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R v Phillips – An exegesis

CW: Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence, Rape, Gaslighting, Trauma

By David Ferrell


My graphic illustrates Chapter 6 of Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull. This chapter reproduces the cross-examination of ‘Jessica’, a witness and complainant in the rape trial, R v Phillips.


By contrasting the construction of form alternatively by line and by colour, I attempt to depict how victim-survivors, engaging in the autobiographical medium of testimony, are subjected to the prescriptive narratives of law and society in the forum of the courtroom.


Lines and clear panelling are used when representing experiences and spaces mediated by sanctioned forms of story-telling. The formation of objects and scenes by clear lines signals rational spaces and acceptable narrative orderings.


The first page illustrates the court as such an epistemologically structured space, composed of conventional, strictly geometric and symmetrical panelling, and clear linework. The ordering, isolating logic of law is represented by the visual partitioning of the figures by the vectors of the bannisters.


‘Nervous disposition’ (Lee 86) – the words used by the prosecutor to introduce Jessica’s testimony to the jury – are visually superimposed upon Jessica within the frame. This suggestion by the prosecutor forms the seed of the jury’s ‘narrative of Jessica’. From this seed, other labels are invited upon the female witness. These appear, disavowed from the positive space of the panel, in the negative space of the gutters; multiplying and surrounding the sanctioned narrative.


Dominant colour and the omission of clear lines and panelling, by contrast, are used to reflect the confusion and chaos of unmediated experience; in particular, experiences of trauma, which fail to be processed by normal narrativising and linguistics discourses and remain sensorially visceral. The second page, depicting Jessica recounting her memory of the traumatic incident, blends times, scenes and perspective in intense, flowing hues of dark colour. Raw sensory imagery is evoked by diegetic sound inserts: ‘FLUSH!’ and ‘SHOUT!’. Time is blurred and confused in the middle scene, depicting multiple interactions between the same two figures without clear temporal division or a linear flow of time across the panel.


The unmediated sensorial and imaginative chaos of this traumatic memory flows into the forum of law in the third page. Reflecting law’s reliance upon heavily circumscribed and mediums of story-telling, however, Jessica’s questioning by the barrister violently re-encloses her within the narrative form of the panel, within the disciplining epistemologies of the courtroom, depriving her of her own phenomenological sense-making, confining her to the logic of her audience. The disavowed pejoratives return and surround her captivity.


The final page depicts the witness in place of the criminal in Gustav Klimt’s ‘Jurisprudence’. Like the criminal figure, the witness is reduced to bare humanity before the pervasive domination of legal evaluation. The witness stands before the law, with hands unbound, seeking justice, but instead, subjected to the law’s hegemony over truth, becomes publicly the object of judgment. This frozen portrait is ultimately enclosed by the image of the courthouse, an entrapping network of geometric lines.








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