Richard Burt Duly Noted or Off the Record?

“That’s what they all say”: The Force of Law After the Law

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“That’s what they all say”: The Force of Law After the Law

First Citizen: The first thing he did was phone Chicago for his lawyer.

Second Citizen: That’s the first thing a guy like that will do.

--Two mean at a bar who become members of the lynch mob in Lang’s Fury.
At Prague again, just a few months ago, just before an arrest and an investigation without trial during which the representatives of the law asked me, among other things, whether the philosopher whom I was going to visit was a “Kafkalogue” (I had said I had come to Prague to follow the tracks of Kafka); my officially appointed lawyer had told me: “You must feel that you are living a story by Kafka”; and upon leaving me: “Don’t take it too tragically, live it as a literary experience.” And when I said that I had never seen the drugs that were supposed to have been discovered in my suitcase before the customs officer themselves saw them, the prosecutor replied: “That’s what all drug traffickers say.”

--Jacques Derrida, “Before the Law,” 218

Lang’s Fury and Testament of Mabuse and his note on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt are as funny as they are unsettling about legal and political sovereignty, whether democratic or authoritarian. Any authoritarian regime to come and any democracy to come are equally troubled by the Lang’s suspension of the law’s capacity to suspend itself: precisely because the law has no force, Lang’s films deliver neither justice nor injustice. The only justice we get is what just is. Lang’s films offer a way into understanding the secrecy of the law not only through notes and other media but because his dis/closure of the law’s unreadability, its narrative recursions returning to a referent that is not there—in the form of a corpse or the form of a imprisoned madman –brings the questions of being before the laws and the force of law together as a question of the law’s aftermath. The secrecy of the law is reducible neither to indivisible media that are more or less obsolete nor to an instrumental understanding of media technologies.

Attention to many of Lang’s other films and the more recent examples of the conspiratorial films that Jameson examines may further our understanding the secrecy of the law by develop its implications for sovereignty and bio-thanto-politics (Foucault 1978 and 2008 ; Agamben 1998, 2004, and 2005; Derrida, 2009). If the distinction between life and death, fiction and testimony, the rule and the exception, are unsettled by the law’s inaccessibility and unreadability, then the archive and the paperwork and divisibility of what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (1995 )become that much more important to examine.35 Like notes, passports, and even death certificates retroactively secure the geopolitical borders they allow their bears to cross.36 Even dead bodies may decompose so that they are no longer a locatable referent but a left-over. Costa Gravas ends his film Missing (1982), about an American student murdered during the CIA engineered coup d'état in Chile, with a rather long take of a coffin with his name on it that stopped just as it after it has begun to be unloaded from a jet airliner that has landed in to the United States. An autopsy, Jack Lemon says in voice-over, was made impossible by the seventh month long delay in shipping it home. Like the coffin that encloses and stores the “unreadable” corpse, the “evidence necessary to provide proof remains classified secrets of state.” That’s what they always say. Attention to the law’s paperwork as “posthumographic” (Burt 2010) writing, of archiving organic “human” life before and after inorganic death, would allow the problems of sovereignty and biopolitics to be read allegorically and more widely in relation to the unreadability of law in literature, film, and media theory, and philosophy as well as in political theory. What does the law know? What doesn’t it know?


1 Derrida notes that Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all “used the very word indivisible to quality the essence of sovereignty or sovereign government” (2005, 75, emphasis in the original). The pledge of allegiance of the United States ends with “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” On the sovereignty of the word made law, see Vismann (2008 )

2 See Vismann 2008, 102 on :”the sovereignty of words” and the word as sovereign On biopower, and of politics into biopolitics, Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, and Giorgio Agamben Homo Sacer

3 See also Mladen Dolar: (2006, 109).

4 I direct the reader to Derrida (1994) for Derrida’s introduction of the phrase “democracy to come” and to Derrida (2005, esp. p 86-87 and 165—n. 26) for his elaborations of it. On Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and the secret, see Derrida (2006).

5 Derrida prefers to ask about waiting: “While waiting—and we will have been talking about here is precisely what waiting means—can one speak democratically of democracy in this chateau?” (2005, 77)

6 Visman writes of “the last secretary of the chancery to peruse records.  He stood at the threshold of the decoupling of archiving and administering.  For archival purposes, he was the very last to read the files that the registered, so that no one else had to read them after him” (2008, 99). 

7 Walter Benjamin did not read Kafka together with the question of violence. Separate essays on each topic, “Kafka” and “Critique of Violence.” Derrida followed suit, devoting separate essays to Kafka’s Before the Law and Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.”

8 See Vismann (2008, 12—29; 158) for a discussion the law’s unreadability in Kafka’s “Before the Law” and The Trial.

9 See.

10 See also Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (2010a) and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger2010b)

11 One could pursue the relation between notes, the secrecy of the law, biopolitics, and sovereignty in the science-fiction disaster film such as The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise, 1971) and Outbreak (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1995), among others.

