Emerging Voices: The Time We Have, the Space We Need

Emerging Voices: The Time We Have, the Space We Need

[Michele Tedeschini is a PhD candidate at the SOAS School of Law and a legal researcher at the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).]

The symposium on emerging voices provides a suitable occasion for a moment of disciplinary introspection. Introspection or self-reflection, to use a synonym dear to critical international legal scholars (CILS) – the newstream that became mainstream, a disciplinary rebellion which turned dissent into majoritarian doctrine and thus offers a collective example of intellectual success. For newcomers like me, still halfway in and halfway out of international legal academia, the dynamics that animate the profession’s generational change exert a baffling appeal. Manifold challenges await young scholars struggling to earn a seat at the table of grown-ups. Speculating on the likelihood of overcoming those challenges involves a merging of focus and context, an investigation into the environment which sparks the investigation. In this intervention, I would like to sketch a line of inquiry concerning the chances of success of emerging scholars in contemporary international legal scholarship, a line of inquiry that emanates from within the struggle, so to speak.

Newstream and mainstream, I was saying. My interest lies in the following question: now that the newstream is firmly established as the mainstream, how can we (an amorphous category of diverse young scholars) create an alternative newstream? As I see it at this very early stage of what might (or might not) turn into an academic career, two queries hide behind this question. They relate to the dimensions in which we all live, and that in one way or another feature in any conceivable legal analysis: space and time. Where do we find the space that we need to be recognised as authorities in the field? And how do we find the time to tick the ever-growing number of boxes that succeeding in our profession requires? (I owe this second question to a fruitful conversation with Gentian Zyberi, who noted how some twenty years ago I would not have needed the time that it took me to write this contribution.)

Looking at the last few decades of international legal scholarship, the two dimensions of time and space seem to interact in unexpected ways. If we adopt a loose conceptualisation of space understood in terms of disciplinary reach, we can interpret the overflowing of legal analysis into other doctrinal domains as a spatial move. For much of contemporary scholarship rests on the assumption that international law is ultimately (but hopelessly) indeterminate, an assumption we mainly owe to Martti Koskenniemi’s employment of structural linguistics as a tool of legal inquiry. At first, the transplantation of synchronic analysis into law does away with temporal contextuality, thus reducing the field to a cross-referential liberal discoursive practice. It is by way of obliterating the element of time that a reboot of international scholarship was made possible, creating new avenues for academic debate and rerailing intellectual conversations along lines that we somewhat keep following today.

But even when the abstract functioning of disciplinary discourse is exposed, its structural bias remains unexplained. For precisely because it is indeterminate and theoretically empowers no-one, international law is also invariably used to disempower the already disempowered. Here, almost on a second thought, the contextuality of time reappears, echo of a broader post-structural turn which outside the discipline occurred in the 1970s. Et voilà, time unrolls and paves the way for historical legal analysis. It is in this relatively unexplored disciplinary pocket, that a cohort of emerging voices found their breathing space over the last ten years or so. The celebrated turn to history takes the shape of critical history, revision of the field’s conventional narratives. Eventually, even revision gives way to more (post)modern concerns. Neither what-was, nor what-we-thought-we-knew-that-was-but-we-were-wrong-about: here is what-could-have-been, an inquiry that starts with “what if” but risks leaning towards a nostalgic “if only”, as Susan Marks warned in one of her instant classics (Marks 2009). Speculation and reflection return, antonymously opposed to biography and history (Pahuja 2017).

Aside from the interplay between time and space that they reflect, the disciplinary steps of the last three decades attest to a certain reactivity of international legal doctrine with respect to other disciplines. Linguistics paves the way for structuralism, and international law follows suit. More recently, Marxism revives, and Marxist analysis of the law reacquires significant thrust. In a related twist, contingency is re-discovered by Roberto Unger, and subsequently by international lawyers, too. It is a process of contamination – possibly positive (whatever that might mean), but contamination, nonetheless. Curiously, one of the latest academic developments has brought the focus of investigation on the temporalities of international law (Schultz 2016). For once, given the attention that Marxist economists are currently devoting to the (mis)organisation of time under capitalism (Hägglund 2019), international legal analysis might have anticipated other disciplines, in a reversal of the contaminating process. Regardless of who came first, the question that emerging voices should perhaps be asking – both as a way of addressing their professional plight and by way of intellectual endeavour – is whether (or rather how) international law is complicit in framing value as a function of time spent carrying out waged labour. Context and focus merge once again: we should be using time to think about time. But also to ponder: should we use our time differently? Is the amount of resources we are required to invest in the profession fair, in any meaningful sense? If international lawyers have unveiled their discipline as part of the problem, one of the culprits of the capitalist disaster, an ingredient of the neoliberal maelstrom (Moyn 2018) – why would they feed back into academia the same logics by which capital poisons the entire system of production? And yet, as I said at the beginning, young scholars are constantly pushed to do more: more teaching, more marking, more blogging, more tweeting, more writing, more conferencing. It has to be seen whether everyone can find the time to do all that. Not only because we have family and friends to see, hobbies and interests beyond the professional sphere, personal problems to wrestle with. Endogenous reasons also play a part. An example drawn from personal experience: I have always been a slow reader in my native language. Imagine when it comes to English. Imagine when it comes to jurisprudence, in English. And although it is not there, the “more reading” that is missing in the more-to-do list is by no means less required than any of the other items. In fact, it is a prerequisite to all of them.

Even if we find the time, at any rate, we still need to carve out sufficient space for our voices to be heard. Where do we position ourselves? What niche are we supposed to explore? Hopefully, celebrating and re-reading those who made it before us, thereby projecting our images through someone else’s lenses, is not the only option we have. But of course we must learn from previous successful bids at emergence. Looking at CILS in particular, two lessons come handy for drawing this contribution to a close. The first lies not in one of the points scored by critical scholars, but rather in one of the shortcomings their theories often incur: that of inexplicably ending their damning analyses on an upbeat note, as Anthony Carty noted a decade ago (Carty 2007). I will avoid doing that here. The second lesson comes from the invitation to take responsibility for our actions and our profession, which according to Jason Beckett represents the core message of CILS. Yet, I understand that core message as entailing something more: responsibility in performing the profession, sure, but also responsibility towards the profession (Tzouvala 2016), acknowledgment that law is not always the answer, and much less frequently that we might want to believe it is. That we need fewer institutions and more contestation, less law and more politics, possibly even fewer (international) lawyers and more (local?) politicians. The temporal dimension keeps coming into sight: resources are limited, and so is our time. There is only so much that we can tackle and change, and for some of us – some of those who struggle to emerge as international legal scholars, and not all of them, to be sure – the question: where do we find the time and space to emerge? might just be the wrong one. For it is clear that not all of us can possibly emerge, and therefore some might have to stop trying. Not because they ­(we) cannot rise to the challenge, but because it might be advisable to direct our efforts towards other ends. Because the more we snigger at populists and congratulate each other on Twitter, the more we retreat into a garden that is further and further secluded from much of the rest of the world. It is a space crowded of images of ourselves, yet one in which the pervasive forces of capital swallow our time (and our best) just as it happens outside.

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Emerging Voices, Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia
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