Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: Reviewing the Reviews

Symposium on The Sentimental Life of International Law: Reviewing the Reviews

[Gerry Simpson is Chair in Public International Law at the LSE and is currently co-writing (with Matt Craven and Sundhya Pahuja) Rival World-Makers: The International Laws of the Cold War, and a short memoirish book entitled The Atomics: My Nuclear Family at the End of the Earth]

I’ve been speaking to audiences recently about writing a book. How do you end? How bad should you expect to feel in the middle of the project when it all seems pointless, banal, inconsequential? And, importantly, how do you begin? 

I often say that I like to start at the end.

Not in the Philip Roth sense of making the final sentence of the first draft the first sentence of the final draft but in the Gerry Simpson sense of planning my book launch, or designing the cover, or preparing an awards dinner acceptance speech. It turns out, though, that the end of the book is its afterlife in the reviews that constitute its reception in the world. 

In this matter, I have been truly blessed. If only I had read the reviews before I began writing the book. Then I would have known what it was about. Readers like my Opinio Juris reviewers rewrite the book, encourage me to go back for a re-reading and make me wonder where I might go next. 

Reading and re-reading one’s own book – no matter how marvellous a creation – is not really the stuff of academic work. Yet, that is what I have spent a lot of time doing over the past few months. Who, after all, would not be charmed and provoked by Isobel Roele’s (should I just call her Isobel?) sinuous re-descriptions? Is that really me, easing my way through the international law traffic with erudition and good humour? Possibly. Is that me in conversation with Katie Kitamura? Yes, but only because Carl makes it so. Immi tells me the book is “dazzlingly fluid”, Zina says it is “wide ranging”, Ruth calls it “archly self-conscious” and, indeed, “brave, sincere, possibly foolish”. 

It’s important to place the compliments upfront because these reviews are, in their own tactful, affectionate and diplomatic way, pretty hard hitting. 

Isobel takes us to the heart of the matter. Who is this luxury professor and how useful is it to write a book whose underlying message – sotto voce – is “Be me!”? Isobel tells us why “being me” may be neither possible nor desirable (even for me). She paints a grim picture of an academic life – squeezed dry by dread managers – that leaves little room for sentimental lives. But even with a room of one’s own is this really the book one would write? It isn’t angry or mortified enough. It lacks snap and snarl and maybe even bite. Can a revolutionary politics be built on such even-temperedness, she asks?

I suppose something depends on what we think the revolution will look like? I prefer to think that its vanguard at least would be composed of a mixture of hotheads, Butlerian non-violent types and a smattering of insouciant ironists, each counteracting the worst tendencies of the other in perfect balance; a dictatorship of mild and angry sceptics, a politburo of nihilists, communists, kynics and clowns. Someone blowing up the pipeline, someone reading Thomas Bernhard, someone madly theorizing. 

The book inhabits a few of these personae (or the personae inhabit the book) and both Isobel and Zina get to the nub of it when they say that the book is about the “life lived” or the lived lives of international lawyers. [The other nub is there in Simon Stern’s disentangling of my foray into 18th century sentimental literature where he describes my book as “an incitement to think more seriously about the formal aspects of international law’s texts and conflicts”. That’s right on two levels. I retrospectively understand that (a) this was one of the book’s tasks and (b) that I did not carry it out. His short essay is one beginning to that project. Ankit Malhotra in his useful sketch of different lives lived in law says at one point: “To understand the purpose of the law, we need to take a step back and first understand the purpose of life”. Trying to discover the purpose of life is another task un-carried out by the book.] A life marked – according to ZM – by a movement between “intimacy and distance” and one which in turn produces an inevitable dissonance at the heart of the book between its suspicious, weary, opening chapters and it’s sunnier dispositions in the closing pair of essays (this is something noted by another earlier reviewer). 

Whether this maps onto Zina’s doubling of earnestness and insouciance is an open question. The first half of the book may be read as earnestly critical (if only international criminal law could live up to its ideals!), the latter half, determinedly, shoulder-shruggingly, relaxed about the prospects of redemption (Gardening? Why not?). Or maybe it’s the opposite. 

