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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Anne Wagner on Law, Language and Semiotics

Dear All!

Next week our guest speaker will be Prof. Anne Wagner; she will discuss with us three very interesting (and interconnected) topics - in particular, she will focus on indeterminacy in legal language, on French Commemorative Postage Stamps as a Means of Legal Culture and Memory and (last but not least!) on the close connections between visual and legal semiotics.

Please read the three introductions Prof. Wagner would like us to read, and soon you will get more materials on your email account.

This talk is devoted to legal and linguistic accounts of the various problems with meaning that are associated with indeterminacy. This multistage dynamic is an open texture (MacCormick 1978) where central concepts or even key words are not satisfactorily defined and so lead to various possibilities of interpretation within space and time. This open texture operates at different levels. It is first visible in statutes where indeterminacy can be either voluntarily or involuntarily promoted (first level), but it is also central for judges’ legal reasoning who can decide to slightly change meanings of words/concepts or radically ‘implement’ new meanings in their ratio decidendi (second level).

Law is, by definition, the codification of modes of expression in a given society. However, its use is distinctive owing to the ways in which users apply or modify it. The shift in meaning between the product and its expression can be analysed not only within its content but also by the means of communication employed. The influence of spheres from the government and the Legal Profession is one the main issue to explore.
Consequently, understanding the respective parts of legal discourse implies the deep analysis of three kinds of interference in the work under examination: 
1)   The linguistic method used: The semantic production, the articulation of its elements as well as the formation and meaning of its terms.
2)   The method of legal conceptualisation: the analysis of the means employed to assure that the idea conforms to the implementation of the legal system under examination, and
3)   The method of socialisation: its adequacy between the intention of the production and its application.

This talk will explore the way French stamps (intermedial text) over the last two centuries reflect the problems of constructing national identity in a small country with rich and heterogeneous cultural, legal backgrounds. Commemorative stamps, almost always an intermedial discourse, demonstrates perfectly the descriptive power of the theory proposed here, at the same time as it illustrates the specific artistic creativity evident in each stamp. An analysis of word and image relations in a corpus of contemporary French stamps supports the validity of intermedial discourse and the possibility of combining them in a single commemorative stamp.

Our knowledge is now mass mediated in public spaces. More and more visible and giant advertising signs surround and even invade our environment for strict commercial benefits. The ‘invasion’ of commercial signs can be compared to a visual pollution affecting our perception, autonomy in thinking and health depending on the part of the population being considered. What is visual pollution? Can we really argue that advertising campaigns are a potential nuisance to the public, a visual distraction and a potential risk for public safety? With this new visual landscape reality, France has recently taken several steps to sustainably manage and regulate these issues. New planning rules have been set up to find a good balance between commercial and citizens’ interests. But can their interests be similar? What are the regulations set up to preserve citizen’s well-being and reduce visual pollution in our modern urban landscape? 

Prof. Wagner's CV (brief):
Anne WAGNER is an Associate Professor at the Université Lille – Nord de France. She is a research member at the Centre de Recherche Droits et Perspectives du Droit, équipe René Demogue ( She is a Research and Adjunct Professor at China University of Political Science and Law (Beijing). She is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (Springer) and the Series Editor of Law, Language and Communication (Ashgate). She is President of the International Roundtable for the Semiotics of Law and Vice President of the Multicultural Association of Law and Language. She serves as an international jury member of the Mouton d’Or prize for Semiotica. She has been granted the French National Award of Scientific Excellence. She has lectured in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. She has extensively published research papers in the area of law and semiotics, legal translation, legal discourse analyses.


  1. I have a minor abjection about the "fuzziness" of normative texts. It is not always the case: very often, in administrative law or in the European law of production, there is no space for interpretation, because there is no "fuzziness" in the text. SOme legal norms are very detailed and accurate.
    Also, in some legal systems, the space between the text and its application is not given by the fuzziness of the law, but by the very fact that the rule of law is extracted from previous judgements. Being court decisions on particular cases, previous judgement are not fuzzy: they are very sharp. The space for interpretation is then located outside of the legal text.

  2. Van Caenegem, Monateri, Guarneri and others maintain an active role of the doctrine: "If for learning the law is not enough to study the laws and judgments, but it is also necessary that the doctrinal elaborations, it means that the law is not everything contained in the first and also the second contributing, albeit in a different way by them, to form it. "This means that doctrine and jurisprudence must seek the spirit of the rule even where there is space for interpretation.

