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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 6: Hot writing and cool

Thomas Vesting


Writing drastically expands language’s potential applications and fundamentally alters its linguistic structure as langue, in Ferdinand de Saussure’s sense of that term. Not all forms of writing or graphism refer to spoken language – neither wall paintings (pictograms) nor informational signs (logograms) do, nor the digital programming languages of computer technology, nor the genetic codes of modern biology. But when a graphism underpins and ultimately is adapted to the phonetics of a spoken language, then one can speak of what André Leroi-Gourhan calls “linear graphism,” of what Wilhelm von Humboldt calls “writing in a narrow sense,” of written language, or – if and when the context allows – simply of writing.1 Written language then means the conversion – the “transcription” – of spoken language into an “optical medium” of communication.2 Yet because this conversion presupposes standardized graphic shapes or “symbol schemes” (series of sign characters, in Nelson Goodman’s terminology),3 written language – in contrast to spoken language, which makes use of bodily organs like the voice and ear – cannot operate without media technologies exterior to the body. This fundamental difference between spoken and written language surely contributes to writing quickly being associated with distance, somberness, abstraction, etc., while proximity, vivacity, and emotional states like joy, anger, fury, and disappointment are rather correlated with the psychodynamics of speech. The culture of the printed book will come to lament precisely this: the abyss that the book represents vis-à-vis the world, the desensualization of all experience in writing, printing, and reading.4

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