Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Caviar and Friendship: Sensational Trials and the Reinvention of Public Space

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Caviar and Friendship: Sensational Trials and the Reinvention of Public Space

Article excerpt

In the mid 1860s, Sydney was electrified by the trial of Louis Bertrand, a dentist accused of murder and adultery.1 As the press and citizenry furiously debated Bertrand's guilt and motivations, a curious assortment of bigotry and superstition entered public discourse. Explanations for the dentists putative crime were sought in his ancestry, his gender and his reading habits. Thus Bertrand was rumoured (falsely) to be the son of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a Turk, to be an unmanly character prone to sentimentality and cross-dressing and to have a deplorable taste for frivolous French fiction. He was, as the judge summed it up, 'not a human being in feeling'.2

The mix of racism, cultural snobbery and imputations of effeminacy that surfaced during the Bertrand trial suggests that sensational trials are a venue for the performance of social knowledge-the kind of knowledge that does not regularly make an appearance on the front pages of national newspapers. In 1836, for example, the trial of Mr Robinson for the murder of prostitute, Helen Jewett drew both polite and impolite sectors of New York society into a debate on the sexual proclivities of young men and fallen women.3 The sensational case of Alice Mitchell who murdered her female lover in 1892 introduced the mainstream daily press of America to the figure of the 'mannish lesbian', giving form and visibility to a type of same-sex relation that had not previously received public acknowledgment.4 Yet if sensational trials routinely catapult private matters into the public sphere, it is less such exciting revelations that concern me here, than the dross kicked up in their wake. Sensational trials, I contend, are a point of entry into everyday life, that far more elusive zone of ordinary beliefs and practices situated between the institution and the bedroom, in the interstices of the scripted and chronicled domains of private and public life.5 To address the everyday is to confront those undocumented procedures and forms of knowledge that exist beyond the realm of official discourse, practices that cultural theorists are increasingly eager to explore and increasingly sceptical of finding. As Barry Sandywell recently observed, 'Like the omnipollent term "community", "everyday life" is in continuous use within lay and theoretical discourse and yet continuously evades definition. Perhaps ... we should ask "where is everyday life"?'6 This paper argues that one answer to this question lies in the study of sensational trials.

Return for a moment to the case of Louis Bertrand, the Sydney dentist accused of murder. The discussion surrounding his case is suggestive not only of contemporary standards for gender adequacy, but also of the way judgements of gender and sexuality may be linked to a man's taste in books. Nor is this uncommon. Discussion of a crime in a sensational trial is regularly upstaged by scrutiny of the defendant's compliance with the unwritten codes of the quotidian. The trial of the Menendez brothers for killing their parents produced the information that Mr Menendez once forced a dinner-party guest to eat caviar. The trial of OJ Simpson for murdering his wife yielded endless speculation on the meaning of his visit to buy ice-cream for his children following his acquittal. And when we learn that Mr Menendez was considered a bad parent because he was cold, tyrannical and verbally abusive, and that Mrs Menendez failed as a mother because she 'had an unusual body odor' and appeared dishevelled on a school visit-we become conscious of how such everyday behaviors contribute to social hierarchies, producing in this case quite different standards of parental success for men and women.7 Sensational trials, in other words, teach us about the banality of power, the political freight carried by the commonplaces of daily life.

To propose that sensational trials have anything to teach us runs counter to the overwhelming consensus that sensational trials corrode standards of media reportage and corrupt public discourse. …

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