Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: ‘The Sentimental Life of International Law’ Travels

Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: ‘The Sentimental Life of International Law’ Travels

[Immi Tallgren is docent of international law at the University of Helsinki, researching ICL, the history of international law and feminism. Her latest publication is Portraits of Women in International Law: New Names and Forgotten Faces (OUP 2023). ]

I was thrilled to be invited to this symposium on Gerry Simpson’s The Sentimental Life of International Law (2022). My thrill soon turned to Angst. How to engage with a book like this, to live up to its dazzlingly fluid and distinctive style, its ‘mixology-of-several-disciplines-on-ice’ methodology, and its charismatic author, an elegant and sentimental traveller yet so much more lucid than a 18th century ‘man of feeling’? What tone to choose for the encounter of  ‘defamiliarisation as a way of establishing the lifelessness of some of international law’s familiar routines and the liveliness of its unfamiliar subterranean existence’ (p. 211)?

My initial take was to organise a performance of noh, a Japanese form of classical dance-drama narrative I associate with the author’s works, for a particular reason. My prime experience of a noh festival took place in the Itsukushima shine on the island of Mijayjima, close to Hiroshima 2010. It followed my first visit to Hiroshima where I had met with a hibakusha, a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The five hours of noh I followed, entranced, was performed by masked actors and a group of musicians with traditional instruments—a hypnotic music without an evident melody. Submerged by emotions of the visit in Hiroshima, Gerry’s writings on international criminal law moved in the back of my mind, as if subtitles.  

For the pragmatic reason of not knowing how to produce a noh performance, I had to downgrade my ambitions. I shall react by way of performance inspired by silent movies, with intertitles. Contrary to visual and moving images, here the images are transmitted by a voice-over in textual form. These sequences of images are kept apart by the intertitles, in italics. Are you ready for the show?


Image 1: In a garden situated on the territory of a state that is a founding NATO member, as well as a permanent member of the Security Council possessing nuclear arms, a middle-aged woman reads a book, on the cover of which is written: The Sentimental Life of International Law. She is resting in an old cotton hammock stretched between two large mulberry trees. From where she lies, she’s facing a lush valley. The mulberry trees give her shade from the sun; their branches reach broadly, almost horizontally. Every now and then, mature mulberries fall on the reader. The woman sighs, lost in her engrossing thoughts. Does she cherish the rare time free from other occupations to settle in the hammock to observe the soft movements of the leaves? They are large, of deep green, and plenty. She looks around her in the garden, as if feeling cautious if not outright guilty of the extraordinary privilege of having the right to read there.

We come to terms as well as we can with our lifelong exposure to the world, and we use whatever devices we may need to survive. But eventually, of course, our knowledge depends upon the living relationship between what we see going on and ourselves. If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection (p. 8).

Image 2: (flashback) On a field with patches of snow we see a little girl with a white fur hat. It looks like it’s almost spring – April, perhaps.  The images were taken in a time and place where almost any lops of land free were meant for potatoes and carrots, onions, cabbage, the occasional luxury of tomatoes. Garden was an opportunity, to grow food and eat or to sell, and to prepare conserves for the harsher days, those endless icy winters and the changes of mood of the belligerent neighbours. The image cuts back to the sunny garden, a still follows: the middle-aged woman is concentrated on reading about ‘ironic disjuncture’ (pp. 65ff), until she is interrupted by a sound. She reaches for her smartphone. A message tells her that the Zoom meeting on international criminal responsibility for international crimes in Ukraine is postponed.

How does one enact a cultural revolution that is not the Cultural Revolution? A utopia that is not terror? In this sense, reimagining political and legal life seems both necessary and impossible (this is what Mark Fisher has called ‘capitalist realism’): a good moment, then, for international law to attempt the leap into utopian reimagination (p. 193, referring to Mark Fisher).

Image 3: In the dimmed light of her phone, another woman, younger and with brown hair, is reading The Sentimental Life of International Law. We see her in a bus with seats covered in red synthetic leather. Next to her sits her son, who appears to be about six years old. The bus is crowded with women and children. They have each carried their one and only piece of luggage to the bus station some five hours earlier, at the outskirts of Kiev. As they had struggled to find the bus at the crowded station, an alarm had sounded, and the little boy had panicked. He is sleeping now, his lips open, his hair glued to his forehead. Tight around his wrist, he has rolled the leash of their dog, an old spaniel resting at his feet. The woman is leaving home for the second time. Returning, she had found her apartment intact but her mother-in-law had raged at her: ‘Go back to Cuba if you like but do not risk the life of my grandson!’

