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In Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin argues that translations enable a work’s afterlife. Afterlife is not what happens after death but what allows a work (or event or idea) to go on living and to evolve over time and place and iteration. In its afterlife, the original is transformed and renewed. In this piece I explore film’s visual translation of law and the role film plays in law’s afterlife. Film translates law not by translating from one language to another, but by translating between media and discourses. The cultural-critical lens of translation highlights the discursive similarities and dissonances between law and film; it allows us to see the legal in the aesthetic and the aesthetic in the legal; and it gives us new purchase on thinking about the ways that word, image, power and justice operate in and through different media. I take up the western HBO series Deadwood and the science fiction film Serenity to explore the representations of law, state and violence at the borderlands of time, place and authority in order to illustrate the layers of legal translation that film can occasion.

My argument focuses on how a few specific scenes translate the dilemmas of state authority, violence and law into the visual, and explores how the visual translations allow a different retelling of legal concerns. I also re-read the film genres in which these specific legal preoccupations most often circulate as legal genres. Both the western and science fiction, as genres, offer two parallel narratives about a foundational problem in law—the relationship of the state to violence. The narratives of the western tend to be progressive yet nostalgic; they are stories about the coming of civilization and the largely successful efforts of the state to reign in excessive private violence by exercising a monopoly on violence. But they are nostalgic for the kind of men—moral individualists—who were the precursors to the state but whose existence is incompatible with state power. The narratives of science fiction are more often dystopic and its stories about law and violence come in two versions. In one version, science fiction portrays the state as perfecting its monopoly on violence to the point of abuse. The state itself becomes the perpetrator of excessive violence. Another version of the science fiction genre narrates the future breakdown of the state, the dissolution of its monopoly on force and the return to private violence. This second version is a marriage of the two genres—the futuristic western. These two film genres in particular often translate the legal anxiety over the state’s unstable relationship to violence in such a way as to give visual life to its instability, an instability that is both suppressed in and central to legal discourse.

Publication Citation

Naomi Mezey, Law's Visual Afterlife: Violence, Popular Culture, and Translation Theory, in Imagining Legality: Where Law Meets Popular Culture (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, forthcoming)