Susan Tanner, Book Review: Franz-Willem Korsten’s Art as an Interface of Law and Justice @hartpublishing

Frans-Willem Korsten’s Art as an Interface of Law and Justice

Book Review

Susan Tanner*

A recent and formidable entrant into the world of Law and Literature is Frans-Willem Korsten’s Art as an Interface of Law and Justice: Affirmation, Disturbance, Disruption (Hart Publishing, 2021). In Art as an Interface, Korsten brings a contemplative and timeless perspective to some very timely legal problems. He deftly juxtaposes legal questions with artwork that can help illuminate important questions of justice and as such, makes the methods of Law and Literature especially relevant.

Korsten, a Senior University Lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society in the Netherlands,[1] brings a distinctly European philosophical and political lens to examine the interplay between law and justice in multiple iterations that span national boundaries. While his philosophical underpinnings seem to be rooted in Continental philosophy and deeply influenced by the work of theorists like Brecht and Witteveen, he draws upon a wide-ranging array of legal theories from everyone from Robert Cover to Hanna Arendt to Richard Posner. Korsten also attempts to bring a universality to his examples by rooting them in larger frameworks of justice and philosophies which he declares to be universal.

One of the central themes throughout the book is the tension between Law and Justice – a theme that seems especially prescient in today’s political landscape. The book begins with the premise that calls for justice are often unwelcome and “annoying”[2] and can disrupt hegemonic systems of law. Korsten seeks to explain the tension between law and justice through an examination of instances where works of art with a juridical focus and/or legal dramatics can provide foci to understand the conflict between the two.

Korsten posits a complicated view of the role of logic in the legal system – one that assumes that some reason-making can serve as a check on unfettered judicial or political power. But one that contemplates the problem with an overreliance on logic as a way of engendering compliance with legal rule-making. At the heart of his argument is the contention that law and justice are not perfectly co-terminus. The book description explains, “This book looks at the way in which the ‘call for justice’ is portrayed through art and presents a wide range of texts from film to theatre to essays and novels to interrogate the law… This study shows how art operates as an interface here, between two spheres: the larger realm of justice and the more specific system of law. This interface has a double potential. It can make law and justice affirm or productively disturb one another.”[3]

The book is dense and yet accessible. It does a good job of introducing and briefly explaining the theories of many key law and literature scholars, while simultaneously criticizing, complicating or extending their theories. The works of art under analysis are each presented within their historical and rhetorical context, and Korsten does an admirable job of explaining how the public and critical reception of the art work sheds light onto deeper questions of law’s dramatics.


Media of Art as an Interface of Law and Justice



Each chapter stands well on its own and yet builds toward a larger argument about the role of justice in the legal system, focusing on a different artist or work of art, either visual art[4] or traditional literary work.

  1. Art as the Interface of Law and Justice: From Annoyance to an Ethics of Affirmation

In his introductory chapter, Korsten lays out his theory of the interface of Art and Law. He explains that by interface, he means a way to translate between two worlds, much like the interface of a computer program’s Graphic User Interface (GUI). In this way, he separates himself from the likes of rhetorical scholars such as James Boyd White — scholars who would argue for the constitutive nature of the law – a theory that requires a more direct link between the rhetoric of the language of the law and the constitutive public who influence and are influenced by the law.[5] In his 2017 article, Öffentlichkeit and Law’s Behind the Scenes: Theatrical and Dramatic Appearance in European and US American Criminal Law, Korsten argues that legal proceedings in both the Netherlands and the US lack the publicity (and public-ness), [6]  and thus we see the argument continued in this book that our current system of legal publicity is not conducive to direct engagement without an intermediary such as art.

  1. Logic of Fear vs Logic of Desire: Milo Rau’s The Congo Tribunal and the Care for Law

This chapter examines Swiss author and filmmaker Milo Rau’s staged tribunal to ascertain responsibility for the decades-long violence that haunts the Eastern Congo. Korsten examines the interplay of the extra-legal tribunal in its historical context dating back to theater in ancient Athens. The tribunal is pivotal, at least partly because “theatre historically precedes the legal and public enactment of law.”[7]

  1. Logic of Tragedy vs Logic of Comedy : Elfriede Jelinek’s Ulrike Maria Stuart and Princess-dramas: Death and the Maiden

