Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: Review

Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: Review

[Isobel Roele is a Reader in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of Articulating Security: The United Nations and Its Infra-Law (CUP, 2022)]

The Sentimental Life of International Law makes a radical proposal: that we think of ourselves as living our lives when we do international law. The book invites readers to imagine a world where the professional is personal and the personal is political. ‘A book length deinstrumentalization of the field’ (6), it follows Edward Said in forsaking specialization, expertise, and fundability in favour of an intellectual amateurism, ‘an activity that is fuelled by care and affection’, in Said’s words. This ‘rather sentimental’ (also Said’s words) approach to intellectual life is not, however, an inward-facing act of self-care or self-enrichment. On the contrary, a sentimental international law may be ‘an apt way to think about and change the world’ (3).

Writing and reading appear in The Sentimental Life as intellectual practices with which to effect such a disciplinary refashioning, which is to take place, therefore, through language. The gravitational pull of structuralism is felt in both the book’s problematics (that ‘governing idioms of international law’ (2) diminish the discipline) and in its stakes (that a weak way with language makes it hard ‘to think about alternative political futures’ (145)). That there is something at stake means the book, beautifully crafted as it is, is not (merely) belletristic, but that its well-turned sentences are hard at work. They cultivate in the reader a particular quality of good-humoured attentiveness (to ourselves and others) and model a way of looking askance at the world.

The book does its deinstrumentalizing work in the telling, as well as through what is told. Each chapter ends with a ‘message in a bottle’ (2). This is not to say that it tells when it should show; from the first word to the last, it shows us what it means to practise sentimental international law – through reminiscence, digression, erudition, and through deftly written prose. What I mean by telling is that the book speaks in the author’s (charming, cultured, wry, Scottish) voice. (I’ll call him Gerry. The book conjures such a richly human picture of the author that it feels rudely dismissive to refer to Simpson.) ‘We are all, always, in some sense writing about ourselves’ (38), and in this sentimental life, Gerry is his own source material. The vulnerability this action entails draws the didactic sting from the offer (I interpolate), ‘let me tell you what I’ve learned’.

What Gerry has learned through experience, reading, friendships – in short through living the life of a professor of international law – sometimes reads less like a ‘message in a bottle’ and more like a letter to a young international lawyer. Gerry perhaps primes the conceit by making a passing reference to a ‘letter to a young contrarian’ (15). Perhaps I get this impression because The Sentimental Life is rich in literary gobbets, which is to say the quotations, references, and poems Hector has his History Boys learn by heart – for living, not for exams. The advice Gerry offers to more and less young international lawyers is to adopt an attitude of Jamesonian anti-anti-utopianism (195) and embrace ‘imagination as the opposite of complicity or acceptance’ (190). Like most good advice, this advice is not new. What The Sentimental Life adds is a generous elaboration of what the advice means for us, now: the dispositions we international lawyers could have towards our work and the ways these might change our preoccupations and practices.

The advice is unusually direct. Those writing international legal histories, are urged to think about ‘extra-methodic virtues of compelling and resonant’ scholarship rather than clinging to method as ‘a tranche of prohibitions or list of dispensations’ (143). Those working on the laws of war and humanitarianism are reminded of the dual traps of technocracy and mawkishness, and advised instead ‘to do what poets do’ and commit to ‘style and love and smallness’ (54) and to something that sounds like James Wood’s ‘serious noticing’. International criminal lawyers are urged to pay attention to ‘the hidden history of war crimes and war crimes trials’ (112) and to wonder what kind of reckoning ICL might provide (symbolising loss? Registering others’ pain?) (109). Most of all, the book gives permission to international lawyers of all persuasions to be living, feeling human beings full of the kind of ‘passionate, puckish, kind-hearted scepticism’ (8) The Sentimental Life itself enacts.

To think of the book as a series of letters to young international lawyers reminds us that books are for reading. Even academics sometimes forget this and treat them as under-functional content delivery systems (I’m as attached to ctrl-f as the next woman). The Sentimental Life, all meandering digression and indirection (8), resists this. It is meant to be read; it hasn’t been written for the record. Just try scanning the text for the money-shot (though there’s one on the back fold of the dust jacket). Navigation aids have been disabled; section headings are things like ‘Woolf’s irises’ and ‘simply laughing’ and the index runs from absurdity to Žižek in the turn of a page. The footnotes are priceless, too. Manuscripts that remain (tantalisingly) ‘unpublished, on file with author’; excerpts from The History Boys (Ch. iv, n.66); insufferable humble-brags (Ch. ii, n.14); perhaps even hearsay (Ch. i, n. 99).

Writing to be read is very much the point. Derrida’s bad reader makes an appearance in the first chapter (banished to a footnote, n.22). This reader wants to have done with their reading – to declare it ‘read’. International law writing often panders to content consumption of this kind, signposting and summarizing and distilling to an elevator pitch. It is particularly tempting to do this in institutional settings. In my own work on the UN’s counter-terrorism strategy, I have suggested that the executive summary can make a dead letter of legal writing. In any case, it is hard to couch a call for radical change in terms that are legible to executives and managers, and even harder to do so in a way that does not use people’s suffering as an occasion to express outrage on behalf of the law (a point also made by Gerry, via Raimond Gaita (70)).

