Legitimating Law in a Digital State

19 Pages Posted: 20 May 2021

Date Written: June 1, 2019


Walter Benjamin used the word ‘aura’ to capture the unique existence in time and space of the work of art. He concluded that the artwork’s historic presence is what is lost in the process of mechanical reproduction. The tomato cans and serial silk screens by pop artist Andy Warhol seem intent on making a comparable claim. This is what happens when signifiers float free of the signified, when the ‘original’ that has been copied seems to have gone missing. In this conference, we ask: can the presence of the original be retained in cybernetic reproduction? To paraphrase Levinas, is it possible to experience infinite fullness in the face of a robot?

The concept of authentic presence may be approached from a variety of perspectives: phenomenological, semiotic, religious, aesthetic, political, or technological. Each view may lead to different social and psychological (including emotional) configurations. One of the aims of this workshop is to consider what it means to speak of a 'present subject' as an entity composed of a mind and a body – or of hardware and software – in a network of human and/or cybernetic relationships and environments.

Our first domain of theoretical inquiry will proceed within the field of social robotics. Here we confront the challenge of understanding the nature and extent of a living relationship between the entity that simulates the human (the robot) and the human subject. We explore the different roles and functions robots may play, including that of ‘therapeutic’ partner (whether affective or sexual [or both]) and intellectual (or even spiritual) mentor. A key theme here concerns the need for a theory of emotions that helps us think through what distinction, if any, can (or ought) to be made between machine behavior and human.

A second domain of inquiry addresses our visual relationship with juridical and political power. In particular, we ask: How (starting from Hobbes) do representative images function as political theological embodiments or mediations or fictions of state power through which the citizen symbolically identifies with the state? Has the modern (or post-) modern secularization of theological-political representations in the form of market commodities and digitally simulated images retained the power to manipulate subjects, but lost the legitimating aura of authentic political and legal symbols? What constitutes legitimation in a digital state?

These queries lead to a third domain, namely: the complex philosophical challenge posed by thinking about the possibility of sharing a common conception of human being in the face of different cultural perspectives – both eastern and western – each of which may bear a different vision of what it means to be human. To be sure, working through these fundamental issues, provoked anew by contemporary technological conditions, lies beyond the scope of this workshop. Our more modest hope is simply to explore their scope and begin the task of framing the analysis, moving from aesthetic-philosophical approaches current in Italy and Japan to the challenge of supplementing or perhaps overcoming the humanistic technique of perspective in painting and culture with the creation of a 'non-human look' evident in recent cinematic practices using computer vision and techniques of total immersion.

Exploring the notion of a non-human perspective provides an opportunity to discuss in a new key the historically persistent, and persistently controversial clash between presence and its simulation. Accordingly, our concluding discussion will address the philosophical implications of digital 'immersion' as well as the possibility of generating a publication and pursuing future research projects on these issues.

Suggested Citation

Sherwin, Richard Kenneth, Legitimating Law in a Digital State (June 1, 2019). NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3848053, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3848053 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3848053

Richard Kenneth Sherwin (Contact Author)

New York Law School ( email )

185 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
United States

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