International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: The Dispositional Formations of International Lawyers – A Commentary on Akbar Rasulov’s ‘The Discipline as a Field of Struggle: The Politics and the Economy of Knowledge Production in International Law’ Part II

International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: The Dispositional Formations of International Lawyers – A Commentary on Akbar Rasulov’s ‘The Discipline as a Field of Struggle: The Politics and the Economy of Knowledge Production in International Law’ Part II

[Dr. Adil Hasan Khan is a Senior Research Fellow with the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne.]

Staying with habitus, in this section I want to develop upon the perceived shortcomings in Bourdieu’s project of producing a sociology of knowledge on account of his restrictive conceptualisation and formulation of this concept. This is relevant because Rasulov’s previously discussed (see Part I) field emphasising approach that lacks a concern for habitus, ultimately reproduces (though more acutely) a conceptual hierarchy that privileges the concept of field over the concept of habitus that is already baked into Bourdieu’s own conceptual schema. In other words, simply reading more Bourdieu (even if less selectively) might not be enough.

I develop this primarily through the scholarship of the anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad. A part of Mahmood and Asad’s critique pertains to the socio-economic determinism at work in Bourdieu’s account of the engendering of habitus which leaves little room for those traditions of dispositional formation that cut across class and social positions (which are no doubt being inflected by various hierarchical relations of power) (p. 848). Undoubtedly one explanation for this is the close tethering of the concepts of habitus and field for Bourdieu (p. 117), such that he ends up paying relatively little attention to the question of how different habituses gets acquired in practice. Instead, he is more concerned with a different order of question. To wit, describing how acquired habituses operate to render participants more ‘inclined’ towards the force of the logic of the disciplinary fields that they happen to inhabit and thus to reproduce and naturalise ‘objective social conditions’ through embodied practice (p. 138). A field, in Bourdieu’s account, is basically a site of struggle over different forms of capital – in other words, it is a market – and the habitus of its participants functions to motivate them to participate in this struggle and to unquestioningly value its forms of capital. 

Relatedly, when it does come to Bourdieu’s (limited) reflections on the question of the acquisition of habitus, both Mahmood and Asad query the limitations of Bourdieu’s reduction of the practices associated with said acquisition necessarily to modes of pre-conscious ‘learning’ ultimately lacking in ‘reflexive distance’ and deliberation. This is only consistent with Bourdieu’s above-mentioned conception of the function of habitus – essentially as a form of ‘false consciousness’ (p. 53) that inclines participants in different fields to believe in the ‘obviousness’ of the ‘reality’ of the field. The formative training itself (revealingly described as “the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy” [p. 69]), is conceived as taking the form of repeated symbolic rituals that implicitly communicate “the…demands of a given field” (p. 115) to an impressionable disciplinary audience (reproducing an antagonistic Protestant reading of rituals) – whose techniques of incorporation include their repeated mimetic re-enactments of these bodily rituals – in order to instil in them the requisite embodied dispositions (pp. 66-79). The body, in this understanding, is conceived as a “material substratum” (or a vessel) for the inscription of these beliefs. 

Naturally, an account which pays only superficial attention to the formation of habitus and is more concerned with how habitus functions to reproduce the field, has only a limited sense for the temporality of these practices (p. 525) – e.g., the ongoing work required to maintain a habitus, to transmit it inter-generationally, and to possibly acquire a different habitus (for instance when a field enters into crisis [p. 131] or, in order to modify the logic of a field).

For Asad and Mahmood, this rather narrow understanding of habitus displays a lack of attentiveness towards pedagogical practices aimed at consciously and explicitly training selves and others into different virtues or ethical capacities. For an account of the role of positive pedagogy in cultivating habitus, they turn to the long Aristotelean tradition of ethical pedagogy (from which we receive the term habitus, which happens to be Aquinas’ Latin translation of Aristotle’s Greek term hexis) (pp. 135-138). 

Habituated dispositions, in this Aristotelean tradition, are conceived as (actively) acquired capacities or abilities (i.e., virtues) that enable specific practical modes of living in the world – and not simply as embodied dispositional states inclined towards inertia or constraint. The body, in this account, is a “developable means” (p. 226) of capacitation – thus being eminently ‘teachable’. In fact, a Cartesian dualism is entirely avoided in that no fundamental distinction between the corporeal and the cognitive gets assumed, as one is simply not possible without the other. Thus, writing in the context of an Islamic Aristotelean tradition, Asad articulates this through the ‘idea of ensoulment’ (p. 89): 

…the idea that the living human body is an integrated totality having developable capacities for activity and experience unique to it… 

