Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Three Tales of Omelas – Utopia, Harm and International Law

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Three Tales of Omelas – Utopia, Harm and International Law

[Ruth Houghton is a Senior Lecturer at Newcastle Law School (UK). Aoife O’Donoghue is a Professor in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast.]

Given the disdain with which international legal scholarship holds utopian thinking, it is perhaps surprising that international law has its own utopian literature, its own genre of utopias. And we’re not just talking about Philip Allott’s utopian novel, Eusophia: A New Future for Humanity (2021). Consider Allott’s Eunomia (2001) where international law is reconceptualised as law for an international society, or his Eutopia (2016) where international law is a tool in the move towards the “good life”. A sort of “blueprint” for an ideal international legal order. There is also Antonio Cassese’s plea for a ‘realistic utopia’ to improve the ‘major deficiencies of the current society of states’ (p. xxi).  

Or of course, there is the infamous From Apology to Utopia (2006) by Martti Koskenniemi in which he prescribes what utopian-thinking means for international legal scholarship, that is that international law is an approach devoid of social context, a sort of wishful thinking (p. 41). To be called utopian is, for Koskenniemi, a criticism. And certain approaches to international law are labelled as less than useful because of their utopian tendances (p. 65). Or, put another way by Akbar Rasulov in his discussion on ‘The Utopians’, it’s a way of thinking so aloof as to be ‘a synonym for the idea of unprofessionalism’ (p. 886).  We are therefore probably running the risk of being portrayed as amateurish by looking to Ursula K. le Guin, N. K. Jemisin and Star Trek for their stories set in ‘utopian’ Omelas for lessons on what international law could be. 

Koskenniemi states that the opposite of utopianism in international law are the acts of apologies for state practice. Koskenniemi thus creates a binary between utopianism and apologist tendencies; the more international legal scholarship ‘tries to escape from one, the deeper it sinks into the other’ (p. 65). This binary creates a closed feedback loop, an impasse.

Utopian thinking is an ancient, global, multifaceted form of political thinking, that manifests in numerous forms, much older than that ‘Man for All Seasons’ Thomas More and his imperial utopia. Indeed, as feminist engagement with utopias shows it is much more than wishful thinking or blueprints. Tom Moylan tells us about the ‘critical utopias’ emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, (perhaps including Star Trek) that coincide with the rise of feminist utopias, that offer alternative ways of thinking about utopias. Critical utopias reject grand narratives of progress and are instead self-critical; involving ongoing processes of reflection, re-evaluation and re-orientation (Moylan, Becoming Utopian (2022) pp. 194-195). For Ruth Levitas, utopia is a method, one which is continually open to questions about its foundational assumptions. Drawing on this richer idea of utopia, this blog post discusses three utopian stories tied to a singular query: what do we do about the harms that lie at the core of our worlds? In turning to popular culture, and in particular to science-fiction in literature and on TV, we can ascertain a more useful way to consider the role of the utopian international lawyer. 

The Three Omelas

Omelas, though differently named, lies at the centre of all three stories. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short-story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ describes Omelas as a shimmering city of advanced technology and comfort, but all of this rests on a single child being kept in a basement in appalling conditions. The narrator describes how the people living in Omelas will visit the basement to see the child, reiterating that the continuing suffering is known to the people of Omelas. While some of the inhabitants of Omelas are content to acquiesce and continue in the knowledge of the child’s suffering, others choose to simply walk away. 

In her short-story ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’ (2018), N.K. Jemisin directly responds to Le Guin’s Omelas. This story describes the social workers who fight to maintain the postcolonial utopia of Um-Helat. The narrator is describing Um-Helat to the reader, but unlike in traditional utopian stories, such as Thomas More’s Utopia, where narrators visit the “good-place”, Jemisin disrupts this narrative arc, as her narrator is ‘only an observer, not yet privileged to visit’. Information and ideas of inequality from the outside-world (a world that emulates Um-Helat’s past) has infiltrated Um-Helat and the social workers remove the threat by killing the people who are spreading this information. Jemisin highlights how in a post-colonial utopia, even where harms are present, it should not be about a binary choice between staying and going. Rather it would be imperative that people self-consciously reflect on the harms, inequalities and exclusions that could emerge and actively work to ensure against these.  

