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ESLJ Volume 4 Number 1 Reviews

Law and Popular Culture: Current Legal Issues Volume 7 edited by Michael Freeman.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 712 pp, £99.00 hbk (ISBN 0-19-927223-9).

As Fiss has put it, academics are in law schools, ‘to study law and teach their students what they happen to discover’ (‘‘Of Law and the River,’ and Nihilism and Academic Freedom’ (1985) 35 Journal of Legal Education 1 at p 26). The idea that all questions about legal phenomena that can be asked should be asked, that nothing should remain unexplored, is slowly being accepted in modern university law schools. Institutions that were once the repositories of ephemeral case-notes and palimpsest textbooks are now beginning to bulge with extended analyses of an ever-increasing range of areas. Legal academics who were scribes have become explorers. Each day in the law school brings a new subject for enquiry and a new methodology to use in that enquiry. In this context an edited collection of essays on law and popular culture, one example amongst a number of recent or forthcoming publications on this subject, occasions surprise only at that the time that it has taken for law schools to turn their gaze in this particular direction.


The 36 essays in this volume, together with Freeman’s introduction, testify to the intellectual depth, vitality and diversity that are already to be found in this area. At the same time they also serve to underscore the work that still needs to be done. Popular culture is franchising and with McDonaldization (Ahdar), Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (Manderson), the outlaw country music of Johnny Cash (Ball), the cinema of Kiesloswski (Sherwin), the novels of JG Ballard (Williams and, separately, Gearey) and much more the essays range far and wide.


Chosen modes of analysis include the application of the notion of the Gothic (Moran), impact studies on how popular culture prompts legal change (Robson, briefly, and Bergman at length), the regulation of sexuality (Mills and, separately, Herman) and the concept of neo-liberalism (Voyce). The foci for essays include the ethics of lawyers (Greenfield and Osborn), corporate misconduct (Roberston), courtroom sketches (Neald) and capital punishment (Harding). For some, analysis of the intersection between law and popular culture will directly facilitate improved pedagogy (Denvir and, separately, Meyer) whilst for others their work is expository in character illustrating, for example, ‘the legalistic character of American culture’ (Papke) allowing ‘narrative determination’ to tell us more about the workings of precedent (Black) or showing how censorship changed American cinema (Nevins). Such width allows of no common themes. There is no single path being taken here. The only agenda shared by those in this collection is, as it should be, the individual author’s desire to follow lines of enquiry that fascinate them.


Notwithstanding their obvious diversity these essays do suggest a number of common questions for all of those who are concerned about the nexus between law and popular culture. First, what is ‘popular culture’ and what, if anything, turns upon the fact that this culture is ‘popular’? Tetzlaff is one of the few authors in this volume who explicitly raises this question, arguing that popular culture ‘is a way of expressing statements important to civil society…[and] shows a path between local identities and global networks’ (p 317). This democratic turn suggests a link with the discipline of television studies where Fiske has argued for the need to ‘concentrate on ‘typical’ television – the most popular, mainstream, internationally distributed programs, for these are of the greatest significance in popular culture’ (J Fiske ‘Television Culture’ (1987) Methuen p 13). On this analysis popular culture is significant because of its mass attributes. Some authors in this collection do indeed select texts of this kind, for example, Herman’s essay on ‘Bad Girls’, but others, however, choose texts that may be popular but are certainly not very popular. Thus the first few pages of Freeman’s introductory essay starts with Genesis and swiftly moves through, amongst others, Rembrandt, Chagall, Walter Owen, Stravinsky, Britten and Aeschylus.


In what sense are the texts that have been selected for discussion in such essays ‘popular’ and does the analysis of them respond to that which makes them popular or to something else? Several authors in this collection also figured in the earlier collection in the same series, ‘Law and Literature’. Is there any difference between Williams writing about ‘Crash’ in this collection and writing about ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ in ‘Law and Literature’ or Gearey’s discussion of the materiality of symbols in Ballard in ‘Law and Popular Culture’ and his earlier discussion of the political-legal hermeneutics of the Sermon on the Mount? Is law and popular culture the subject-matter for analysis or is it, rather, law and culture?


A second problem that arises is, if the law school is to look at popular culture, what should be included in that inquiry? The essays in this collection broadly take three approaches. For some authors their engagement with popular culture is something that is direct, unmediated by consideration of any other literature; they come to popular culture as naïve readers, expert in law but seemingly unaware of secondary literature that might assist in an explication of popular culture. For other authors popular culture is seen through a lens that has been formed by their reading of a range of other work that they have previously used in other areas of academic analysis; popular culture is new grist for their mill but nothing in the method or literature that they use changes because they are now looking at popular culture.


Finally, for a few, consideration of popular culture includes analysis both of that which is popular culture and also the extant secondary literature that specifically looks at popular culture. The latter approach seems not merely preferable, because it allows of the fullest academic engagement with popular culture, but the only one defensible. To write as an academic about something but to ignore what the academy has previously produced about that subject seems perverse; an unwelcome return to the law school’s historical, recalcitrant refusal to look outside its own walls. A naïve reading of popular culture comes perilously close to the belles-lettres approach to the study of literature whilst ignoring the disciplines of cultural studies and television studies when undertaking one’s analysis marginalises and demeans them as scholarly activities. Yet, to insist that the study of law and popular culture must include the study of both popular culture and extant secondary work on popular culture demands more of the author than the other approaches and, as the law school’s research agenda becomes wider and wider, may sometimes demand too much. Intellectually spread ever-thinner, as law schools encompass a wider and wider range of work, academics in law schools may find themselves only superficially engaging with other disciplines if they attempt to engage with them all. Both a naïve reading of popular culture and an approach that ignores the disciplines of cultural studies and television studies must wound the analysis that then follows. The wound, however, is not necessarily fatal and a flawed analysis may be better than no analysis at all.


Popular culture is a wide terrain and these essays are inevitably no more than tentative first steps in a new land. Other work has already been undertaken both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere but much still needs to be done. There are many more texts to be explored. I have found both ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel’ to be fruitful sights for enquiry (see, for example, A Bradney ‘Choosing Laws, Choosing Families: Images of Law, Love and Authority in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’’ (2003) 2 Web JCLI and A Bradney ‘‘The Morally Ambiguous Crowd’: The Image of a Large Law Firm in ‘Angel’’ (2005) 56 Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 21) but what about ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘The Bill’? More important than a potentially endless series of exegeses on individual texts, however, is the possibility of work not on law and individual examples of popular culture but work on law and popular culture taken as a whole; work that attempts to chart and sound the territory. ‘Law and Popular Culture’ is a necessary addition to every law school’s library; further work on law and popular culture a desirable extension to every law school’s research agenda.

Professor Anthony Bradney
University of Sheffield

Bradney, Anthony , "Law and Popular Culture: Current Legal Issues Volume 7 edited by Michael Freeman", Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, ISSN 1748-944X, April 2006, <>