The legal life of objects : speaking evidence and mute subjects in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson

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2014-05
Authors
Henry, Valerie Anne
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In this paper, I argue that legal authorities assign speaking power to objects and evidence in the courtroom in order to deny speaking power to racialized subjects and police racial identities. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) demonstrates how the law transverses the human/object boundary in order to regulate legal definitions of identity. I examine the legal animation of the textual document, as exemplified by the last will and testament; the knife, a material object that as a murder weapon is responsible for condemning the accused; and the fingerprint, a unique form of bodily evidence that merges the textual and the material, in order to understand how these objects blur the line between the living and the deceased, between human and nonhuman agency, and between body and text. My methodology brings object studies into conversation with a literature and the law approach in order to show not only how the nineteenth-century American literary imagination was concerned with testing and regulating racial boundaries, but also how fictions employed by the law produce subjects and objects. My investigation reminds us that when evidence appears to “speak for itself,” this speech act has been carefully orchestrated by human legal authorities who determine what the evidence can be understood to mean and for whom it speaks.

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