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Meaning in legal texts

Campbell, William James (1990) Meaning in legal texts. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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The aim of this minor dissertation is to contribute to recent attempts at theorizing and re-evaluating legal texts. From this broad perspective, the concepts of "dehiscence", "iterability", "parasitism" and "undecidable contamination" provide a useful way of understanding how meaning in legal judgments is circulated and valorised. Significant parts of the process of meaning construction in legal judgments rely on propositional stipulation and imaginative projection and so also do our acts of meaning construction which we perform on all legal texts. These include prosodic contour, relating parts of the discourse inter-textually to other discourses and a heterogeneity of positions of the speaker and the presented world. All of the constructs associated with the process of meaning construction demonstrate the broad nature of meaning in legal judgments beyond prescribed ways of reading.

Further, mode and time act as narrative filters in legal discourse. The differences between narrative discourse and the world it evokes provide a setting for an imaginative rather than a strictly prescribed world. The imaginative process of reading becomes an “enonciation" which tells something about the judge and his world as well as about the legal system at large.

The re-ordering of time in legal judgments leads to useful interpretations of the meaning of these judgments. As the pace in the judgments slows down and tracks impinge on the centres of consciousness the judge is using, meaning is accomplished.

Like literary statements, legal judgments can be interpreted as secondary structures or modelling systems of natural language. In these systems, structural elements of legal judgments become semanticised. Legal judgments are multiply encoded and this generates polysemy and play and thus informational complexity. The mobility of meaning in legal judgments is demonstrated by use of Saussure's syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of analysis. These flexible tools lead us to a deautomatisation of the text. Repetition is closely associated with the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of analysis and can be likened to a source which gives them an existence.

One can also observe a decentering of the subject in legal judgments as the symbolic order encoded in them is expressed. Play and cultural experience is involved in the continuing individual and collective formation of subjectivity by legal texts.

The verbal presence of what is excluded in legal judgments activates and attracts unconscious material, draws it towards experience and exposes it to possible change. In this process, the boundaries of subjectivity are altered.

A "free area" of speech is present in legal judgments in which the boundaries between the primary and secondary processes are suspended. Thus imaginary functions serve to master a problem or deficiency in legal judgments. These functions enable imaginary characters or "alien voices" to come to utterance when the judge detaches himself from his own speech. Monologic speech gives way to polyphony.

The use of this "free area" in legal judgments improves their capacity for dialogue. It adds richness and creative ambiguity to them freeing as it does the polyphonic and polysemic potential normally hidden behind institutional ways of reading the law.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Ruthrof, Horst
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