Justice will not be Televised

by | 13 Jul 2022

The defamation case filed by the world famous actor Johnny Depp against Amber Heard turned into one of the most watched live TV events of last month, with hundreds of millions single viewers and many commentators and dedicated Youtube streams all around the world. In ancient Greek theatre, the chorus, according to Aristoteles, a myth-telling all dancing, all singing group, often speaks directly to the audience, and they comment on the action at the stage. At the traditional open justice practices, those who make an effort and go to the court have the privilege to see the via iure, ways of justice, but in this spectacular tragedy, millions are watching and thanks to social, traditional and online media, a chorus of thousands have produced commentary every day and the number still keeps increasing. This libel case as a spectacle of open justice, has been broadcasted at the Court TV of the state of Virginia reaching out a global chorus for their consumption. It offered them sensitive details of couple’s private affairs, their past and present bodies, short theatrical plays constructed in the courtroom by their legal teams. Televised justice designates a new era with this case, where anesthetisation of the juridical, invites us to think the politics of visual pleasure in the courtroom. 

Camera and the imperial gaze

Susan Sontag famously linked the camera to a gun in “On Photography”:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”[1]

The invasion of Americas by Europeans and accompanying settler genocides have been first painted, and later on shot with cameras following the wider availability of more portable cameras. Camera has been used by colonialists of all sorts, merchants and missionaries to scientist and military expeditions. Initially, the camera recorded ‘Blood-thirsty Savages’, to justify their eradication. Later on, the noble native woman with a noble posture and the eroticised native woman with bare breasts followed once Natives have been considered as species on the brink of extinction. Portraits of native women and man from a full-frontal view, were highly influenced by “scientific” racism of the period and desire to racially segregate people according to Morgan F. Bell. Camera as a truth-making machine of capture, has hidden its colonialist gaze behind its claim of transparency because the machine doesn’t lie, it shows what is in there. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the camera accompanied pragmatic colonialists in two main ways: to map, systemise and consequently ‘naturalise’ the unknown, and second, to stimulate male desires towards that unknown. In these cases, the owner of the gaze aims to control the other, through a fascistic rationality or voyeuristic joy. Hence, Lacanian theories regarding men’s relation with the Law, the Father, phallus… Anxiety of not being able to control the Other accompanies the desire to control. Ann Kaplan calls this the ‘imperial gaze’, gaze that trivializes and simultaneously asserts ordering to its target. On the one hand the colonialist gaze naturalizes the other, but simultaneously the colonialist “refuses to acknowledge its own power and privilege: it unconsciously represses knowledge of power hierarchies and its need to dominate, to control. Like the male gaze, it’s an objectifying gaze, one that refuses mutual gazing, mutual subject-to-subject recognition.”[2] It refuses this acknowledgment because the ‘master’ position it occupies is a fragile one and it is anxiously known that mastery cannot continue forever. 

Not long after, at the beginning of 20th century newspapers start using relatively portable cameras in courtrooms. Quickly this turns into a point of tension between judges and journalists, because newspapers operate at a different level of truth-making and judges do not have control over them. Two sovereigns, two mechanisms of truth-making in the same room is an ill omen. Both the gaze of the camera and that of the justice operate with a promise of transparency, impartiality, and capturing truth, but one prioritizes consistency and continuity, and the other public gratification and satisfaction. In high profile cases followed closely by the press, actors in the courtroom are well aware of the existence of these two coupling realms and try to convince them both. 

Although it is a murder case in the US, the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1935, in the UK it is principally divorce cases, afforded only by the wealthy at the time, that trigger banning cameras from the courtroom. In Russell Baby cases, the imperial gaze of the camera was objectifying members of the wrong class and scrutinising the sexual activity of Lord and Lady Russell and subsequent the Criminal Justice Act 1925 banned photographs at trials in the UK. It is telling that in the US the gaze of the camera has been considered categorically different that other forms of visual depictions such as sketches. In Estes v. Texas 1965, Justice Clake describes this difference when he considers the use of TV cameras in the courtroom for criminal cases: 

“The inevitable close-ups of his gestures and expressions during the ordeal of his trial might well transgress his personal sensibilities, his dignity, and his ability to concentrate on the proceedings before him sometimes the difference between life and death–dispassionately, freely and without the distraction of wide public surveillance. A defendant on trial for a specific crime is entitled to his day in court, not in a stadium, or a city or nationwide arena. The heightened public clamour resulting from radio and television coverage will inevitably result in prejudice.” 

