Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: On Lateness, Style and Sentiment

Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: On Lateness, Style and Sentiment

[Ruth Buchanan is Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University]

Words in the right order make us feel differently about the world.” (p. 19)

I will begin this review with a confession—that is it late.  Very late.  There are reasons for its lateness of course—some mundane (family caregiving obligations, etc), others perhaps more telling.  As a long- time supervisor of graduate students, I’ve learned that there are many reasons people have for not completing a piece of writing—often, it is because they are not ready to be finished with it.  This may be closest to the truth here for me, as engaging with this text (and its intertextualities) has been a sustaining intellectual pleasure.   I’ve lingered with it far too long.   

Part of the task of a well written review, once expects, might be explain to a curious potential reader what they can expect to gain from reading the book.  This presents a bit of a challenge in the present instance, not because the book is not a rewarding read, but that it resists certain kinds of (productive or useful) readings.  Rather, it proudly announces itself as ‘the most useless book in the history of international law’.   Perhaps it is, and yet, what can also be said, at this late stage in the reviewing cycle, is that ‘The Sentimental Life of International Law’ is a highly generative text.  That is, if one were to assess this on the basis of the number, creativity and diversity of the review essays, events and commentaries that have ensued since the book’s publication, reading GJS provokes a lot of good thinking.  I am certainly not alone in finding myself seduced by the text’s erudition, the beautiful prose, and the distinctive presence of the narrator.  I am particularly struck by the moments where the narrator becomes corporeal–the man in the rented apartment at 10th and Broadway in stone faced struggle with his computer trying to write an essay on laughter; the summer festival theater goer in the market town of Halesworth, Suffolk; or the coffee drinker in Utopia on the Mornington peninsula. 

It is possible that what makes this work so appealing to some audiences renders it illegible to certain others.  And GJS gestures towards something like this in his text on more than one occasion, such as the passage early in the introductory chapter where he quotes an editor’s comment, next to a passage that he was ‘especially proud of’: ‘beautifully written, but is it necessary?’  One of the disruptive interventions that the book seeks to stage then, is against this idea that would equate writing with necessary, or useful, communication.  Rather, GJS allies himself with an (imagined alternative) tradition of ‘clandestine, barbarian international law of mis-readings, perverse readings, marks, jokes, slips, accidents, (unintended) verbal resonances.” (p.5) 

Much of the pleasure of reading GJS is found here, in the matter of its style: its irreverence, its self- consciousness, its changes in tone, its moody, ever-present narrator.   This is no accident.  The question of style is pivotal to the central argument of the book.  The claim is that our sense of what a piece of international legal scholarship or teaching has achieved is bound up with a sense of its literary style, or in a stronger version, that it is its literary style.(p.19)  The work of international lawyers, GJS proclaims in the first chapter, is what we do with words.  And yet, what he does with words seems to take us to places that are sometimes worlds away from the locations in which we expect to find international law, and moreover, exposes a narrator who fails to perform (or perhaps performatively disrupts) the role of the international legal scholar. 

But if this is a book of international law that is meant to be read as a novel, the literary form it calls to mind for me is not the sentimental novel of the 18th century, but the autofiction of the 21st.  The narrator in this text resembles the author, but is not him, and it draws us into a hall of mirrors (as Nathaniel Berman has insightfully observed in his review) in which we are hard pressed to work out exactly what the author himself thinks, or more to the point, feels, about the statements in his book.  And as with autofiction, I’m inclined to ask the question, ‘what’s the trick?’  That is, what is it that makes this writing so compelling, at least to certain audiences?

But in asking ‘What is the trick?’, am I not already leaning away from the central assertion of the text—by reducing style to a kind of trickery?  Like many of the arguments in the book, the matter of this text’s generative nature is a question that is best approached indirectly.

I might have begun differently, by recalling a dinner with the author in uptown Toronto, in October of 2018, after a lecture.  The author, as you would imagine—as erudite and well-read as he is, makes for an engaging dinner companion.  The topic turns to auto-fiction… the usual suspect is of course Knausgaard, but this conversation steers in the direction of female writers such as Rachel Cusk and Salley Rooney.   What is the trick?  What makes it compelling?  As writers and readers, we are well aware that the illusion of transparency, of proximity to life, is a skillfully crafted conceit, and yet we are drawn in by it nonetheless.  As readers and writers, we also wonder out loud whether or how it might be possible to write oneself into one’s own scholarship a bit more.

A passage in the introduction brings this conversation back to me.  In it, GJS notes that the book ‘explores a hunch I have (though it is really the hunch of the 20th century) that most of what is really interesting in life occurs off screen, and that surprisingly little facially explicable’.  The passage goes on to make a somewhat more familiar argument for attentiveness, to psychological, emotional, social, micropolitical contexts and details that are ‘largely obscure to us without quite a bit of effort’.  But my curiosity is tweaked by the ‘hunch’, because of course, once the ‘off screen’ makes it into the book, it is now on screen; and this style of writing (that is itself the substance) is in essence a magic trick by which the author seems to bring the stuff of life to life; suspending our disbelief even as we the readers know that it’s indeed an effect and a very difficult one to achieve at that.  