For Asad and Mahmood, the social world is not solely made up of relatively autonomous and fixed fields. It also includes cross-cutting pedagogic formations that also cultivate different habituses, for which they use the term tradition. This association that they assume between the social world and these ‘practices of the self’ also distinguish their formulation of these exercises from the more ‘individualistic formulations’ provided by certain (liberal) scholars (p. 223-224). Alongside this spatial contrast, is also a temporal contrast, in that the concept of tradition has a temporal dimension which attends to the continued work of formation through learning and exercising, the task of an open-ended inter-generational transmission (drawing attention to both “the micropractices of interpersonal pedagogy” and “the macrolevels of historically sedimented discourses” [p. 135]), and the possibility for participants in these ‘living traditions’ to criticise, challenge, and transform their available ‘ways of life’. Crucially, the relationship between habitus and tradition that this account envisions is not only one of enabling reproduction but also of enabling transformation. Habitus is thus not only associated with constraint and submission, but also with ‘freedom’ – with both never conceived entirely independent of the other. ‘Freedom’ here is a habituated disposition that a participant gets trained into – and not some unfettered consciousness that disrupts the moribund shackles of habit (or, for that matter, a ‘subversion’ introduced into the performed iteration of ritual, á la Judith Butler) (p. 17-31). Furthermore, habituation exercises can be consciously willed and reflective. 

Training ‘Critical Scholars’

However, my aim in this commentary is not to simply critique and dismiss a particular theoretical approach (either Bourdieu’s, or Rasulov’s) on account of its purported analytical shortcomings. In this short section I want to briefly undertake a different mode of engagement with theoretical interventions – one which, through redescription, seeks to illuminate what practical work these theoretical practices seek to effect in the world (and to then offer a critical evaluation of their desired dispositional forms). Deploying Asad and Mahmood’s more expanded and dynamic conceptualisation of habitus (and tradition), as well as some of Bourdieu’s numerous descriptions of his own scholarly practices and his formation as a scholar, I want to redescribe the dispositions that are sought to be cultivated through the writing of these works of critical social theory. Here, I read these writings essentially as “exercises books” (p. 271) for the formation of a ‘critical scholar’. 

Summarily put, the disposition that these exercise texts (primarily through the exercise of “socioanalysis” [p. 253]) seek to train us into is that of a “reflexive capacity” (p. 256). The intention is for a subject to cultivate the ability to break through the doxa that has blinded her and to be able to truly reflect upon the social conditions of existence of her knowledge. This is thus not a ‘break’ from all social determinations – which would simply be ‘scholasticism’ for Bourdieu – but rather to reach an awareness of the partiality of any break (and of the fallacy of any assumed complete rupture), that capacitates the ‘critical scholar’ to “get a grip on” (p. 253) those prior determinations.

What is sought is a ‘turning away’ (a conversio) from a habit sedimented perception of naiveite that is simply unaware of how its perception is determined, and towards a perception of self-knowledge. As Bourdieu puts it (p. 251): 

The task is to produce, if not a “new person,” then at least a “new gaze”, a sociological eye. And this cannot be done without a genuine conversion, a metanoia, a mental revolution, a transformation of one’s whole vision of the social world.

Significantly, this exercise gets described by these practitioners as being a conscious technique, intentioned with allowing them to reach the telos of a state of awareness of the determining grip of unconscious habit on their perception. A genealogical redescription that identifies these exercises as taking up a long (sedimented) history and tradition of Platonic and Christian “techniques of conversion” (p. 94), is both persuasive and remarkably clarifying. 

Given this legacy, and the form of life attached to it, this configuration of the disposition of reflexivity often struggles to acknowledge the dignity of other (historical) forms of life and their traditions of dispositional training (except as ‘fallen’, ‘naive’, or, embroiled in ‘false consciousness’- demanding distanced observation, contempt and/or proselytising rescue). 

Bourdieu’s compatriot, the philosopher Michel Foucault, in his own redescriptions and attempted recovery (and practice) of historical exercises of cultivating a ‘critical philosopher’, took up a rival Hellenic-Roman tradition and its attached practices of conversion. In doing so he offered a useful critical comparison between these rival modes of conversion, the subjects of knowledge that they seek to cultivate, and their distinctive relationship to habit (pp. 205-227). I find this to be particularly instructive because once we acknowledge that these are received legacies of specific historical forms of forming life (no doubt powerful ones at that!), it opens up the possibility of encountering, recovering, and describing other rival historical modalities and repertoires of crafting these dispositions – including that of reflexivity (pp. 453-475). This is a task of transformation of inherited traditions of critique that several Southern scholars, including TWAIL scholars, are currently engaged in.

Coda: Plural Inter-National Jurisprudential Traditions 

To conclude, I want to invite any future exercises in developing a critical sociology of the discipline(s) of international law to take up Mahmood and Asad’s conceptualisations of habitus and tradition. Their attendant attentiveness to practices of habituated teaching and learning of disciplinary dispositions (including through the activity of writing international legal theory) allows us to recover a formulation of legal education as practical exercises to teach the conduct of a ‘way of life’, i.e., as a jurisprudence (a set of exercises seeking to cultivate the virtuous disposition of prudence to a jurist). Relatedly, this enables us to perceive that the discipline(s) of international law are not entirely exhausted by socially conditioned production of world-constituting knowledge. Finally, it allows us to trouble the erasure of a plurality of historical traditions of training into jurisprudential dispositions (and their attached plurality of international laws) that arises from the deployment of unitary conceptions (such as a ‘disciplinary field of international law’) that can only perceive the reproduction of a singular logic, and ignores the practices and their dispositional formations of other international laws

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