Judging Magic: Can You See the Sleight of Hand?

Cultural critic bell hooks says, “Movies make magic. They change things. They take the real and make it into something else right before our very eyes.” Movies do not, of course, have an exclusive hold on this ability to change one thing into something else. Law, too, possesses this power. Certainly, one must acknowledge some significant differences in the “magic” of filmic and legal texts. For the most part, as willing consumers of cultural products, we “choose” to subject ourselves to the magic of film. We sit in a darkened theater and let ourselves be taken away to a different place. Or, we sit in the darkness resisting the film’s attempts at enchantment or provocation. Law, on the other hand, works its magic notwithstanding the resistance of its objectors. Through judicial and legislative pronouncements, law changes “the real,” and declares that something once named thus shall henceforth be named otherwise. With the flick of a pen, transformation occurs before our eyes: the hiring of a white woman by an Asian man is a punishable offense; a First Nations woman marries a white man and is “an Indian” no more; women are “persons” capable of sitting in the Canadian senate; marriage is no longer an exclusively heterosexual institution. One might, of course, protest the use of the word “magic” to describe such modifications of “the real” law can both change the world and prevent it from changing, situated as it is between the demands of stability and change. But, the skeptic might assert, law’s ability to bring about and resist change is a product of democratic mechanisms and judicial decision-making (albeit supplemented by relations of force). “Magic” may not be the most apt descriptor. And yet, there is something in the comparison. Reflecting back on the experience of first reading and then teaching Orit Kamir’s book Framed: Women in Law and Film, I am reminded of Robert Gordon’s comment that the true power of a legal regime lies less in the relations of force it inscribes and brings to bear, than in “its capacity to persuade people that the world described in its images and categories is the only attainable world in which a sane person would want to live.”