The Visual Rhetoric of Lady Justice: Understanding Jurisprudence Through 'Metonymic Tokens'

By Bradly A. Knox
2014, Vol. 6 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |

Lady Justice, also commonly know as 'Justitia,' has important symbolic significance. However, as we will find through the use of metonymic tokens, the meanings of justice forwarded by Justitia are complex. This paper examines Justitia and the specific Stoic, Enlightenment, and Christian values of justice that the tokens represent in concert with one another.

The genealogy of Justitia dates back to Greek mythology. Themis, who was wife, aunt, and counselor to Zeus, was considered Goddess over divine law and order. Following from the archaic legends, the rise of the Church amended Justitia “not as a goddess but as a personification of ancient virtues” (Resnik & Curtis, 1987, p. 1729). In contemporary times, Justitia has adorned courtrooms and the public forum as a trope to the Court of Law. Justitia has been commonly associated with jurisprudence. She is comprised of microelements, for instance the icon is usually depicted with a blindfold, scales, and the sword. These microelements are what I will call “metonymic tokens.”

Lady Justice

Metonymic tokens are microelements that make up the macro-composition of an artifact. The definition of metonymy is the “reference to something or someone by naming one of its attributes” (Silva Rhetoricae). From this definition, I extrapolate the parts (metonymic tokens) that reference Justitia. The notion of metonymic tokens extends our understanding of polysemy by offering tools to deal with not only multiple meanings that exist in a metaphoric artifact (like Justitia) but also the micro-level meanings that exist with that artifact (i.e., blindfold, scales, and sword). The microelements hold meanings and cultural insight apart from Justitia, but at the same time the multiple tokens will integrate with Justitia, creating a meaning of justice. In other words, the microelements (tokens) contribute to the main artifact (Justitia); by using metonymic tokens, we, as rhetorical critics, can partition interpretations from an overall meaning, juxtapose partitioned interpretations to either create interpretations anew or greater emphasize an existing value, and dive into new possibilities of belief for deep, hermeneutic insight.

Justitia is a common symbol in U.S. courtrooms, and even law discourses. “Scholars, judges and attorneys have used this popular symbol to eloquently, and sometimes even passionately, articulate the state of justice whether it be in books, court decisions or the drama of a courtroom” (Gehringer, 1980, p. 744). With the aid of metonymic tokens, as we will come to find, Justitia is a figure that not only represents justice, but also portrays a version of justice, riddled with stoic ideals and Enlightenment values, charged with a Christian-like flavor of righteousness. The blindfold symbolizes objectivity and stoicism, the scales represent empiricism and enlightenment values, and, the sword appeals to enforcement and restraint. These ideals can be differently represented based on the permutations of tokens that comprise the statue. For example, some have created critiques of U.S. justice by changing the specific token that represents the ideal that corresponds with it, by making a figure of Justitia with her blindfold “slipping” to allow a watchful eye for the other, non-Stoic, means to prudent decision making that might exist in deliberations of jurisprudence.i With the rhetorical concept of metonymic tokens, precision is added to polysemic readings by way of textured understandings of the symbolic composition of seemingly singular metaphors. Here, through a hermeneutic reading, I will “thicken” polysemy and our understandings of potential conceptualizations of justice and its meanings.

The “Metonymic Token”

Kathryn and Clark Olson’s “Beyond Strategy: A Reader-Centered Analysis of Irony’s Dual Persuasive Uses” analyzes the multiple interpretations of the Statue of Liberty as it appears in caricature cartoons. In their paper, they address similar notions that contribute to an overall meaning and that connects back to the metonymic token, though they do not use such a term directly. They allude to the varying items that are presented in the cartoon (see Figure 2) then they extrapolate meaning from a single item’s “property” or “state of being,” which isolates the token as a standalone contribution to the whole picture. My analysis through metonymic tokens is similar to the process Olsen and Olson take.

Cartoon by Dennis Renault, Sacramento Bee, 1986.

Figure 2: Cartoon by Dennis Renault, Sacramento Bee, 1986.

Artifacts that are polysemous in nature are interpreted differently across a wide audience. “Readers may detect, in whole or part, the cartoonist’s preferred interpretation...” (Olson & Olson, 2004, p. 38) but they may also wrest control over meaning from the author through oppositional or resistive readings. Figure 2 can be broken up into multiple tokens such as: the window, the U.S. flag, the Statue of Liberty, Ronald Reagan, and the INS officer. The complexity of an artifact or message contributes to the composition of the tokens as seen in this example. In this case, Figure 2 is composed of at least 5 tokens that can be referred to when making an analysis of the whole picture.

