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Legal Theory and the Media of Law

Thomas Vesting

As many disciplines in the humanities have experienced a focus on culture’s impact in recent decades, questions surrounding the significance of media such as writing, print and computer networks have become increasingly relevant. This book seeks to demonstrate that a media and cultural theory perspective can also be highly productive for legal theory.
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Chapter 2: Language, media, subjectivity

Thomas Vesting


Language is only conceivable as an autonomous linguistic event between human beings, as the effect of a collective (diffuse) activity beyond the scope of the intentions of individual speakers,1 a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Language, in other words, is per se a cultural, social, and public affair that cannot be reduced to its roots in the subject and his or her individual linguistic skill, as was first recognized over two centuries ago by Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. While Hamann’s Metacritique (1784) traces Kant’s pure reason back to language as its ultimate “organ” and “criterion,” and Herder’s sensualism likewise concentrates on the relation between language and thought,2 in Humboldt’s comparative philosophy of language it is precisely diverse individual human languages that socialize individuals and bind them into nations, which at the same time implies that language can be “realized” only in a social context.3 Just one century after Humboldt, Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics and semiology, speaks similarly of the necessarily “social nature” of language, arguing that the social bond that language represents is “a storehouse filled by the members of a given community through their active use of speaking, a grammatical system that has a potential existence in each brain, or, more specifically, in the brains of a group of individuals. For language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity.”4

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