The question is complicated by Zina’s targeting of piety and earnestness as the de-historicising and de-politicising duo of international criminal law itself. To be sure, earnestness and distance have culminated in something toxically detached from planetary life, from history, even from realpolitik (see Ukraine). [Carl has me “intoning” at one point, which sounds very earnest. In what tone should we “intone”? Intoning is after all a form of toneless toning isn’t it, the tone of tone deafness.]

Not everyone of course has the privilege of distance and Zina‘s reference to Lori Allen’s reference to Palestinians using human rights law in their own communities is a salutary counterpoint (albeit one in which similar struggles are reproduced) to the book’s performative Olympianisms. 

The writer reads on, thinking: “The book fall short – it fails on so many levels. In a way it even fails to fail: its failures preordained, easy, luxurious. Carl catalogues some of these failings in an essay that also manages to be friendly and laudatory. He performs sentimentality better than I do. And he’s right that the book (but why blame the book? Author! Author!) just doesn’t push hard enough in some ways. It’s excursions into historical method, it’s elaborations of sentimentality and its laws of emotion read as prospecti rather than full blooded arguments, “invitations”, to re-use Carl’s own subtle idiom. He reads the sentimental life but with a new set of footnotes, and therefore offers a whole new sentimental life. 

Carl invokes Immi Tallgren as one of Simpson’s “complaining peers”. And here she is again, complaint long since having given way to play. Immi responds to my book with a show of her own: the book relegated to the subtitles (or “subtleties” as my father delighted in calling them). In true sentimental mood, Immi puts herself at the centre of the story. I am writing this review of her review next to a mulberry tree in my back garden. Immi, outdoing me again, is swinging on a hammock “stretched between two mulberry trees”. She is reading the sentimental life of international law, heaping luxury upon luxury upon luxury, in her NATO-secured French garden. 

Juxtaposed with the hammock-swinging Finn is a young Ukrainian woman, on a bus seeking refuge from Wagnerian and Russian shells (as I edit this the Wagner Group and the Russian army may now be shelling each other). [As I re-edit it, an Embraer 600 has crashed near Veliky Novgorod. “It is no accident that the world immediately looks at the Kremlin when a disgraced former confident of Putin suddenly, literally, falls from the sky two months after he attempted mutiny”. This has a trace of a sentimental style, no? But then Annalena Baerbock is a former student of mine.] She’s trying to concentrate on the sentimental life of international law and she has reached a passage about gardening in complete solitude that will either read as bad timing or timely hopefulness. The sentences, “lovingly cut”, continue, the footnotes a thick hummus of “mostly Anglo-American culture in international law” (an old sore in IT’s relations with GS). Back in France, IT is luxuriating in a book about luxuriating, struck anew by the sheer foreignness of international law as she places the sentimental life of international law on a shelf next to the misery of international law.

In the end, we have Ruth’s initial reading of my book as an ending, or, as she puts it, an example of late style – resolute, unresolved, unhesitatingly ambiguous, contradictory, cumulative. Now, I’m flattered to be in the same company as Beethoven but sadly Ruth puts aside this preliminary thought and instead files me under “autofiction”. If the book is a factive novel or a fictive memoir then the question becomes not: “is this true?” but the more pertinent “what does the author think of the statements in his book?”. The reason this is such a profound question is that it opens up the possibility that a book may operate at a number of different levels of truthfulness or seriousness or in a number of different registers of personness. “I is another” (is this a Bob Dylan lyric or a Buddhist credo?). And that requires a close reading of text and person, a refusal to assume some sort of stable authorial voice: the dearth of the author, perhaps? It’s true that some of what I have to say is too serious to be taken seriously, not serious enough to be taken lightly. This is perhaps a new combination and re-combination of Zina‘s earnestness and insouciance pairing. 

Well, in the end, late in the day, and though the author may be dead, he turns out to be very much alive, even “corporeal” (RB). He’s drinking coffee in Utopia, he is visiting Tate Britain, he’s in an apartment on 10th and Broadway grim-facedly trying to write an essay on laughter. He is, in short, very late style but hanging on. He is presently absent, absent-mindedly present, auto-factually, inchoately, there. 

And, in the spirit of the book itself (and its author), Ruth sent her review to me – of me – in an unfinished form. 

Late Summer 

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Books, Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia
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