Though the feminist movement has been brilliantly effective in forcing discussion of the domination and objectification of women by men, it has been relatively silent about the internal dynamics of objectification within its own ranks, woman over woman, and about the ways in which women themselves have gained and lost from the racial and class power differentials among men.    

Image 4: The clay ground in the garden is cracking open, there has been no rain in three months. The woman in the hammock drinks the nectar of the irreverent, intimate, sweet-and-sour musings about international law. Anecdotes spring from the pages like sprouts, they grow and take over, transform into plants with a bony structure, fertilized with style and tended in equilibrium by rich literary references. The author’s voice travels through latitudes of tone, from lightly sarcastic to occasionally (very) funny and back to sincere soul-searching with an occasional whiff of melancholy, then turning to analyse solemnity.

I’ll tell you a secret… I was friends with Oksana, she was from Ukraine.  It was from her that I first heard of the terrible hunger in Ukraine. Golomodor. You could not even find a frog or a mouse, everything had been eaten… she saved herself by stealing horse dung at the kolkhoz stall by night and eating it (p. xxvii).        

Image 5: The bus is quiet now, and the young woman with a long hair reads of international law that is becoming ‘a form of gardening, a tending to the world though artisanal labour in collective self-realisation or contemplative solitude’ (p. 202). She is tired, her back is aching, and her clothes are not fresh, for she is menstruating but the supermarkets in Kiev had run out of hygienic supplies. She tries to concentrate on the beautiful writing, the author’s carefully constructed arbitration between good and bad sentimentality. Every sentence lovingly cut in shape like a bonsai, nourished with hundreds of quotes and footnotes into the thick hummus of mostly Anglo-American culture in international law.

She used to go to the sandy square called Otinkpu, near where she lived, and tell people there that her son was in ‘Emelika’, and that she had another one also in the land of the white men – she could never manage the name Canada. After such wanderings on one night, Nnu Ego lay down by the roadside, thinking she had arrived home (p. 264).

Image 6: The middle-aged woman continues to read, surrounded by trees and flower-benches. The author tells anecdotes about the reactions to his public presentations, including those accusing the author of ‘luxuriating in (his) position’ when he ‘had called for an end to panels on the Iraq war’ (p. 187). The woman opens her notebook. ‘Luxury is always contextual’, she writes hastily, ‘just as humour’. For people of the working class, reading a book like this in a lovely garden is luxury. Calling reading ‘work’ had long felt an insanity: reading was luxury. For whom is it a luxury to have international law professors, teaching, writing, visiting universities around the world, discussing international law critically in front of audiences, she wonders. The Oxford dictionary on her smartphone tells that luxury means ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense’. The word ‘luxuriating’ is given a meaning as ‘to enjoy (something) as a luxury; take self-indulgent delight in’ something, such as in the following example: ‘she was luxuriating in a long bath’.

One of the best loved minor pleasures of the body in Japan is the hot bath… They sit in the bath with their knees drawn up in fetal position, the water up to their chins (p. 178). Intoxication is another of the permissible ‘human feelings’… Those Japanese views on ‘human feelings’ have several consequences (pp. 183-187).

Image 7: The woman in the bus is bothered by the snoring of an elderly man behind her. She is about to push him lightly to wake him up but notices the cuttings on his open palm and the dirt grown on them. She sighs, tries to concentrate on her reading. She is hungry and tempted by the bread and chocolate in her back-bag but decides to wait until her son wakes up. He did not get any dinner.










Image 8: The woman in the hammock checks the time. She should stop reading and cook dinner. She should marinate tofu for the barbeque, collect and wash the salad and peppers, open the wine to breath. She shrugs, continues to read about the complex relationship of international law understood as ‘a linguistic-imaginative enterprise’ with boundless imaginative possibilities and the ‘extra-linguistic or even extra-social reality’, where ‘the material is very often given priority’ (p. 196, discussing Philip Allott’s Eunomia).