Still, in an age of distraction and time-poverty, Gerry is somewhat presumptuous in expecting to be read. Writing to be read takes confidence because it must compel the reader. Lawyers sometimes lack a light of touch when it comes to performing our authority on the page. We often resort to footnotes, high-tech, box-fresh methodology (Ch. v passim), or the words fissiparous and autochthonous. Prolegomenon (143) excepted, the force of The Sentimental Life lies elsewhere – in the quality of the writing. Sure-footed prose can exercise different kinds of authority. There’s the kind that follows a well-paved pathway, and the kind that sets out without a map. I find writing most compelling when reading it feels like you’re finding a way alongside the writer. Sara Ahmed’s work is like this. Her sentences are alive and reading them is like watching a train of thought unfurl. Such writing doesn’t show you a thing; it is the thing. It comes step by step now, and again now, and now, and now. Why we gladly follow such writers is hard to say. As Gerry puts it, ‘when I read international law or fiction, or watch a film, I quite often have a sense—sometimes within minutes—that I am in good or bad hands’ (115). By the time we read this sentence, we already know, of course, that we’re in excellent hands.

Writing that argues its audience into submission or ambushes them with truth-bombs or scalds them with red hot takes is wearying and sets up an unbridgeable divide between author and reader. The Sentimental Life, by contrast, is always trying to reduce this distance to human proportions. So although the premise of the book necessarily implies distance (to make case for a radically different way of doing something always implies a claim to know better – especially if, as I’ve suggested, the book can be read as a letter to a youngster), it nevertheless keeps asking us to recognise ourselves in the writing because the sentimental life it describes is so very human. Pulling against this identification, of course, is the fact that Gerry describes a particular sentimental life – his own.  

Self-deprecation helps reduce the distance between reader and writer (in the form of a folding bike which appears in a section entitled ‘sentimental solipsism: advertisements for myself’ (49)); so does tentativeness (‘after method, we might…’, Ch. v passim); shared experience (‘Among international lawyers, one becomes a type of international lawyer… Among strangers, one becomes merely an international lawyer: the Ambassador for Customary International Law’ (120)), and even direct address (‘you, dear reader…’ (28)). Thus encouraged, it almost feels possible to throw instrumentality to the wind and challenge Gerry for the honour of writing ‘the most useless book in the history of international law’ (6).

But Gerry is a luxury professor, as he himself recognises (188). Acknowledging that ‘young scholars, especially’ struggle in an academy that demands Stakhanovian levels of production (13) and scholarship with ‘impact’ (5), he nevertheless seems to imagine that any of us, if we put our minds to it, could cultivate the ironic self-possession and playful good humour that characterise the sentimental life he describes. There are various reasons why some of us may not be able to – and may not want to – practise international law like a man of letters.

Material privilege, first of all, underwrites quality prose. Time to write, a room of one’s own to write in, and constitutional disregard for one’s inbox are luxuries. For the precarious, grafting from one short-term teaching post to the next, rapid publication is a ticket to a permanent post. Those in permanent posts, instructed to prioritise revenue-raising activities over intellectual ones, invest crumbs of research time applying for big ticket research grants, with all the stakeholder engagement and policymaker impact they entail. Precious few enclaves of uncluttered thinking time remain in the academic year – in UK institutions, at least. If you’re going to write a book that sticks two fingers up to research metrics, knowledge exchange, public engagement, and key stakeholders, it had better be bloody good. The Sentimental Life of International Law is bloody good, but not all of us get to write in rented apartments on East 10th and Broadway (59).

There are also reasons why some of us mightn’t want to adopt a worldly, playful, good-humoured disposition when we practise international law. ‘Cheekiness from below’ (79) and ‘hard-boiled sentimentality’ (29) can only take radical political reimagination so far. Sentiment had political limits back in the eighteenth-century too, of course. On the one hand, it extended the cultural franchise to the polite classes (the political franchise remained firmly in the hands of the landed); on the other, it excluded anyone who lacked the leisure (or cash) to cultivate themselves. Gerry recognises that sentimentality has, in the past, been depoliticising; ‘high-minded’ pleas for ‘civility and decency’ can ‘neuter or defang’ radical politics (26). High-mindedness was also a defect of sentiment for the pleasure-loving Georgians, for whom moralising and academic pettifogging were bad manners. It was bad manners to be angry, too.

It is still bad manners to be angry. The sentimental life described in the book is, if not entirely even-tempered, generally good humoured. Anger is not much in evidence, even when we might expect to encounter it; the foil for irony in Chapter iii is solemnity; even the enemies in Chapter vi fail to provoke the book to anger (though there is a duel (170)). Should anger have a place in the sentimental life of international lawyers? Does a well-tempered sensibility limit radical politics? Yes and yes. Amia Srinivasan argues for the aptness of anger and Ahmed shows us that killing joy can be a world-making project. The feminist snap, for instance, might be heard as an ugly, disruptive noise, but a snap is needed to ‘allow us to break ties that are damaging as well as to invest in new possibilities’, as Ahmed wrote in Living a Feminist Life.

The Sentimental Life of International Law sets out to change the world one international lawyer at a time. Each of us has it in us to reimagine the world. When Gerry sloganizes Phillip Allott, ‘We made it, we can transform it’ (197), it made me think of Patti Smith’s final words on the CD reissue of Horses, ‘We created it, let’s take it over!’. An altogether more aggressive rallying cry that implies collective action rather than individual self-fashioning, albeit of an imaginative and other-regarding kind. To enter the fray and reclaim international law’s world-making project, we might need to cultivate a sensibility akin to Judith Butler’s aggressive non-violence. Perhaps puckishness is not enough.

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