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Staging Justice: Trials and Tribunals in Literature, Theater, and Film

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Organizer: Rebecca Haubrich

Co-Organizer: Michael Paninski

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The presumption of innocence, “until proved guilty according to law in a public trial,” has been proclaimed a human right in Art. 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. While a variant of the article was already part of Justinian’s Digest (6th century CE), its reformulation in the 20th century took place in the face of a new magnitude of crime, following World War II. Committed under the guise of legality, the atrocities of fascist Germany were, at the time of conduct, speciously justified by politically contorted laws. Their primordial unlawfulness, not least in view of humanitarian principles, cannot be called into question. Accordingly, the public trials following the war, prominently the Eichmann-Trial in Jerusalem and the Nuremberg trials, a priori deviated from the legal prerequisite of presumed innocence. The purpose of such juridical showcasings is not to establish guilt, based on civil and criminal law, but rather to stage trials, which renegotiate previously destabilized relations between law, politics, and society.

The critical analysis of the aesthetic, juridical, and political pertinence of such ‘show trials’ will be the focus of our proposed seminar, which aims to engender an interdisciplinary discussion on the relations among law, literature, theater, film, and politics. Historically, the post-war trials of the 20th century were by no means the only occasions when law and politics joined in public stagings: The trial of Orestes, utilized by Athena to institute the Athenian polis, Zola’s ‘accusing’ intervention in the Dreyfus affair, or Oscar Wilde’s ordeal with the law on account of sodomy are other examples in a vast archive. Due to the theatricality of juridical stagings, literature, film, and theater responded to them manifoldly, in works such as Brecht’s Decision, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. A focus on literary, cinematic, and dramatic form opens the conversation to matters of aesthetics, including the relation between juridical and aesthetic judgments. Specific aestheticizations of the juridical – its practices and protocols, closely related to their historical contexts – call the logic of judgement as such into question. Precisely because the aesthetic form marks a distance from the legal reality of a trial, the logic of the juridical and the political can be interrogated and put up for (re-)negotiation.

Possible discussion topics include, but are not limited to:

- Staged trials in literature, film, theater

- Historic show trials and their influence on jurisprudence, art, and society

- Negotiating the relations between law, aesthetics, & politics

- How is jurisdiction presented, esp. in literature, film, theater?

- Troubles in the relationship between image and law
- ​The media history of law (Nuremberg trials as a medial turning point in representing history)

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