2 min read

Visualising legal fictions

I just got reminded of the poem 'Legal Fiction' by William Empson, which takes the ad coelum doctrine, the common law idea that you own the space above and below your property 'up to Heaven and down to Hell', and makes the geometry visible:

Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men.

Your well fenced out real estate of mind
No high flat over the nomad citizen
Looks over, or train leaves behind.

Your rights extend under and above your claim
Without bound; you own land in Heaven and Hell;
Your part of the earth’s surface and mass are the same,

Of all cosmos’ volume, and all stars as well.

Your rights reach down where all owners meet, in Hell’s
Pointed exclusive conclave, at earth’s centre
(Your spun farm’s root still on that axis dwells);

And up, through galaxies, a growing sector.

You are nomad yet; the lighthouse beam you own
Flashes, like Lucifer, through the firmament.

Earth’s axis varies; your dark central cone
Wavers a candle’s shadow, at the end.

So you can see what this law represents, with the lighthouse beam of property claims rotating through space. (I copied the text from this blog post.)

Right now I can only think of one other bit of text in this weird little microgenre of 'making legal/social entities visible', this passage from Herbert Simon making market transactions visible as red lines between green globs representing firms:

Suppose that ["a mythical visitor from Mars"] approaches the Earth from space, equipped with a telescope that revels social structures. The firms reveal themselves, say, as solid green areas with faint interior contours marking out divisions and departments. Market transactions show as red lines connecting firms, forming a network in the spaces between them. Within firms (and perhaps even between them) the approaching visitor also sees pale blue lines, the lines of authority connecting bosses with various levels of workers. As our visitors looked more carefully at the scene beneath, it might see one of the green masses divide, as a firm divested itself of one of its divisions. Or it might see one green object gobble up another. At this distance, the departing golden parachutes would probably not be visible.

No matter whether our visitor approached the United States or the Soviet Union, urban China or the European Community, the greater part of the space below it would be within green areas, for almost all of the inhabitants would be employees, hence inside the firm boundaries. Organizations would be the dominant feature of the landscape. A message sent back home, describing the scene, would speak of "large green areas interconnected by red lines." It would not likely speak of "a network of red lines connecting green spots."

(I've never read the original paper, I got this from Cosma Shalizi's In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You.)

Now I'm wondering what else is in this microgenre... any ideas?