For media studies, law is usually treated as a background factor, not as central as the details of the text, the times, or the hearts and minds of the audience. But what if textual pleasure is conditioned by things not in the text at all? What if it is linked to, say, ownership, that is, the coerced flow of resources from some to others, to the legitimized violence of the State? By placing discussions of legal issues next to film clips, an IMR theme week on policy raises intriguing questions about the role of coercive social power in the production of textual pleasure.
Consider the closing credits of It's a Wonderful Life (here, run backwards, for reasons that will soon become clear). The film, certainly popular by any definition of that term, was by most accounts burned indelibly into American popular consciousness because of a legal mistake: not particularly successful at its theatrical release in 1946, the film fell into the public domain when the studio accidently failed to renew its copyright in 1974. According to the common wisdom, television stations across the U.S. then got in the habit of running the film in heavy rotation during the Christmas season as a cheap way to fill their airwaves. So the film became part of the cultural background of a generation of Americans, many of whom still tear up at the end when war hero Harry Bailey appears, offering a toast "to my big brother George. The richest man in town!"
In the early 1990s, industry lawyers mobilized some thin legal excuses to recommodify the film; copyright of colorization, soundtrack, and the original novel were said to be enough to assert control over the whole thing. This defining text of American sentimentality and nostalgia cannot be reduced to economic forces. Yet without these machinations of property law, American sentimentality and nostalgia might well have been defined differently. Why, apart from a mystical attachment to a transcendant subjectivity, should a materialist analysis of culture treat that fact as somehow external to the "essence" of the text? I love this movie, but why should textual form or lived experience be more important to explaining my love than the legal technicalities?
Is there a way of reading culture that brings legal force out of the shadows? Running the clip backwards, foregrounding the normally ignored legal assertions of the closing credits in the text, is an admittedly gimmicky effort to gesture towards some as yet undefined mode of reading that refuses to separate the sinews of power from the experience of the text itself.