Publication Details

This article was originally published as Mohr, R, Living Legal Fictions: Constituting the State or Submerging the Signifier, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 19, 2006, 237-258. Copyright Springer. Original article available here.


This is an inquiry into the ways the state is constituted as an effective legal fiction. It is based on the premise that the state was not constituted, once and for all, some three centuries ago (as Bourdieu suggests) but that the existence of the state relies on continuing legal and social processes. The focus is on the translation from the legal to the social, specifically the semiotic interaction between law, space and daily life in the dynamics of this on-going mise en scène. This requires re-thinking a number of semiotic issues: first, Lefebvre's challenge to a semiotics which neglects the place of the material (body, space) and, second, a challenge to Lefebvre's assertions that the state operates in a realm of freedom in switching 'at will' between codes. Third, it is possible to question the conditions by which the state operates as a 'floating signifier' which maintains its domination by overwhelming us with its excess meanings. The inquiry proceeds by analysing the legal semiotics of space in different settings: the axis as an expression of legal and state power, from the courtroom to the capital city (Rome, Washington, Canberra), and street names with legal referents (Montréal and Mexico City, in addition to the above). After considering these self conscious attempts at meaning-making, the article concludes that the legal constitution of the state in urban space is not determined by a single wilful semiotic regime, but (taking insights from de Certeau) is contingent upon the interpretations and enactments of people who use the spaces. Except in the controlled environments of the courtroom and the planned capital city, everyday life is continually reconstituting the meanings of law and the state.

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