PRINT September 1990


Courtroom Drama

IF THERE’S ONE THING that can barely escape anyone who has ever visited a court of law, it is that the term “courtroom drama” is no mere figure of speech. Legal procedures ore indeed dramas: protracted narratives, perhaps less seamlessly continuous than their novelistic, theatrical, cinematic, and video kin, but nonetheless rife with twists and turns and performances that either hit or miss. This performative aspect, this attempt to recreate moments through storying, tests the acting abilities of defendants, plaintiffs, judges, witnesses, and lawyers alike. But most often it is the attorney’s ability to exhort, reveal, and withhold that determines a case’s outcome—a measure of the importance of her or his communication with the audience, the jurors, helping them to reconstruct a purported reality.

It now seems that these emotive legal forays will no longer be limited to the courtroom audience. The expansion of cable TV into areas of more tightly defined interest has now spawned two channels to cover the courts. Both the American Courtroom and the In Court networks hope for an audience at least casually riveted by the legalistic goings-on. Less condensed than Judge Wapner’s domain and less predictable than the reenactments of Divorce Court, they will meld the continuous flow of the C-Span schematic with the narrativity of a slo-mo Perry Mason, working to snare their viewers into that familiar gulch from which all of TV’s power emanates: the hyperfamiliar juncture of demidistracted fascination and narcolepsy.

Will this enlarged viewership actually change the way the law functions, and if so, what will be lost and gained in these alterations? Lost is another moment to the covetous proclivities of spec-tutorship; another moment of action and volition to a process of reduction; another moment in our transformation into quasi-alert watchers who look but do not see, who are “done to” but never do. Lost is another arena to the thrall of surveillance, where if someone isn’t eyeing us, we’re eyeing ourselves. And this surveillance is no longer the domain of individual voyeurs, but has been appropriated into the directives of corporate and state power, which, along with the incursions of computer technology, have hologramed us: replicated us through a confluence of mirror images, numerical records, immaterial desires and concrete pleasures. We become sort of snatched bodies, pods if you will, who have also lost another bout in the protracted battle against the stereotype, as television secures the power to represent the clichés of our nightmares as the truth.

What might be gained from all this is a new view of “ethics” and “law,” of how these might be social constructs rather than sublime smidgens of divine rule that have floated down to earth. What might be gained is a more sober, less idealized reading of how our notions of civility and criminality are formed. What might be gained is a rethinking of “objectivity,” that relatively unchallenged phantasm that commandeers the domains not only of law but of the press, suggesting the zany possibility of a body without opinions, without memory, without history, not a person, not a complex subject but a radiantly value-free object, untroubled by consciousness or subjectivity. Another snatched body. Another pod.

But of course video technology has already changed the law. The obvious power of videotaped confessions cannot be overstated. Television is just as effective in the taping of allegedly intoxicated drivers as they emerge from their vehicles and undergo Breathalyzer tests. And it has been noted that L.A. Law has had an effect on how Americans view the legal profession as well as on how the profession views itself. But you needn’t analyze the court moves of Michael and Gracie to know that lawyers who can’t project their voices, construct compelling stories, and exude at least a spurt of charisma have little chance of winning any argument. TV has clearly rearranged the idea of courtroom space from a theater in the round to a flat but constant expository screen. It has enlarged the performative aspect of our lives and transformed us all into either actors or spectators simultaneously. It permeates the social fabric, changes the feel of our human contacts, and rearranges the choreography of family affairs, sexual forays, and gatherings of all kinds. The video camera has indeed replaced the mirror as the reflection of choice, putting us in a constant state of either watching or being watched, and transforming the emancipatory notion of “play” into the relentless realm of “instant replay.”

Barbara Kruger contributes regularly to Artforum.