Legal Aesthetics in the Street

Dr Illan rua Wall
University of Warwick


Law tends to hide itself, appearing for all to see only in the hush of the courtroom, the police officer’s shouted command or in our dry, formal acts like contracting or mortgaging. However, law is present all around us, it is in the spaces that we inhabit, in our voices and actions, in the atmosphere of public order. Law silently and subtly opens spaces for particular forms of activity. It no longer acts as the spectacular sovereign command or prohibition, but as a generalized conditioning. However, when law becomes all-pervasive, it becomes difficult to appreciate its specific role in shaping our everyday life. The challenge therefore, is not simply to notice that the law becomes part of the ‘order of things’ through regulations, intellectual property or contracts for purchase. It lies in connecting up the various, and often carefully occluded, ways in which we are affected by the force of law.

The project gathers a number of key legal scholars to investigate different ways in which we might engage with the ‘conditions of perceptibility of law’. In particular, it proposes to focus upon ‘legal aesthetics’. This is often taken to refer to either the manner in which law is represented in film, literature, and other cultural sources, or the manner in which legal decisions might be analysed through the resources of the humanities (by reading legal judgments as literature, for instance). This project, however, proposes a third sense of ‘legal aesthetics’, arguing that it might be used to understand the ways in which law is felt, sensed, seen, as well as being invisibilised, dissimulated and generally rendered imperceptible. Aesthetics refers to ‘the conditions of sensory perception’, reflecting the term’s etymological roots (aisthesthai). Legal aesthetics therefore becomes the site from which we might think the conditions in which law becomes perceptible.

The Research Idea

This project draws legal aesthetics out of the gallery and cinema, away from literature and poetry, and into the streets. This dislocation is aimed at shifting the spaces from which we think of the conditions of sensibility of the ‘force of law’. This project’s innovation lies in the manner in which it reinvests ‘legal aesthetics’ with a new sense, utilising the resources developed by Law and Humanities scholarship in order to understand afresh the socio-political effects and affects of law. In particular, the project will encourage a number of important scholars working on law and literature, film and image to engage directly with others who work on law, space and affect. We hope that this interface will begin to open the subtle, often non-linguistic manners in which law affects and shapes everyday life. It goes without saying that this form of ‘legal aesthetics’ is deeply interdisciplinary, however, in fields like law and humanities and critical legal geography, interdisciplinarity is a sine qua non. The aim of this workshop and special issue is to go beyond the sometimes ragged feeling of multiple competing disciplinary frameworks that do not work together, and begin to establish something common. Uniting these related but distinct disciplinary traditions under the banner of ‘legal aesthetics’ aims to delineate a distinct field of legal studies.


The work of Young (2014) and Philippopoulos-Mihailopolous (2015) provides a key touchstone for this project. Both have developed different accounts of the manner in which law’s affective force becomes imbued in our everyday spatial environs. They have built significantly on critical legal geography such as the work of Blomley on the production of land, territory and the streetscape (2008, 2011); Delaney’s work on legal geographies of segregation (2001) or Cooper’s account of property, land and ownership in relation to political and religious identity (1996, 1999). This scholarship does valuable work in assessing the meeting points between geographic and legal knowledge. However, whilst existing scholarship stresses the material and spatial scope and expression of law, it is less interested in the effects that this has at affective, emotional and atmospheric registers (Clough 2007). At the same time ‘affect studies’ has largely avoided questions of legality, although there has been much work on security and terror (Puar 2008). There has been some other attempts to draw together law and literature/film/art with the questions posed by ‘affect studies’ (Sharp and Leiboff 2016), however, this work focuses more on the cultural and representational sphere than the spatial and material ‘force of law’. Other works have tended to eschew the sort of broader claims that we are making. In short, this project builds upon existing fields of critical legal studies, but it does so in an exciting and new manner, developing a new sense of legal aesthetics that is primarily material and spatial.

The Focus

Our project offers an innovative perspective on the force of law, drawing on emerging debates at the cutting edge of law, geography, philosophy and cultural studies in order to develop an account of legal aesthetics. The question of law’s force – i.e. law’s positive normativity – is usually understood in legal theory through reference to the justifications law gives itself to be the preeminent forum for solving social disputes: a particular form of rationality, uncontaminated by other social and normative systems like religion, morality and politics. Our approach to the force of law moves the discussion away from the courtroom and staid debates within liberal legal theory in order to inquire into how law’s power to effect behaviour operates through the manipulation of space, affect, atmosphere and sensibility. This shift from the rarefied context of the courtroom, case law or legal theory, re-situates the law’s power to shape our lives in the most mundane and quotidian space: the street. Our project is concerned with the ways in which law is embedded into the material and affective fabric of city life and constitutes our experience of the everyday, though often through oblique, immaterial or dissimulated techniques. What does law’s presence in the streetscape tell us about the management of public space and biopolitical techniques of control? How is the law engaged in producing a space through which political actors can be rendered visible or invisible? How does the language of affect and atmosphere help understand the variable forms of law’s normativity?