In Chapter 3, Korsten seeks to explain “what happens if the realm of justice is unjust and art as an interface cannot offer a door, or a gateway from the side of the system of law to offer the possibility of justice.”[8] To do so, he examines the work of Efriede Jelinek whose plays Ulrike Maria Stuart and the princess drama series highlight when “systems of law are very much operative, yet their relations with the realms of justice are filled with frictions.”[9]

  1. Logic of the Official vs Logic of the Officious: The Force to Form and Forum in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive

Chapter 4 explores the relation between legal memory and law’s record-keeping. In this, perhaps his most compelling chapter, Korsten revisits the notion of Öffentlichkeit through two novels by Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive.  These novels reflect Luiselli’s own experiences helping refugee children[10] and serve as a way to bring narrative to legal memories. Korsten argues, “the generic term ‘story’ connects the two different domains of law and justice. Legal issues concern whether crimes have been registered and recorded, and whether they have been numbered and mapped”[11] and serve as an accountability measure. But when records are incomplete, “the issue in terms of justice is how we can ever deal justly with the horrors of the happenings that were not registered or reported, whether by word of mouth or on paper.”[12]

  1. Logic of Personhood vs logic of Self: Threat of Packs in Vondel’s ‘Water-wolf’ and the Shift of Commons into Property.

In this chapter, Korsten uses historical maps to explain the process of legal sovereignty through metaphorical means, both personal and environmental. He argues, “Carefully arranged, artistically prepared, imagined and mapped private and public spheres within which manoeuverable legal puppets are allowed to play their role, have much helped to eliminate natural life-worlds and restrict or counter fluidity.”[13]


  1. Logic of Completion vs Logic of Antinomy: Corruption and Well-being from Marek Hlasko, to Chibundu Onuzo, to the American Suburban Grass Turf and Fritz Haeg

In chapter 6, Korsten “aim[s] to explore three different modalities of corruptions’ disruptive force.” He uses novels by Market Hlasko and Chibundu Onuzo to argue that, “Corruption can become a matter of a collectively shared culture; it may be deemed function, something that veils its disruptive force; and corruption can be a matter of unacknowledged (ecological) disruption.”[14]

  1. Logic of Violence vs Logic of Empathy: Justice and Law In Chiasmus through George Eliot’s Daniel Duronda”

In chapter 7, Korsten explores theories of law and politics predicated on force and coercion that seek to regulate relations between “friend and foe.” Through George Eliot’s Daniel Duronda, he highlights “two related kinds of logic, which affirm and disturb one another, [those of] logic of violence and the logic of empathy.”[15]

  1. Logic of Reason vs Logic of Dream: Epistemic Authority, Habeas Corpus, Hallucination – Nicholas Refit’s Only God Forgives

This chapter adds an interesting dimension to a film with mixed critical reaction, Nicholas Refit’s Only God Forgives. Through his analysis dream/waking/hallucination, Korsten provides an interesting literary analysis of the themes of justice and law in the movie.


The result of these sustained studies of the “interface” between individual works of art and legal philosophies is a thought-provoking and well-considered book that builds toward a general theory of law and justice but that is also able to include in-depth analyses of multiple different literary/artistic works that span genres. As such, it does a good job of demarcating the difference between literary and rhetorical analysis of the law and shows the strength of a good literary rhetorical analysis while comparing and contrasting many of the key figures of law and humanities.

Copyright Susan Tanner, 2021.

[NB: The author received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for her honest review–Ed.]

* Assistant Professor of Professional Practice, Louisiana State University Law Center.

[1] Frans Willem Korsten – Leiden University, (last visited Jul 27, 2021).

[2] Frans-Willem Korsten, Art as an Interface of Law and Justice: Affirmation, Disturbance, Disruption 1 (2021).

[3] Korsten, supra note 2.

[4] See, e.g. Id. at 87.

[5] Korsten, supra note 2.

[6] F. W. A. Korsten, Öffentlichkeit and Law’s Behind the Scenes: Theatrical and Dramatic Appearance in European and US American Criminal Law, 18 German Law Review 399–421 (2017).

[7] Korsten, supra note 2 at 41.

[8] Id. at 44.


[10] Heller McAlpin, Real Life Informs A Tense Trip In “Lost Children Archive,” NPR, February 12, 2019, (last visited Aug 4, 2021); James Wood, Writing About Writing About the Border Crisis, The New Yorker (2019), (last visited Aug 4, 2021).

[11] Korsten, supra note 2 at 71.

[12] Id.

[13] Korsten, supra note 2 at 110.

[14] Id. at 113.

[15] Id. at 134.