This is a book that insists on its style, or the sylishness of is prose, and not only that, insists that we read this surface as the ‘thing itself’.    And the style is, in turns, ironic, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan,  wearing its hard earned learning lightly, self-aggrandizing.  It is arch, self-conscious, always aware of the moves and counter-moves; how the game of the academic is played.  And yet, also somehow gently nudging itself beyond the certainties of the doctinalist and the ironic distance of the crit to some better – slightly more self-aware and more vulnerable – location.  How we read the intrusions of this author, into his own text, in service of these various moods and moves, may depend (almost entirely) upon our own scholarly location, vis a vis the topic, the field and the moves.  Are we also jaded and worn out by the performative posturing of the acknowledgements page?  Do we sometimes find ourselves close to tears when teaching our subject material?  Are we put off by the earnest sincerity of the pleas on behalf of the victims of human rights abuses or the maimed survivors of conflict?

And importantly, what novels do we read?

I will say that there are some insights here, pursued carefully and with erudition, that are not novel in some other fields; this isn’t necessarily a critique; its indeed kind of the job description of critical legal scholars to take ideas from other fields and bring them home to law somewhat after the fact.  But the idea (hunch) for example that somehow cognition and affect are enmeshed in ways that are underexplored can only be said in a qualified way with respect to international law.  Certainly, in the fields of minoritarian political theory it is well travelled terrain; indeed, I think some fields have as their founding assumption the enmeshment of cognition and affect.  The work of scholars such as William Connolly, Lauren Berlant, Rosi Braidotti, Eve Sedgewick come to mind.  This work is relied on and cited here as well, so the ‘hunch’ can be read here as another literary device, or performative gesture, rather than a genuine query or hypothesis to be tested.  I am brought back to this question of style, how style is also method and my preoccupation with the question of what this style is telling us. 

 “We respond to style as a matter of aesthetic judgement of course, but also as a matter of experience, and sentiment.”

If style is not only an aesthetic, but also a matter of experience and sentiment, it invites us to consider the sentiment and experience of the stylist.  I wonder whether it might be possible to read the book as an example of late style.   But what is late style?  There is a sentimental idea of late style which suggests that an awareness of mortality brings with it a sense of urgency and expanded ambition. And if one is lucky, the moment arrives when one is still in possession of the skills and the capacity to realize the vision.  Sometimes when that moment arrives, it is fleeting or all too brief, as in the recent Rachel Cusk novel Second Place, which is itself, a type of late style.  This romanticized idea is captured well by Rothstein, beginning his review of Said’s On Late Style:  

“What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a “late style”? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove. It might recapitulate a life’s themes, reflect on questions answered. And allude to others beyond understanding…..”

But, as the review goes on to elaborate, Said is not interested ‘in lateness as a reflection of hard-earned knowledge; he is interested in lateness as opposition, lateness that displays “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.”  Said’s main subject in the book is music, although for many years at Columbia he taught a course called Last Works/Late Style which included literary as well as musical references.  He approached lateness as a form of exile, or a refusal to reconcile.  Said was most interested in exploring ‘the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against…..”  Rachel Cusk also references the ‘deliberately unproductive productiveness’ of Said’s account of ‘male late style’ in a lecture from 2019.   I am reminded here of Simpson’s bold assertion in the introduction “You hold in your hands the most useless book in the history of international law.”  There may well be, as Cusk explores, a gendered aspect to this question of style in late work.  Its hard to imagine that claim being made in a similar way by a woman.    

Setting aside the question of gender, however, there are other points of resonance with Simpson’s approach here.   His invocation of a ‘hard-boiled, unillusioned sentimental life, a sentiment, without sentimentality’ comes to mind.   And in the last chapter, the ‘exterior glance’ from which one might relentlessly question, resist and remain estranged from our ‘pre-constituted experience and the institutional and political arrangements that concretise it’.(p. 198)

Rothstein, in his review of Said, articulates well why we might care about this type of ‘late style’: because in these works there is constructed ‘an alternative universe in which something is actually being understood about our world: some things are rejected, some are accepted, some are greeted with horror, some with resignation.  Beethoven’s late music, for example, embraces incongruities because—we are convinced—that is precisely what it means to see the world whole.  There is accumulated knowledge here, not just ‘intransigence’ or ‘unresolved contradiction.’  This is what, finally, I take from this book—that it is a brave, sincere (and possibly foolish) effort to understand and to say something meaningful about our world, articulated from a place of experience and emotion, that remains painfully aware of the risks of bathos, absurdity, cynicism or the ‘dead hand of relevance’ lurking at the margins of the page.

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