Theoretical Novelty

The project has one key aim: to explore the conditions of visibility of the everyday force of law. Critics from Marx to Benjamin, Derrida to Foucault have long discussed the force of law, the power and compulsion that flows through and around legal forms. Common to these critical responses is the insistence on the dynamics of invisibilisation, where law itself seems to fade from view, materialising only at particular moments in the courtroom, in the revolutionary uprising or in prison cell. This project is novel in shifting focus towards the street, an oft-overlooked locale for thinking about law’s normative force. Equally, our theoretical approach to legal aesthetics is also innovative. Drawing on, but significantly expanding, existing approaches in law and geography, law and the humanities, critical legal studies, and the emerging field of law and affect. Under the moniker of ‘legal aesthetics’, the project proposes nothing less than a new way of thinking about the force of law and its role in the constitution of everyday life. The project will provide a framework for future work in this field by synthesising existing work and elaborating original approaches to the question of law’s in/visibility; of how the law’s force felt, sensed, seen and dissimulated.


If law is invisibilised in an everyday manner, tangled up in everything from roads to cups of coffee, to buildings or voices speaking in public, then the methodological question becomes about how to establish ‘contrast’ or ‘luminance’. In the visual field, contrast is what allows an object to stand out from its background. If the problem is law’s tendency to fade into the background, dissimulating itself, then the question becomes how to establish conditions of luminance. We aim to employ three distinct approaches that claim to establish law’s luminance. The first approach examines moments where the force of law can be perceived because the conditions of its invisibility are disrupted. To this end we have invited scholars who work on moments of catastrophe (Kaisary) and disorder (Wall, Matthews). The second approach is to think about moments where the law dislocates itself, for instance where a legal object or remedy is shifted from ‘public’ to ‘private’ spheres, thereby revealing the power law has over our apprehension of the world (Enright and Browne, Young, Extabe). Finally, we have invited scholars to think about the meeting points between distinct forms of lawful expression, seen, for instance, in jurisdictional disputes between settler and indigenous law (Barr, Kaisary). Simultaneously, each contributor also provides distinct theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds from the humanities and the social sciences. So Kaisary is a post-colonial literary historian, Browne is an artist and playwright, Matthews is a critical and cultural theorist, Young works on street art, etc.

Work Plan

The materials would be made available in advance, and any papers presented should be informal. The workshop will take place over three days. Participants arrive for dinner the night before. Day one begins with an introduction, before Daniel Matthews (law and the streetscape) and Olivia Barr (speaking about walking and Australian aboriginal law) give informal papers. After lunch, we plan to have a ‘lawscape walk’, with materials prepared by Philippoulos-Mihailopoulos (2015), and hopefully lead by Anne Bottomley. We will begin day two with Alison Young’s paper on street art law. After lunch Illan Wall (public order atmospheres) and Philip Kaisary (on the law and literature of disaster zones) present. Finally, on Day Three Máiréad Enright and Sarah Browne will present and play the hugely successful ‘The Touching Contract’ drama. After lunch, we will wrap up and finish the workshop.

The primary output would be a special issue of a major law journal. We have had discussions with Law and Literature and Social and Legal Studies who have expressed keen interest in the project. We would also aim to ‘curate’ a series of blog posts on, ensuring further impact amongst students, scholars, activists and the general public. Finally, Daniel Matthews and I hope to produce a stand-alone article reflecting upon the questions of law, affect, atmosphere and the question of the conditions of visibility of law for a major social theory/critical geography journal such as Society and Space D, or Theory, Culture, Society.


While it is difficult to predict the effect of research yet to be conducted, the project proposes to outline the contours of new approach to legal studies. By uniting insights from across the full range of interdisciplinary approaches to the law we will establish a set of theoretical and methodological co-ordinates through which further studies of ‘legal aesthetics’ might be conducted. This will represent an innovative contribution to legal scholarship and provide a relevant framework for future studies in this field. The project outputs outlined above have been designed to achieve a wide ranging and lasting impact across disciplines and constituencies interested in law, normativity, aesthetics, as well as cultural and political theory.

  • Olivia Barr, University of Melbourne
  • Máiréad Enright, University of Birmingham
  • Sarah Browne, Dublin
  • Julen Etxabe, Helsinki University
  • Philip Kaisary, Carleton University,
  • Daniel Matthews, Hong Kong University
  • Illan rua Wall, University of Warwick
  • Allison Young, University of Melbourne