On the on switch – tentative steps towards a phenomenology of the law/thing, thing.

Looking down at my new electric razor this morning my attention was drawn to its on switch, and more specifically the symbol embossed there to tell me that this is, indeed, the on switch.

I’ve noticed that symbol (a circle broken by a vertical radius) on computers recently but it got me thinking (again) about the subtle ways in which mundane areas of law and code shape daily life, and contribute towards the composition and use of physical artefacts.

A quick Google search (thanks Wikipedia!) tells me that the symbol is one of the graphical symbols advocated for use on equipment by the International Electrotechnical Commission’s 60417 standard (IEC 417), a technical standard that first appeared in 1973.

The IEC 417 is not law, in the sense that that expression makes sense to me. It has not been made pursuant to a sovereign power of ruling, nor does it have express penalties for non-compliance. But doubtless most designers and engineers have IEC417 in mind when thinking about selection of symbols. Indeed there is an interface with an actual legal requirement – Article 1.7.1 of the EU Machinery Directive of 2006, to be precise. This tells me that:

“Information and warnings on the machinery should preferably be provided in the form of readily understandable symbols or pictograms. Any written or verbal information and warnings  must  be  expressed  in  an  official  Community  language  or  languages,  which may  be  determined  in  accordance  with  the  Treaty  by  the  Member  State  in  which  the machinery is placed on the market and/or put into service and may be accompanied, on request, by versions in any other official Community language or languages understood by the operators.”

So, on a small device like a razor, where there wouldn’t be room for text spelling out this button’s purpose in “an official Community or languages” it makes sense to use a symbol instead – and to select one which is already endorsed by a relevant technical community. This small step will help tick one of the many boxes that device conformity assessment will require under that Directive. And if you’re interested in the detail I’ve included a link to the European Commission’s Guide to the application of the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC which across the breadth of its 406 pages could tell you everything that you probably will never need to know about the Directive and its device conformity processes (Fraser 2010).

When I was a lawyer working in commercial practice, I would occasionally be asked to advise on issues that took me to the outer fringes of what I had been trained to think of as ‘law,’ and take me over into another, unfamiliar world – that of technical codes and standards. In Environmental Law, general regulatory principles and procedures would often be expressed in comfortably familiar lawyerly terms, but the devil would truly be in the detail. To apply those principles would require cross-reference to voluminous, alien technical documents forged by international technical committees of non-lawyer specialists. This interface between the ‘expert-lay’ and the ‘lawyerly’ horizon of knowledge and expertise fascinates me, and I have been trying to trace the influence of ‘expert-lay’ standard setting in place safety in the arboricultural, outdoor recreation and industrial safety worlds in various recent projects (for example Bennett 2010 & 2011).

In particular I recall my own difficulty of trying to advise a few years ago on the EU ban upon the use of lead solder and other now-prohibited substances from use in the manufacture of electronic equipment. The mechanisms of prohibition were familiar enough – but the level of assumed, contextual, knowledge that was required to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of such materials was at the limit of my non-technological skills. Yet my clients assumed that as this control derived from legal interventions, then this must be something best interpreted by a lawyer.

Yes and no. Such experiences emphasised to me how law-in-practice (i.e. law as it is applied to things and acts in the world) is not solely the province of a lawyer (nor does the lawyer’s realm stop at the boundary of where the law-in-books stops). Also, the answer is not given purely by a simple analysis of the words used in the legal instrument, instead – as Fish (1980 & 1989) has shown – ‘valid’ (and invalid) interpretations of those texts emerge from interpretive communities. Instead these realms, these horizons of knowledge and expertise overlap and the things, symbols and actions in the world are made with a bit of law, a bit of genre-accessing styling, some attention to ergonomic function and an eye on profit. It is also made up of the properties of physical stuff – as an assemblage of plastic, metal, lacquer and rubber (in the case of my razor).

Law’s domain is totalising in mission – but in technological areas like Environmental Law it never reaches its goal. Instead, lawyers and the law tend towards focussing upon what they know best, and what the conventions of practice foreground. I recall a colleague (a non-lawyer) who was asked to comment upon the health & safety provisions within a lease drawn up for a large institutional building. His ‘take’ on that document and its approach to anticipatory control of how that building would be run, and how responsibilities should be allocated for it was both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. He queried why the lease didn’t focus down upon a detailed stipulation of how electrical and fire control duties were being allocated between the landlord and the tenants, and yet the lease document contained copious coverage of matters which seemed of little practical relevance to him. Here was a clash of those knowledge and expertise horizons. He wasn’t wrong – those issues needed to be managed, and practical arrangements for their allocation understood by the parties, but by convention this was not seen as ‘appropriate’ content for the lease. Indeed, for each professional ‘the lease’ has different roles and meanings. To the lawyer it is about thinking through (and providing for) ‘the worst that could happen’. For the property agent the focus will be upon the flows and quantum of monies between the parties. For the engineer, he may assume that it will spell out how the building will actually run (though he may well end up disappointed).

In short, the lease will help to define the building and the bundle of usage rights for the parties. But it will not entirely map out how the building will come to be used – or the day to day accommodation and evolution that the parties may forge in their occupational practice.

Studies of law as a product of interaction and practice in the constitution of things and places are relatively few and far between.  But Silbey & Cavicchi (2005) provided a helpful starting point as part of Bruno Latour’s & Peter Weibel’s Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy exhibition in 2005. They brought to the surface (for a non-lawyer audience) how law helps to quietly shape how objects are formed and how they may be described and used. In doing so they touched upon an enticing possibility – a phenomenology of the habitual/mundane performance of the law/thing relationship.  They present law as part of the fabric of living, yet something that only reveals itself (as regards the material world) where something unexpected happens, and requires attention to stipulations and behaviours of those quiet frameworks. As they pointed out:

“Law’s constructions and mediations have been sedimented throughout the routines of daily living, helping to make things move around in more or less clear ways, without ever having to invoke, display or wield their elaborate and intricate processes…” (556)

Bennett, L. (2010). ‘Trees and public liability – who really decides what is reasonably safe?’ Arboricultural journal, 33, 141-164.

Bennett, L. (2011). A pub, a field and some signs – a case study on the pragmatics of proprietorship and legal cognition. In: COBRA 2011 – Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Research Conference, Manchester, UK, 12-13 September 2011.

Fish, S. (1980) Is there a text in this class? – the authority of interpretive communities, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Fish, S. (1989) Doing what comes naturally: change, rhetoric, and the practice of theory in literary and legal studies, Duke University Press, Durham NC.

Fraser, I. (2010) Guide to application of the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC (2nd edition – June 2010), European Commission, Brussels.

Silbey, S.S. & Cavicchi, A. (2005) ‘The common place of law – transforming matters of concern into the objects of everyday life’ in Latour, B. & Weibel, P. Making Things Public: Atmospheres for Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

(available at: http://web.mit.edu/ssilbey/www/pdf/making_things_public.pdf)


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to On the on switch – tentative steps towards a phenomenology of the law/thing, thing.

  1. Harry says:

    Hey There Lukebennett13,
    In addition to your post I was wondering, Style can be confusing for a writer. After all, it can be such a loaded word, referring to a variety of things depending on the context.
    Catch you again soon!

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