools.
This emphasis on “the book” in legal culture shapes our notions of what is recognized as legitimate—which claims are sufficiently formed (or formal enough) to be heard by law, and what sort of evidence is deemed admissible in law. But just as the moveable printing press stretched the moral, religious, and governmental ligaments of how civilizations were constituted, so we face a radically new technological revolution, grounded in a massive shift from print to pictograph.
This seminar will focus on how visual media contribute to the construction of legal knowledge as well as our sense of fairness and justice. From amateur videos in police-citizen encounters to CCTV, from selfies to surveillance drones, from biometrics to Google-earth, we live in much-too-interesting times. With traditional media such as broadsheets in decline and evolving information technology providing creative opportunities for new forms of expression, old debates about censorship, identity, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are informed as never before by questions of privacy and truth, as well as exacerbated by fears of tabloidization and terror.
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University. She is the author of numerous books and articles, and her award-winning column, "Diary of a Mad Law Professor," has appeared monthly in The Nation magazine for two decades. A MacArthur fellow, she is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates and has been recognized by all the institutions from which she matriculated: an Outstanding Alumna Award from Latin School in Boston, an Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College, and a Graduate Society Medal from Harvard.
*By request of Patricia J. Williams, we will not be circulating her text for this seminar.