International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Writing Science Fiction

International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Writing Science Fiction

[Michael Fakhri is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Mr. Fakhri is also a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law where he teaches courses on human rights, food law, development, and commercial law. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Toronto, Masters from Harvard Law School, Bachelor of Laws from Queen’s University, and a Bachelor of Science in Ecology from Western University.]

During my doctoral work, I stopped feeling alienated from my own writing when I imagined myself less as a scholar and more like a writer. In thinking about method, then, I wondered about what genre of writing I was engaged in. Of course, there were some international law books I read closely, looking to style and structure as much as content. But it wasn’t until I took finished my doctoral work and was writing it all as a book when I realized I’ve been writing science fiction all this time.

In this way, my approach to methodology is akin to how Sundhya Pahuja describes methodology as a “practice of writing about how we do our research.” It’s an iterative practice that is just as much prospective (“this is how I plan to do the work”) as it is retrospective (“this is how I ended up doing the work”). My focus on style and genre is an acknowledgement of how, again as Pahuja puts it, that writing is a mode of thinking not a transcription of thinking. This is different than the very interesting scholarship or events that takes science fiction seriously and reads it to interrogate the different ways we imagine that law and technology interface. This is instead an opportunity for me to share what I regularly turn to when I am thinking and writing about law and how science fiction helped me when I wrote my first book.

In retrospect, I think there are two reasons I committed to referencing science fiction.

First, I find some interesting theoretical similarities. Both are ways of imagining and creating entire worlds by asking “what if?” – What if everyone lived in dignity? What if goods circulated freely around the world? What if an anarcho-syndicalist society left our home planet and started anew on the moon? Both also have similar existential challenges from colleagues – “is international law really law?” is just as uninteresting a question as “is science fiction really literature?” These are both questions that are more about the questioner’s assumptions than an empirical query. I also find the differences between law and science fiction interesting. A common misconception about science fiction is that it is an attempt to predict or describe the future. Science fiction is always a commentary on its present, whether that present is when it is written, read, or viewed. So what drives science fiction is usually some stylization, frustration, or anxiety with the present. It’s a way of making the present appear anew. Whereas I think law is a way of constructing a new future by arranging and rearranging power. In many ways, law relies on a particular interpretation of a mythical or historical past – “Once upon a time in Westphalia…” or “International law began in Bandung…” –  to forge a new paths into the future.

The second reason I committed to science fiction in my legal writing is simply because I enjoy it and it is a significant way in how I think about, experience, and interpret the world. Since part of my world includes law, why wouldn’t I turn to science fiction to also think about, experience, and interpret law? As a matter of method, here’s how it happened:

Working on my dissertation and first book, I was writing a history of trade law that was driven by the question of why we invented multilateral institutions as a way of doing international trade law. I didn’t want to write a history of the WTO because my normative project was to decenter the WTO in trade law. I suspected imperialism played a central role and I knew enough Third World history to know that some specific agricultural commodity would likely allow me to tell the bigger story. I knew that the meaning of “free trade” would always be changing and I wanted to detail those changes. I wasn’t, however, the right person to tell the story as a history of ideas. I wanted to tell it as a history of a thing, and for historical reasons that thing was sugar. The best way to describe my method was that I wanted to weave different strands together to tell an institutional story across space and time: doctrinal meaning, technological change, political economy, imperial history, individual history, and historiography. Because I kept a close eye on production methods surround sugar production, the dominant strands that I kept close together were doctrinal meaning and technological change. But I wasn’t planning to make any strong causal claims between the two. I needed something to help me make sense of it all and tell the story in some coherent way. What I did, then, was while working on each chapter that was set in a particular period, I read or watched science fiction of that era (or close to it). What I chose to (re)read or (re)watch was not rigorous in any way but was instead based on what I thought would be fun and interesting.

My first chapter originally spanned from roughly from 1870 to 1901, focusing on the Brussels Sugar Convention which I argued was the first modern multilateral trade institution. It was a story about how the British Empire used free trade to govern its colonies, and the political economy of sugar beet and sugar cane. Despite roughly knowing what story I was telling, I still needed to work out how and when exactly to start my historical narrative. What I took from reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was the idea of starting when alchemists started becoming chemists. For centuries, different communities extracted and refined sugar from cane. But in 1747, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, one of the earliest modern chemists, succeeded in extracting sugar from a beet changing the course of history by creating a rivalry between beet growers and cane growers. Victor Frankenstein early training was in alchemy, before he becomes a chemist, but his search for the mystery of life was constant. He ends up transforming inanimate biomass into a living automaton. This inspired me (though not as a direct metaphor) to think that what international institutions did was transform biomass into commodities.

Then I focused on the League of Nations (1919 – 1946), the International Sugar Treaty of 1937, and Cuban national history (1902 – 1958). Here I looked to the great amount of intellectual and artistic energy that went towards attempting to create a “new world order,” “new era,” or “new man” after the First World War. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1925) captured the political ambiguity and shared anxiety with technological innovation of the interwar period. Those films made me pay attention to both the hopeful futurism of that time but also the fear that industrial rationalization would have dire psychological effects on people because their whole life would be enslaved to efficiency demands made by the machines in factories.

When I turned to the time after the Second World War (c. 1945 – 1982) and wanted to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Third World through international commodity agreements, I opened my chapter with a quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). While Dune did have an element of the white savior like Lawrence of Arabia, it nevertheless took seriously Third World liberation movements, the political economy of primary commodities, and the rise of corporate power, all preoccupations of international law of the time. My focus on development discourse meant that focused on different understandings of economic growth and institutional political power but I left out international environmental law. But if I had paid closer attention to Dune and its sense of political ecology, I would have told a different story.

I ended my historical narrative in the early 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism right and right before the creation of the WTO. At this point, I felt that I had told a bleak story driven by industrial technology. Despite my materialist tendencies, I felt that I needed something to transcend it all, the machines, the political struggles, the institutional innovations. For me, the animated work of Hayao Miyazaki always uplifted me and brought me joy. He made serious and beautiful films and TV shows, with a sense of humor, and provided what I thought everyone needs to get through their everyday struggles. My reference to Miyazaki in the epilogue of my book was not a historically contemporaneous one like the other, but reflected the fact that I was watching and reading a lot about Miyazaki as a way to take a break from my book. It was also a future oriented gesture pointing to where I wanted my work to go after the book. Buried in the second part of a long pedantic documentary about Miyazaki’s daily routine making Princess Mononoke (1997) (a historical fantasy and not science fiction), was a line he said that still stays with me, and one that I find still a good way to conclude:

[W]e haven’t discovered a way to harmoniously coexist with plastics, pesticides, etc. . . . While inter-human relationships are much easier to grasp, it’s not humans but plants and microorganisms that actually let us survive; they are clearly the root of our lives but we keep forgetting this point . . . one would have to recognize that inter-human production and distribution systems depend greatly on plants.

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