For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war (p. 12).

Image 9: The hand of the young woman still turns a page or two but her heads nods to the movements of the bus. She must have dozed away while reading, suddenly startled thinking she hears the music of hot water running into a bathtub somewhere far behind, the sound of pipes shrieking invitingly, somewhere safe she could call her own and use the bathroom without asking for permission, expressing her gratitude, for every bath she takes. She asks the lady in the next row with a grey cat but she hears no such thing.

            Every bath you take

And every move you make

Every bread you taste

Every penny you waste

We’ll be watching you.

Oh can’t you see

You belong to us?

How our poor hearts ache

With any free step you take

Every smile you fake

Every claim you stake

We’ll be watching you…[1]

Image 9: The middle-aged woman is taking a break, surfing the news. War in diverse parts of the world, ‘egregious’ violence, but also peacetime distress, of refugees on the sea, the droughts, fires, famines. So many places where the infrastructures never existed to the point of providing clean water and heating, the woman thinks as she walks through the garden to enter the kitchen. In others, they existed but they have been destroyed by wars or lack of funds for the maintenance. Most people have no decent housing with a private bathroom, and some must fear for their safety, not ever in their lives daring to get fully undressed and enjoy the luxury of a warm and clean bath.

            GULAG – is when they drive an empty half-liter bottle

Between your legs – after which they address you as ‘ma’am.’

We are all from the camps. That heritage will be with us for a hundred years.

Image 10: The young woman in the bus looks pleased. She enjoys the author’s astute explorations of the impossibility of setting the balance of international law’s sentimentality right. At times she shivers, as if shaking off a fleeting impression of a frivolity, a disconcerting idleness. English gardens, French gardens… dreamy gardens. The vegetables in the garden of her mother’s dacha are all rotten or stolen by now. No jars of cucumber salad for the fall. She opens her bag and forces the book in, next to the combs and the toothbrushes, a plastic container with dog food, an old photo album and clean underwear.  The Sentimental Life of International Law must wait a shelter with a bed, a shower room, a harbour where to charge the phone and to get news of her family and friends. But when the peace comes, she wants to leave her son in his father’s care and travel to visit ‘the magnificent gardens at Versailles, where the great post-war order of 1919 is constructed and where new forms of empire are invented.’ (p. 202).

A break with the familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing feeling, understanding things so that the organism may become receptive to the potential forms of a non-aggressive, non-exploitative world (p. 10).

Image 11: New crowds of birds find the mulberry trees; they noisily attack the ripening fruits. The woman continues write, quoting the author: ‘for the garden…has its dark history’ (p. 202). What kind of gardening is the reply to his insistent question: ‘what, indeed, is to be done?’ (p. 187) Taking distance from the tumult seems like a traditional, perhaps ‘sentimental’ remedy (p. 10). But the garden is here a sign for so much more, she understands. ‘By relentless efforts and erudition, the author teases and tempts his readers’, the woman writes in her notebook. ‘Not to orgies of facetious nonchalance but to gardening, getting dirty on the ground mulling over the question: “what is to be done” with international law?’ She hesitates. To work the land, get dirty, hungry, cold, scared, to escape a shelling, to confront the nature dying: does it help in finding some useful, essential, non-frivolous ‘international law’? By those criteria, most of the teaching she had received was useless, non-essential or frivolous.

The woman closes the notebook and contemplates the birds for a long moment. Why did international law as ‘literature, language, longing in world politics’, with a sentimental life of its own, somehow feel like ‘a foreign country’, as was claimed about the past. In contrast to the victorious Americans preparing the occupation of Japan in the mid-1940s, most humans are deprived of cultural anthropologists to help them familiarise themselves with the universe of international lawyers. Could it be that, just as Freudian psychoanalysis operates with a certain picture of the family in mind, a situated imagination of the rules and the psychic results of kinship that is not a universally explanatory structure, international law remains fixed in a past, its languages and its discourse, its ambivalent longings?  Do the plots by international lawyers appear any clearer than a piece of noh for a European tourist who sits down and stares, the woman asks herself, walking to her study. She arranges The Sentimental Life of International Law on a shelf, next to the copy of The Misery of International Law.


[1] International helpers’s choir, based on Police, Every Breath You Take.

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