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Title: In-sights: Aesthetics and Law

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7.3 Title: In-sights: Aesthetics and Law

Panel Coordinators: Akshay Khanna and Namita Malhotra
Chair: Ashish Rajadhyaksha

Panel Abstract: Interactions with the law are crucially about visibilities and about aesthetics.  Lawyers, in preparing their clients and witnesses for cross-examination, for instance, regularly intervene in their aesthetic presentation. The police check-post stop most often entails what may be considered as aesthetic profiling – being visibly queer, or Muslim, for instance, most often implies extended interrogation, while those who pass a test of 'respectability', pass through, unremarked and without impediments. Movements and civil society campaigns that treat law as the primary site of struggles for justice, evidence their selves or constituencies and their construction of juridical subjects in ways that are as much aesthetic as narrative. The aesthetic, in other words, is a core aspect of the social lives of law. And yet, analyses of engagements with law within academia, activism and legal practice prioritise the textual, the written and the spoken word, the 'articulable' (Deleuze 1988:42). It is as though, to be relevant implies the 'articulation' of the visual, the phenomenological and the experiential, into the textual. The significance of the visual, in this sense, is already textualised. It is this disavowal of the 'politics of optics' (Haraway 1988) in law that the proposed panel seeks to address. 

The banishment of the visual from the bare text of the law, in the context of the colonial law inherited in India (among other nations) can be traced to developments and events in sixteenth century England. Images of law and justice became more austere and law was presented entirely in language – “We were well along the road to the modern cult of the abstract norm in juridical positivism” (Must Justice be blind, Martin Jay). One of the implications of this banishment of images, except as metaphors in legalese, is the removal of the possibility of a divine revelation (that necessarily has to be seen) and the reduction of justice to law; of the application of general norms with no space for the unique, incommensurable or improper. For it is the eye that notices particularity, or it is the eye that places us in relation with each other and the closing of eyes distances us from other beings or even objects (here it is not just the physical capacity of sight, but the possibility of the acknowledgement of particular rather than the application of the general rule or norm). An interesting analogy to this process is the blinding of the symbol of Justice herself – originally a clear eyed and winged creature, Justitia was blindfolded so as to be more sensitive to balancing the scales of justice; or was it to not be able to see the humanity and specificities of those whom she had to address in the language of the law.

This panel will seek to explore different perspectives on the relationship between aesthetics and the law. This is broadened to a question of aesthetics, since the law in its texts, judgements and practices is asking similar questions (and laying down answers) about aesthetics, as any other discipline such as culture or cinema studies and philosophy. The performance of law in the courtroom, the airport, the border check post and in the architecture of official buildings (prisons, courts) can be more effectively analysed, if examined in terms of aesthetics of such spaces and arrangements, whose function is to ensure order and discipline.

On the one hand the panel will address questions of how law interacts with visuality, how entry of an object, an image, a film into the field of law engenders its transformation into an object in language. What is the process through which the (evocative) word replaces the visual, how does this make it intelligible in the field of law, and significantly, what mobilities and immobilities are afforded to objects so transformed? This becomes a key question in the examination of instances where the law is itself concerned with judging aesthetics, their normativity and their articulation with such fantasies as nation, caste, class, gender and sexuality.

On the other hand the panel will explore questions of aesthetic practices in the legal field. This might be in the context of the production of selves and bodies – clients, lawyers, witnesses included – such that they fit into recognizable legal tropes (of victimhood, of propertied, of a certain class). What place may aesthetic strategy find in the analysis of law, its practice and in the production and negotiation of juridical subjects? What space might such a perspective open up for a critical understanding of the relationship between text and visual, and what insights might this offer for a project of radical democratisation of law today?

The panel will bring together a combination of ethnographic and theoretical meditations on these questions along with visual performances and temporal exhibits that might demonstrate the centrality of aesthetics in the social lives of law.

Panelist: Namita Malhotra, Alternative Law Forum

Title: Law’s Embarrassments and Hidden Pleasures  

Abstract: This paper will explore how the constitution of the category of pornography has taken place in different domains, with a specific desire to understand what this has meant in the context of India. The legal discourse is expected to have a clear definition for pornography. Justice Potter’s statement for hard core pornography – I know it, when I see it – is overcast over legal discourse around objects whose pornographic qualities have to be ascertained by courts. But it is overcast, rather than grounding the legal discourse, precisely because of an inability or unwillingness to pin down the category inspite of its alleged obviousness. Here we will attempt to explore why the law has a peculiar blind spot when it comes to the recognition of pornography and why it falls somewhere between the law for obscenity (of which pornography is an aggravated form in legal terms) and the certification guidelines for cinematograph films. The affective life of law as reflected in the judgments is particularly examined in detail, to reveal embarrassments, pleasures, disgust and discomfort on the basis of which categories are made, exhumed and recast.  

The metaphor of the blindspot or blindness is central to the paper as it traces the distancing of law from justice, the blinding of the symbol of justice (Justitia’s blindfold) to contemporary judgments that avoid, misread and misrecognize explicitness and pornography. This paper looks at the interdisciplinary work on aesthetics, law, technology studies, psychoanalysis, cinema studies by Costas Douzinas, Annette Kuhn, Jacques Derrida, Robert Cover, Martin Jay, Lawrence Liang, Martha Nussbaum, Anne McClintok, Mary Douglas and other scholars. The contemporary also marks a shifting discourse around pornography and pornographic object and practices, because of the digital era, and the analysis of the role of technology (in terms of aesthetics, form and content) also plays a central role in how the law encounters ‘new’ pleasures.

Panelist: Akshay Khanna, Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex

Title: The Cleavage on the Queer Body 

Abstract: Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in a range of cities, town and villages India between 2005 and 2007, this paper examines aesthetic dimensions of the interactions between Queer activists and the law. The Queer movement, I argue, has been engaged in atleast two distinct, if connected projects in relation to the law. The first project, concerned with the entry of the Queer body into the juridical register, ascribes the abstract citizen-subject a sexuality. In contrast, in the project which forms the focus of this paper, claims to citizenship are made by actively divesting that body of its sexualness. 

This is a cleavage that the Queer movement is not simply constrained to produce, but which is as much an effect of the diversity of bodies it claims to speak of and for, and the conditions under which these diverse bodies seek a sexual articulation. The formal objective of the Queer movement, inasmuch as such an objective can be gleaned, avows itself to the first project – where the ‘articulable’ or the realm of words, of Law is prioritised. Yet, as much as the articulations in Law form the focus of activism, Queer folk go about negotiating our way in relation to law through the strategic play of visibility. In this context I suggest that the ‘see-able’ deserves a place in the analysis of negotiations with the Law, and more generally in the negotiation of gender and sexualness. In this context I examine the relationship between the articulable and see-able, and the implications of their interaction. The consideration of the 'visible' or 'see-able' on the same plane as the articulable, I argue, allows for a more fruitful engagement of the two projects and allows for the conceptualisation of a 'politics of ambiguity'. 


Panelist: Pratibha Menon – Independent Lawyer

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