Trust US Justice: '24', Popular Culture and the Law
IMAGINING LEGALITY: WHERE LAW MEETS POPULAR CULTURE, Austin Sarat, ed., 2010
31 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2009
Date Written: November 29, 2009
The television series ‘24’ has been a television phenomenon which over seven series has spawned a mass following and innumerable spin-offs including webisodes, prequels, games, and action figures. More significantly it has been enormously influential in the construction of the relationship between rule of law and security issues, particularly in relation to terrorism. Jack Bauer’s actions, and specifically his use of torture in the common good, have been important influences in the development of the US debate. Nonetheless, to situate ‘24’ as a purely contemporary phenomenon – a child of 9/11 – is to miss the larger point.
On the one hand ‘24’ frames law against questions of singularity which appeal to a longstanding tradition of vigilante justice evident in familiar archetypes of cowboys and superheroes. At the same time such a tradition reaches back to much older Christological models of justice and subjectivity which modernism has deflected but never defeated. In ‘24’ and elsewhere, popular culture does not merely keep these memories of law alive: it actively realizes and advances them, and needs to be understood not only as a depiction of law but as a law-making force in its own right. A pluralist theory of law ties contemporary technological manifestations of popular culture back to law’s enduring social and discursive roots as we see, for example, in EP Thompson’s Cultures in Common. One might even characterize popular culture as a defence of some sort of ‘moral legality’ against the ‘market legality’ of modernity.
On the other hand, ‘24’ frames law against questions of urgency and emotion. While popular culture has for centuries reflected an older form of law and justice, its capacity to undermine the very pluralist and discursive openness which are its well-spring, demonstrates the dangers to which the rhetoric of urgency and the emotional power of medium and message are prone. In a world shorn of its faith in the traditional structures which sustained the moral economy and the moral legality, the appeal to simply trust in an inarticulable justice sustained by an emotional pitch which is in ‘24’ at every moment apparent, opens the prospect of legal terrorism.
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