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Getting a Divorce

On 42nd Avenue

 

Javiera Araya-Moreno, 2015

Walking late to an appointment on 42nd Avenue in Brooklyn, I came across this advertisement. Good material for a qualitative analysis course, I thought. Many principles of the discourse analysis are deployed on the poster. In principle, there is no need for more information about the context. Clearly, the general strategy was targeting people wanting to get divorced without their spouses’ consent, and that Spanish-speaking people are potential clients. To know where this advertisement was placed, or to visit thedivorcecenter.com, or to guess that getting a divorce for 400 dollars seems a good price, is not necessary. When we say something, we are also saying the contrary, structural discourse specialists would say. Financial matters, spouse agreement, and language would be, therefore, something to be taken into account when considering getting a divorce in that part of the world.

Beyond the qualitative analysis that I was trying to carry out while walking to my appointment, this advertisement made me think about the connections between the law and daily life. Because, after all, getting divorced is a legal thing; little matters the actual relationship between the former-couple-to-be. What is important is the validity of the contract – a paper – and the signature of the spouse – not his/her consent. The distinction arises so clearly when we read the advertisement: on the one side, the economic concerns about finding the cheapest divorce lawyer, the emotional matters which often come with couple's decisions, and the linguistic, racial, and ethnic dimensions of being a Latino looking for a divorce in the States. On the other side, the apparently less complicated world of a paper which, thank to legal magic, converts married people into divorced people. In other words, on one side there is real life; on the other side, the law.

The distinction appears so clearly that suspicion inevitably arises within me. I think about The Common Place of Law (Ewick & Silvey, 1998), a work that completely challenges the separation between law and society. For its authors, the study of law from a sociological point of view should not only focus on traditionally legal spaces, but also on daily situations in which law – although counterintuitively – is present: “[m]oving away from a focus on use as exclusively the mobilization of formal or official legal actors, we must consider legal use in other contexts, within families and neighborhoods, workplaces, and for purposes unintended by formal lawmakers” (p. 34). Their thesis is that the distinction between law andsociety does not resist the analysis of what happens with real people in their real lives (they interviewed more than four hundred people in New Jersey to get to that conclusion).

In fact, if I take this reasoning further forward, I discover that the very existence of that advertisement on 42nd Avenue is the result of the imbrication of social and legal spaces – as if these two spaces exist autonomously! Placing an advertisement on the side of that building is probably allowed by some law, so likely is the content of advertisement in the United States and in the state of New York. Without a doubt, some law regulates the commercial agreement between The Divorce Center and whoever rents the space. Like museums – “[t]hrough trusts bequests, incorporation and property law, the museum is a legal invention as much as an architectural, historical, artistic and craft enterprise” (Silvey & Cavicchi, 2005, p. 558) – or cars, spaces that are not in principle considered appropriate to the determination of judicial issues, becomejudicial arenas in which judicial questions are negotiated, enacted, subverted or just referred to. The distinction between the social and the judicial is not relevant anymore... as this picture shows it, getting divorced is at the same time about signing a paper and dealing with money and language issues.

 

* The quotations are taken from The Common Place of Law – Stories from Everyday Life (Patricia Ewick & Susan S. Silvey, 1998, The University of Chicago Press) and “The Common Place of Law – Transforming Matters of Concern into the Objects of Everyday Life” (Susan S. Silvey & Ayn Cavicchi, in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel (Eds.), Making Things Public – Atmospheres of Democracy, 2005, ZKM & MIT Press, pp. 556-563).