Revelation and Rhetoric: A Critical Model of Forensic Discourse

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Over the past thirty years or so, theoretical work in such fields as legal semiotics and law and literature has argued that the legal process is profoundly rhetorical. At the same time, a number of communication-based disciplines such as semiotics, sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology have provided, particularly in interdisciplinary combination with law, a wealth of empirical evidence on, and insight into, the micro-contexts of language and communication in the legal process. However, while these invaluable nitty-gritty analyses provide empirical support for a rhetorical thesis, work in these areas has tended to ignore rhetoric as an explanatory principle. This article introduces an overarching rhetorical framework for the discursive construction and management of cases in contemporary Anglo-American legal processes. Taking ‘forensic’ as relating to the conduct of cases and ‘discourse’ as semiosis-in-practice, I argue that the practices within which forensic discourse is embedded are not, as the received legal view would have it, aimed at revealing an impartial truth but are deeply rhetorical practices aimed at persuading decision-makers to provide a remedy for a claimed wrong. By looking across forensic texts and contexts, I identify common elements of forensic discourse that can be found both in classical forensic orations and throughout the modern legal process and consider how these intersect with critical forces of agency and structure and the particularities of semiosis in situated context. An awareness of commonalities across forensic discourse can help sharpen our focus on the critical causes and consequences of individual and structural difference and point to consequential suggestions for reform.