Visual Pleasures of the Courtroom

The focus here is not prejudice or other worries regarding procedural requirements of fair trial, but rather the relation between the public clamour and the idea of justice, or in other words how two gazes, that of camera and that of justice couple in Depp v. Heard. Justice Clarke in Estes presents these two gazes as antagonistic to one another for fair trial, however, beyond the question of fair trial, that relation is the core political result of the Depp v. Heard. The gaze of the camera shooting the defendant in frontal angle, couples with that of the justice looking from above. Together with strict order and rules of the proceeding, this coupled gaze provides a sadistic pleasure of dominating the ‘blood-thirsty savage’, the unruly Other for the spectator. Referring to fascism and its power to aestheticizing of political life, Walter Benjamin states

“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.”[3]

Live feed from the courtroom for the consumption of masses, is the situation of justice which society of spectacle is rendering aesthetic. Self-alienation of the phallocentric society where women still is the Other, witnessing its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

Laura Mulvey, in her seminal article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, highlights that in classic Hollywood movies the narrative progresses towards a love relation, and falling in love is becoming the property of the male, in Mulvey’s words ‘losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalized sexuality, her showgirl connotations’. At this live TV drama courtroom, instead of the male protagonist that owns the woman through love, it is the court and the public that owns her through acceptable forms of womanhood by the coupled gaze of the justice and the spectator; acceptance into the symbolic order of Law only through her acceptance of the subservient role and being the signifier of the male Other. The ordered nature of the courtroom, distribution of roles, accepted practices of truth claims such as cross examinations, organisation of time and diegetic gaze propose taming the unruly woman and the threat of castration she represents. 

Castration anxiety surfaces through two ways in the courtroom: firstly, it is fear of justice not being held (woman not being really in love) thus being a ‘perfect liar’ and ‘cheating the court’. In this case, anxiety emitted from woman at the screen, can either be punished – a double punishment; that of the court that is finite, and that of the public, that is infinite– or forgiven if she assures to accept the position of signifier of the phallocentric order. In the case, Ms. Heard has highlighted her loving and caring role for her addict partner insistently, announcing to the world that she satisfies the requirements of the role, woman that is possessed. But the chorus asked: Does she really mean it? During one particular instant, Depp’s attorney asked her why she has rolled her eyes at a video deposition from 2016, and if she found ‘something amusing’ about allegedly abusing her husband. In other words, was it the glitch in her otherwise perfect acting? A play of mastery and anxiety, the unruly and the Law, in the past action of the accused and her actions in the courtroom…

Mulvey highlights two modes of spectators’ gaze, two responses to the castration anxiety; voyeuristic gaze ‘where pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ and the fetishistic gaze that reduces woman to bare image, and allows the cult of the female movie star. 

The camera of the courtroom, that resembles a mechanic surveillance camera, creates a voyeuristic separation between the millions and two individuals’ life. This leads to a sadistic joy for the masses who have a role in a courtroom that has extended to their homes, by participating in the examination of evidence to control the mystery of the woman. The coupling of the gaze of the justice and that of the spectator, expects from the defendant to re-narrate her past again until her uncontrollable desires and beastly actions convincingly do not carry any threat to the male order: Prove us that you have lost your ‘outward glamorous characteristics, generalized sexuality, and showgirl connotations’. 

The voyeuristic construction with scopophilic joy has a number of sources: face and body close ups of the accused, showing very strong emotions, images deposited as evidence and details of intimate scenes that trigger visual reconstruction for the listeners, including those of alleged sexual assault. The fetishistic spectator, on the other hand, is formed through the construction of the docile woman, the woman at the stage. The hours long, uncut live stream showing only the upper body of the woman, indicates the woman as image, tames the threat she possesses.

Mulvey highlights that the eroticism of the woman is subject to the male star and ‘By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too.’ The coupling of the gaze of the justice and the spectator, allows the spectators to identify with various actors, wanting their share of the unruly. Televised justice is this attempt to possess, regardless of the outcome of this particular case. Consequently, justice is happening already, when we see injured the face of the accused in photo evidence, or when Depp’s lawyer ‘catches her’ inconsistent declarations or stops her from talking during the cross-examination, or reminds her the rules of the court, or when she loses her line of narration or gets confused, or when her potential mental problems are disclosed etc. These moments of possession through the voyeuristic gaze offer the audience their share of control and possession over her, a form of scopophilic joy. 

We all know that camera steals the soul of people. When it couples with the gaze of the justice allowing millions to enjoy their role as a chorus, we deal with the politics of visual pleasures. Parties of the case act for many gazes, but it is the woman, that shoulders the gargantuan task of calming the anxiety of castration. A task that is impossible to satisfy. 

Bibliography:

Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1973),64.

Ann E. Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (1st ed. Routledge 1997) p.79 

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 242.

Laura Mulvey 1992, 29) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975), 6-18


[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1973),64.

[2] Kaplan, E.A. (1997). Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (1st ed.). Routledge p.79 

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 242.

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