Expanding on a single item’s “property” or “state of being” is important for understanding the metonymic token. As Olson and Olson put it, “Reagan wears the proper legal robes and holds the gavel, and the INS representative wears an official law enforcement uniform. The U.S. flag stands closer to Reagan and the bailiff’s side of the courtroom than to the defendant’s, and the window letting in light opens on Reagan’s side of the frame” (p. 40). The need for the critic to recognize the significance of each metonymic token can be seen due to the significance that each token in the picture plays in the development of an overall meaning. For example, Olson and Olson mention the orientation of the U.S. flag as “closer to Reagan and the bailiff’s side of the courtroom,” which shows us a reading that U.S. justice favors “Reagan’s central American and refugee policies” (Olson & Olson, 2004, p. 40); they could only draw such a conclusion by extrapolating the “property,” or “state of being” of the flag. Furthermore, Olson and Olson extrapolate the impact of the Reagan caricature on the message. Reagan is depicted as wearing a robe that would encourage a reading that favors him as a judge of the courtroom. A reading of the text requires an understanding of each metonymic token as it applies to the development of an overall meaning for complex artifacts or messages.

I propose a rhetorical analysis through metonymic tokens because when an audience is presented with an artifact with some degree of complexity, it is important for a critic to find “hermeneutic depth” (Ceccarelli, 1998, p. 408) while accounting for polysemic opportunity. The idea of the metonymic token contributes to the critic’s understanding of polysemy, in that a complex artifact displays many rhetorical meanings for an audience and the tokens add precision for the critic to deal with these meanings. I am interested in parsing the metonymic tokens in finding the “range of interpretations on symbolic grounds” (Olson & Olson, 2004, p. 47) that can be found by juxtaposing micro and macro metonymy within Justitia.

Delving into hermeneutic depth via metonymic tokens allows us a more powerful lens for determining cultural meanings in a complex artifact like Justitia. To demonstrate this, I will do a reading of the individual tokens. This study aims to extend “previous conceptual reflection into new discursive territory, thickening the concept [of polysemy] and illuminating the practice along the way” (Jasinski, 2001, p. 257). The metonymic token “thickens” polysemy by isolating parts of an artifact to help the reader parse out deeper meanings, adding precision to a polysemic read of the microelements in a complex artifact. In doing so, we learn of new ways to read microelements contained within a main artifact as well as fine-tune our reading to make sense of possible ideologies that would otherwise be missed by juxtaposing those individual tokens against one another. In the following sections, I will draw on the blindfold, scales, and the sword as individual “tokens” from the artifact, Justitia, and provide a hermeneutic reading. Following the hermeneutic foundation of the three tokens, I will also address the case of metonymic interaction – the interface between two or more tokens – deriving a meaning, or interpretation surfaced by this process.

The Blindfold

The blindfold is representative of an “honest” justice that does not consider any individual based on his or her social class related to wealth, fame, health, etc. Charles Taylor states, “disengaged rationality seems to separate us from our own narrow, egotistic standpoint and make us capable of grasping the whole picture. It is what allows us to become ‘impartial spectators’ of the human scene” (Taylor, 1989, p. 331). We see how the blindfold symbolizes a disengaged rationality by obscuring vision and instilling impartiality. By removing ourselves from “seeing” from our “own narrow, egotistic standpoints” objectivity can be preserved. Upholding the value of impartiality, Taylor attests, “there is such a thing as moral objectivity....growth in moral insight often requires that we neutralize some of our reactions....petty jealousy, egoism, or other unworthy feelings” (Taylor, 1989 p. 8). The blindfold is the “neutralizer” to the “unworthy feelings” that Taylor notes. From this neutralization, we can gather a sense of “disengaged rationality.”

The blindfold appeals to rationality through traditional rather than restorative justice.ii Decorated attorney Frank Hill states how the traditional justice “system does not make room for emotional expression; it emphasizes rational argument, which may be informed by emotion or may persuade through underlying appeals to emotion and compassion, but cannot function as a vehicle for the expression of emotional states” (Hill, 2008). Rationality is a fundamental ideal within traditional justice. In contrast, restorative justice follows from the idea that “our own nature is no longer defined by a substantive rational ordering of purposes, but by our own inner impulses and our place in the interlocking whole” (Taylor, 1989 p. 301). With attention to the differences between traditional and restorative justice, we see a shift from rationality to lack thereof. The blindfold appeals to rationality by removing us from the temptation to commit to biases because “our being rational is identified with our being attuned with the order of things, potentially capable of seeing and loving it” (Taylor, 1989 p. 300). So far, we have seen how the blindfold has applied to the process of traditional justice preserved by disengaging from emotion. Now, I would like to turn to another aspect of impartiality, stoicism.

The blindfold is also charged with stoic measures, for “emotion misconstrues what should properly be regarded as indifferents” (Pfau, 2010, p. 299). Recall that impartiality is an attribute of judging fairly, calling it as you see it, objective. However, the result we get when we curb our emotional response becomes another reading carried by the blindfold. A “stoic” individual positively contributes to the jurisprudent system by subscribing to the blindfold. “Stoicism conceives of practical rationality and judgment” helping “bring about a society of kosmopolitai unconstrained by political subcultures and social hierarchies” (p. 305). The blindfold is a metonymic token of Stoicism because we are removed from the erratic emotional response of social standing or social capital by veiling the eyes – aspiring to impartiality.

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