12 For a positivist account of the hard drive, see Kirschenbaum 2008.

13 Jameson discusses “conspiratorial films” of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s such as Blow Up (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), Three Days of the Condor (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1975), The Parallax View (dir. Alan Pakula, 1974), All the President’s Men, (dir. Alan Pakula, 1976), Blow Out, (dir. Brian De Palma, 1981), The Dead Zone (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983), and Videodrome, (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983).

14 In Billion Dollar Brain (dir. Ken Russell, 1968), a traitor is seen through a video monitor putting index cards into a supercomputer into to falsify the record.

15 For an update of this scene, see National Treasure (dir. Jon Turtletaub, 2004).

16 Similar kinds of recursive narrative looping can be seen in Blow Up and Blow Out.

17 See Tom Cohen

18 For the screenplay, see “Arrest at the Texas Theatre: Oliver Stone's JFK: The JFK 100: JFK assassination investigation: Jim”

19 Recent conspiratorial films include, among others, Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995), The Game (dir. David Fincher, 1997), Conspiracy Theory (dir. Richard Donner, 1997), Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas, 1998), The Thirteenth Floor (dir. Josef Rusnak, 1999), Anti-Trust (dir. Peter Howiit, 2001), The Manchurian Candidate (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004), National Treasure (dir. Jon Turtletaub, 2004), The Stepford Wives (dir. Frank Oz, 2004), The Forgotten (dir. Joseph Ruben, 2004), Flightplan (dir., Robert Schwentke, 2005), Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007), Shooter (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2007), National Treasure: Book of Secrets (dir. Jon Turtletaub, 2007), Max Payne (dir. John Moore, 2008), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (dir. Peter Hyams, 2009), and The Conspirator (dir. Robert Redford, 2010). A Desert Storm veteran’s notebook appears forty minutes into The Manchurian Candidate (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004) along with drawings and incomprehensible writings on a wall of his apartment, a staple of the genre’s mise-en-scene that unconsciously recycle Fritz Lang’s films even when based on one. On some of the these films and others, see Richard Burt, "Stupid Shit: (In)security in the Age of Twilightenment,” ArtUS no. 11, February, 2006, 29-37. Library and archive scenes in disaster films such as Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (1999) and 2012 (2010) are also worth examining.

20 On the parallel between Hitler and Mabuse, see Tom Gunning and David Kalat’s audiocommentary on the Masters of Cinema and Criterion DVD editions of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

21 See Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision (London: BFI, 2000); David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse: A Study of the Twelve Films and Five Novels (New York: McFarland, 2001), 68-91; and Kalat’s audiocommentary on the Criterion DVD edition of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse;

22 In Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang makes banknotes the centerpiece of crime. Mabuse runs a paper money counterfeiting operation.

23 In English, the German word “Aufzeichnungen” means both “notes” and “notations.”

24 See Gunning and Kalat

25 On Lang’s Spies and the mystic writing pad, see Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision (London: BFI, 2000);

26 For the former meaning, see The Interpretation of Dreams; for the later, “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Recollection, Repetition and Working Through” (1914).

27 As Samuel Weber writes: “the ‘observation’ that Freud opposes to rationalistic speculation emerges as being of a most peculiar kind. For its medium is not clarity but obscurity, not light so much as shadow,” in “The Divaricator: Remarks on Freud’s Witz,” (Glyph 1, 1997), 5.

28 Lang’s having Baum’s writing desk be the site of the double and of a double reading (matching news clipping to the reassembled notes) is predictable. See Friedrich Kittler, “Romanticism—Psychoanalysis—the Double,” in Literature, Media, Information Systems, trans. John Johnston (Amsterdam: G + B Arts, 1997), 50-84.

29 The shots of the bound sections, with no sound, are intercut with shots of the criminals listening to a radio voice (Mabuse / Baum) directing each section to do the attack outlined in a given section of the notes. So the link between notes and cinema is made clearer, as we move from silent notes to cinematic voice-over.

30 The text is read aloud in voice-over by Baum, like a film script, and then continued by the phantom Mabuse sitting across from Baum.

31 I owe this insight to Kelly Dunn.

32 On the anec-note, see Burt 2010.

33 See Burt 2010.

34 These kinds of multiple analogies without a clear referent structure Lang’s films as well as accounts of Lang as a film director. For an example of the latter, see David Kalat (2001), who regards Lang and Mabuse as doubles, (92).

35 Homo Sacer

36 On the death certificate, see Jacques Derrida, 1994), 48. See also This is your death certificate.“ After.Life (dir. Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, 2009 ) the death certiificate with „cause of death: fright“ in The Tingler (dir. William Castle, 1959)

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