Monday, April 11, 2011

The 2011 Kevelson Workshop on Law and Semiotics at Penn State--Outstanding Student Presentations

For those with little familiarity with the topic, Werner Hammerstingl nicely explains the foundations of semiotics:
Semiotics or Semiology as the French prefer to call it is a study of signs. It deals with all processes of information interchange as far as signs are involved. Human beings talk, write, sing, smell and gesture. We erect signs or barriers to communicate messages to other people. We constantly produce and interpret signs and codes. But even if no-one intends to communicate  anything, sign processes are continuously taking place: A doctor interprets the symptoms of a disease, a dog follows a trail, a thief triggers an alarm.

Semiotics explores all such processes with regard to common structures. Its scope reaches far beyond the area of cultural phenomena and involves the interaction of animals, the activity of orientation and perception of all living things, the stimulus and response processes of animals and plants and even the metabolism of organisms and  information processes by machines. The scientific disciplines concerned with different aspects of culture(s) (linguistics, literary science, musicology, art history, archeology, history, sociology, political science, religious studies etc.) and nature (chemistry, biology, physics etc.) are integrated in semiotics by exploring the sign character of the natural and cultural phenomena examined.

It describes the various sign phenomena (Descriptive Semiotics), systematizes them in theories and models (Theoretic Semiotics), and attempts to apply this knowledge in helping to find solutions to problems in science, society, commerce, and in everyday life (Applied Semiotics). Saussure might be termed the founder of semiotics, the discipline has become less and less Saussurean in recent years (i.e. less structuralist). Semiosis (The production of meaning) is a term borrowed from Charles Sanders Peirce and expanded by Umberto Eco to mean a process by which a culture produces signs and/or attributes meanings to signs. For Eco the production of meaning (Semiosis ) is a social activity. This allows for subjective factors to intrude in each individual act of Semiosis.

From Werner Hammerstingl, Semiotics (2000).  Semiotics lends itself well to the interpretive project at the heart of law and religion.  It is meant to provide a pathway for the understanding of the way in which people understand and communicate.  More importantly, it provides a reference point, one well suited to a globalized age which privileges "unity in diversity" now both the motto of the European Union ("united in diversity") and an important concept for faith communities seeking to operate legal and political systems.  See, Larry Catá Backer, Anwar Ibrahim: Unity in Diversity in Malaysia Going Forward, Law at the End of the Day,   March 20, 2009.  As such, semiotics, whether understood as such or not, is at play on a fundamental level in the enterprise of law and its naturalization within the law-state.
 Roberta Kevelson was a germinal figure in the development of law and semiotics.  She was a professor at Pennsylvania State University and The College of William & Mary. Among her published works are High Fives, The Inverted Pyramid, The Law as the System of Signs and, Peirce and the Mark of the Gryphon. She was a founding member of the Semiotic Society of America. The Semiotics of Law International Roundtable asks:   Why study the Semiotics of Law?
Because The Law is a sign - both as an institution and in its every content. Thus, every aspect of The Law involves not the dyadic relations of the physical sciences, but the triadic relations of the semiotic sciences. The proper tools of analysis are therefore Relational Algebra and Triadic Logic; and every question of legal philosophy involves the tridimensional aspects of syntactic meaning, pragmatic meaning, and semantic meaning.

The Syntactic Dimension: incorporates all of the formal structure of The Law, from the concept of the institution to the grammar of its content, and all of the meaning associated with any of these.

The Pragmatic Dimension: involves all of the structure involved in using The Law, including the Social and Behavioral Context, use, interpreter, interpretation, teleology, and spirit of The Law, and all of the meaning associated with any of these. This dimension includes such concepts as self, culture, value, goals, and ethics.

The Semantic Dimension: contains all of the structure involved in the awareness and cognitive un-derstanding of The Law, including such important concepts as individuals, generals, and universals, and all of the meaning associated with any of these.
In her honor, my distinguished colleague at Penn State, Jan M. Broekman, Professor Emeritus Universities of Leuven, Belgium, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, Honorary Professor National University of Argentina in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Visiting Professor University of Illinois College of Law (some of whose works are listed here), has hosted The Roberta Kevelson Seminar on Law and Semiotics
The Seminar is established and directed by Professor Jan M. Broekman, PHD,Professor Law and Philosophy and Dean Emeritus Faculty of Law, University of Leuven (Belgium) and Distinguished Visiting Professor, Dickinson School of Law.
The Seminar provides a study of Legal Semiotics in Legal Education with an introduction to the main theories of legal semiotics, analyses of jurisprudence and legal cases and a discussion of the major philosophical components of law. Its goal is a heightened awareness of the semiotic components in the professional behavior of lawyers. The Seminar, which is open to students and faculty, contributes to the realization of this goal during one semester in every academic year and is concluded with a one-day Round Table presentation. Final Seminar papers of students can be read during that Round Table. (From Semiotics of Law International Roundtable, The Semiotics of Law, Derrida and Semiotics The Roberta Kevelson Seminar on Law and Semiotics, the Dickinson School of Law, the Pennsylvania State University in Carlisle and State College, PA. USA).