  3. What I find curious about the role of the interpreter and of the translator as described by Professor Wagner is the extremely precise way they work.
    There is a sort of path (from the source language to the target one, for the translators) they should follow in order to reach their aim.
    It seems to me a little bit reductive to consider their work as a sort of imposed series of steps; I think there's a fundamental element we didn't mention, which is (especially for the interpreters, as judges for instance) sensibility.
    The same sensibility which lacks in the method of the modern legislator.
    Law is a complex system of norms which should be based on organization, effectiveness and responsiveness.
    For what concerns organization and effectiveness, the judge (as an interpreter) and the translator can't substitute the legislator.
    The lack of responsiveness and sensibility the legislator shows each time could and should be solved by them, instead.
    So their work gets farther and farther away from the path we spoke about, and becomes more more difficult and confusing, and in the meantime more important.

  4. The interpretation of rules depends in most situations upon the normative interpretation of language and meaning. In these situations there is left no room for fuzziness due to the universality and agreed reasoning upon such statutes. For example in the game of baseball there is the normative rule that after three strikes a player is out. In this rule there is no room for interpretation or discretion as this rule, as according to Ronald Dworkin, is functional.

    However in situations of hard cases, namely those that require interpretation due to a disagreement of a rule there leaves room for discretion apart from the language of such rule. The interpretation of these texts must, and always will, fall back upon the theory of a third language that lies within or is external to the rules themselves. This third language gives discretion for judges to interpret statutes and rules according to the subject of the language.

    The main reference of the use of a third language is the thought that leads an academic to consider the philosophical aspect of the such a domain. This third language, according to some theorists, could be in fact a fixity of morals or principles. Accordingly to interpret legal texts the legal system needs to consider the legal rules as functional according to something apart from such; i.e. the fixity of either principles or an inner morality that should dictate and give the law reliability.

  5. Ottavia wanted to add this (I post it for her):

    Whenever politics decides whom are the people we should fear it is the moment to fear politics.
    Looking back on history we can notice that the easiest way to treat the population as if it is a simple flock is that of creating an idea that leads to believing that something or another is going to harm us. For USA it the great fear of communism, for communist it what's USA, the nazists claimed that Jews had the tail of the devil. It is easier to push someone that makes us uncomfortable aside than trying to understand them.
    Having these examples in mind I think that our governments think that the best way to "cancel" someone is with silent, unseen moves. Urbanisation with all those architecturally stunning gardens is pushing some of us out. If anyone said out loud that they wanted part of the population to not be part of the community we would be astonished. We always claim that India is a third world country because castes at still existent and so people are still not aloud to do what other might, just because of whom others think they should be.
    In our developed countries we cannot show that we are just like them, if you are a clochard you are not aloud in the centre of the city. For me it is even more terrifying, we can fight what we obviously see but we cannot do anything when we are tricked, when we are pushed to believe something is beautiful when in reality it is a symbol of self given superiority.

  6. It was interesting to see and to understand properly that actually there are a lot of ways in which citizens's behavior is influenced by "government" decisions. During the last class, while we were discussing about those methods some countries are using to avoid beggars, I was trying to check out and understand if those mesures are legit from a moral point of view. At first I was thinking that those methods are a way for the country to appear more efficient and cleaner, that means incoming tourists ( money ). A second reason why they are using those methods can be "security", that means happier citizens. At this point I thought that those reasons were agreeable. But after my perspective changed when I thought about the fact that they are usually applying those measures only in the city centre and not in the whole city and like this the problems will not be fixed but only moved. At this point the main question for me was:"what if those methods were applied to the whole city/country? Will it change my perspective? Would I like to live in a place in which those measures are considered like "normal"? The answer is definitely a negative one. Because I don't think that changing the way things do appear is the same as changing the things. At the end I think that all methods that are used to "decide" and change people's behaviour can be useful and dangerous at the same time, and, as always, those who are influenced from the decisions are not the ones who decide.

  7. We talked in calss about many factors that influence the urban space managment. About this I find very interesting the influence and the changes that Internet and social media have resulted in the needs of citizens. A good example could be the creation of online schools and universities. Changing the needs of people eliminates the need of many facilities , classrooms , offices open to the public , parking lots , etc. , so deeply affecting the organization of urban spaces . The same argument can be made for each type of service that is offered in a multimedia way, shipping online documents, working at home and so on.

    About the methods to move unproductive citizens and homeless people from downtown to the suburbs I would like to do just a little personal observation. According to me this kind of activity is really discriminating against people who live in the suburbs that probably can not afford to live or attend the richest part of the city that acting like this are forced to be surrounded by unproductive and homeless people. Honestly I think that the “excuse” of promoting tourism is not enough because if you spend money to design and build instruments with the aim of pushing those people out of the center, the same money could be used to better organize the necessary services to give to homeless people a place to sleep and make “productive” unproductive people. Are we not just moving the problem rather than solve it?