Sound and the Legal Imagination

Sound and the Legal Imagination

Veit Erlmann

Law is permeated by sound. From auditory forensics to court reporting, oral testimony, or the hearsay doctrine, there is hardly an area of law that does not involve one or another aspect of sound. Sound also forms the subject matter of substantive law. Whether in copyright law, environmental law, constitutional law, or criminal law, sound frequently figures as an object of rights, rules, and regulations. Yet, at the same time, law denies sound any agency of its own. To paraphrase the title of one of John L. Austin’s books, “how to do things with sound” is not part of law’s epistemological concerns.

This project focuses on several key areas in which the sonic ambiguity underpinning legal knowledge moves seems particularly pertinent. The first is the voice, traditionally conceived of as a medium of self-presence, expression, and intent, but never as a visceral, bodily and kinetic source of action and the basis for claims to truth in its own right. In this context, the emphasis will be on the role of sound in the testimony of witnesses of mass violence such as at the Nuremburg, Eichmann, and Rwanda trials and various truth commissions in South Africa and Chile. The second area is music and its relation to hate speech. Usually considered a form of expression protected by a number of constitutional norms and international human rights conventions, the purely acoustic aspects of music such as pitch, volume, or timbre must be rethought as a form of doing with the potential of causing harm. Much as many ordinary speech acts are, strictly speaking, not caused by speaking subjects, music as sound is irreducible to the intention of an author or performer, and as such cannot be exempt from regulation.