The People's Court: A Review of MacNeil, Lex Populi
16 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2008 Last revised: 30 Sep 2008
Date Written: March 1, 2008
William MacNeil's book is that rarest of rarae aves - a serious legal study that is fun to read. As its name implies, the book examines 'people's law' or, more loosely, 'pop law' - law as reflected by contemporary popular culture. More precisely, MacNeil shows how popular culture can give us insights into both lay (mis)understandings of law as well as lofty jurisprudential theory.
What distinguishes this work from many law-and-literature studies is not just his choice of texts. MacNeil avoids literature and cinema in favor of mass market entertainment and cult favorites. MacNeil's point is that the scope of law cannot be confined to the legal. Following the European tradition of speculative theory, he sees law not as an autonomous field, but as an inherent and essential part of the symbolic - the social or intersubjective order that also includes language and sexuality. Law is not that which goes on in courts, but that which structures both social relationships and subjectivity.
As such, the symbolic order, which includes law, does not merely rule our trials and behavior, it inhabits our fantasies and haunts our nightmares. To know ourselves we must understand law, and vice versa. One way we can glimpse both is in the vulgar, everyday entertainments that occupy so much of our imagination and waste so much of our time.
Keywords: law and culture, popular culture, law and literature, critical theory
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