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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 7: Tradition and innovation in writing cultures

Thomas Vesting


Before the introduction of writing for purposes of communication and social interaction, common knowledge is generated in local relationship and communication networks with the aid of spoken language, mimicry, and gesture, and passed on via “chains of witness.”1 Every communication of valuable information is embedded in the flow of spoken language and is therefore subject to a logic of disappearance, whereby words and phrases vanish into thin air before they have even been fully articulated.2 This compels oral cultures on the one hand to concentrate common (shared) knowledge in highly standardized language – formulas, proverbs, stories, poetry, songs, etc. – what scholars of orality call a formulaic style. In ancient Egypt, for example, advice for protecting oneself against dangerous animals was passed on via incantations and spells, a form of magic closely linked with Egyptian religion and other cult practices.3 At the same time, oral cultures must also be committed to regular memory exercises, i.e. they must submit themselves to a form of strict discipline, a kind of “observance,”4 securing the procedures for preserving common knowledge via the widest possible range of interconnected institutions. These goals are served by practices that ensure the use of repetition as such (rites, festivals, ceremonies) or that frame coincidences as not merely coincidental (black magic, sorcery), as well as by institutions that seek to alleviate uncertainty about the basis of tradition through origin stories (myths, patriarchal histories).

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