The 2011 Kevelson Seminar included some excellent papers. Among the work presented was that of two outstanding law students, Paul Van Fleet and EJ Cyran.   Mr. Van Fleet  serves as Articles Editor, Penn State Law Review, served on American Association for Justice Trial Team, Regional Semi-Finalist, and is a J.D. candidate Class of 2011. Mr. Cyran serves as the Managing Editor, Penn State Law Review and is a J.D. Candidate, Class of 2011 at Penn State.

The work of these Messrs Van Fleet and Cyran are highlighted here. Both essays serve as the basis for contributions which will eventually be published in The Semiotics of Law in Legal Education (Jan Broekman and Francis J. Mootz III, eds., Springer: forthcoming Fall 2011). 

1.  Paul Van Fleet, "Tarski, Peirce and Truth-Correspondences in Law : Can Semiotic Truth-Analysis Adequately Describe Legal Discourse?"
Abstract: "Legal institutions represent their decisions on cases with a certain finality, suggesting that the institution is capable of determining the truth or falsity of propositions in legal discourse. This approach closely follows Alfred Tarski's theories of truth-determination, which uses as its truth finding model Convention-T. Convention-T uses the idea of "meta-language" to avoid the circular dilemma of using propositional language to evaluate itself. Legal analysis uses an institutional-legal meta-language to determine the truth or falsity of legal propositions. The major problem with this analysis is that it must determine whether general terms such as intent, whose truth or falsity can never really be known, are true or false. This determination then permeates general discourse and reduces a sign, which can have infinite meaning, to a symbol, whose meaning is necessarily limited.

Charles Sanders Pierce, however, has offered another way by introducing an indeterminate value, or "L-value", into truth analysis. This conception enables semiotic analysis by allowing a sign to have infinite meaning. This paper discusses how the L-value represents a significant step forward in truth-determination. It also shows how the legal institution necessarily cannot allow itself to accept the L-value because its power to determine legal truth would be compromised. In conclusion, this paper expounds upon the ramifications that the limiting institutional-legal discourse creates for everyday discourse by discussing Lacan's theory of the Master Signifier and suggests how this dominating structure may be overcome."
The PowerPoint Presentation may be accessed here
The Draft of the article may be accessed here.
2. Edward Cyran, "Common Law Lawyers Should Mind Their Trial Practices: Understanding, Identifying, and Correcting a Semiotic Imbalance."

Abstract: In the nascent field of legal semiotics, the creation and communication of meaning during a trial has not been explored. This paper attempts to further understand the semiotics of trials by comparing the Civil Law trial with the Common Law trial. It begins with a short explanation of those aspects of semiotics that are applicable to the thesis, and then discusses some significant differences between Civil Law and Common Law criminal and civil procedure. The paper then tackles the main difference between Civil Law and Common Law trials -- the presence in a Common Law trial of the "Story of the Trial." Completely unrelated to the facts of the case in front of the jury, the "Story of the Trial" is the story of the attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is developed through the direct and cross examinations of witnesses, the objections of counsel, and counsel's opening and closing arguments. There may be multiple stories of the trial occurring within one "trial." Based on the prevalence of "story of the trial" narratives and their existence only within Common Law trials, this paper proposes that such narratives are semiotic imbalances -- a new term in the field of legal semiotics. The author defines a semiotic imbalance as "an unwanted effect upon the development of meaning caused by any practice or procedure." Key to identifying and understanding a semiotic imbalance is defining what would be an "unwanted effect" upon how a juror develops meaning. This paper proposes that the effects of the story of the trial upon a juror's understanding of the facts within a case are semiotic imbalances because such manipulation of meaning does not serve the purpose of a trial--to determine whether the defendant is guilty or liable beyond the appropriate burden of proof. While proposing that this difference in legal semiotics between the two legal traditions is important for future researchers, it is not within the purview of this paper to determine what solutions to this seeming "imbalance" are warranted or possible.
The PowerPoint Presentation may be accessed here.
The Draft of the article may be accessed here.

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