The popular science-fiction TV show Star Trek is often described as portraying a postcapitalist utopia. And in this blogpost, we want to focus on one specific episode from Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2022). In ‘Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach’ we see a reiteration of Le Guin’s Omelas story. Spoiler Alert! On the utopian planet Majalis, a chosen child, apparently consensually, is hooked up to a system that ensures the sustainability of their form of civilisation. Albeit, they do not know why the suffering of the child is necessary. While some inhabitants acquiesce and indeed celebrate each new child’s suffering as a glorious sacrifice, there are those that walk away choosing to live on a planet that is not utopian but who then return to fight to save future children. The episode ends with a failed attempt by both those that walked away and the Enterprise crew, to save a child from torture. Pike, the Enterprise’s captain, when offered the opportunity to join the utopia, considers the possibility until the full realisation of the harms suffered by the children is revealed. Throughout the episode law, jurisdiction and morality are used to both justify the Enterprise intervening and Majalis’ right to continue with its own practices. A familiar conundrum. 

Omelas (or Um-Helat or Majalis) as a site of deep questioning within utopian science fiction asks fundamental questions about the price of utopia, how utopias are to be defined, and how to fight for utopian ideals. In Le Guin’s story the outsider-as-reader is largely passive, Jemisin’s reader is invited by the narrator to join in the ‘fight’, and in Star Trek, Pike as the outsider plays an active (though ultimately futile) role in trying to remedy the harm.

Reading these stories alongside international law, we might now consider what harm lies at international law’s core. What sacrifices are made to maintain its status as arbiter of what is and is not permissible or to justify its use in a linear progression towards a better world?  As TWAIL, critical race, feminist and queer scholars continue to show, international law, including the academy, is exclusionary, negating the agency of a plethora of actors and doing very little to remedy the underlying harms. In each story, harm is a foundational cornerstone in their utopian projects, and the primary subject from which all else is constructed. Within international law we can probably think of a number of candidates for this cornerstone of harm. Might the state be that “thing” that international law cannot dislodge without dismantling its utopian project? Or might it be our own self regard as a professional college detached from the real-world harms that international law is entwined with? There are multiple valid answers to that question. So, what do we do?

These three storylines potentially offer different options for the international lawyer: walk away, ‘fight’ or intervene. Of course, each option can be critiqued. For example, Anne Orford criticises the “saviour” complex of international lawyers. The international legal academy is often accused of talking about the issue and then simply turning away; though likewise, critique is rightly brought to bear on white, western, global North scholars that reach for international law as the answer to suffering in contexts they know little about. 

Beyond Wishful Thinking 

But these three stories do not tell us what to do. Rather they challenge us to question our standard responses to acknowledged harms. Koskenniemi articulates our responses as a binary between utopia and apology and yet this formula risks stasis or inertia, in which the international lawyer oscillates between decontextualised hope and realism. What these three stories of Omelas show is that international lawyers have options to break free of this inertia, it is a question of self-consciously interrogating the assumption that underpin the plethora of potential options.  

Each of these utopias has a common flaw, a foundational crack in the otherwise “ideal” world. Mathias Thaler in his recent book, No Other Planet (2022), calls these flaws “fault-lines”. For Thaler, these fault-lines are an essential part of the utopian method. They force the reader to reflect, and probe the utopian project they are being presented with. Such faults and cracks are a common feature of critical utopias as they prompt interrogation of what is meant by utopia, highlight the contingency of the present in the fictional narrative, and open up future potentialities. Utopianism, then, is not just about some utopian destination or place, it does not have to be about writing fixed end-state ideal societies or resolutions to harm. 

Koskenniemi’s binary structure for international legal discourse that is stuck between wishful thinking and apologies, as well as Allott’s blueprint Eutopia, negate any potential for self-reflection as method.

Reading these critical utopias, and studying their “fault-lines”, requires us to ask different questions about international law’s relationship with utopia. For example, we can ask whose utopia is it, and we can ask what harms and inequalities are being maintained by being caught in a self-imposed feedback loop.  These critical utopias ensure a commitment to utopias as an ongoing process with inbuilt reflexivity.

Each (re)telling of the Omelas story raises questions about society’s willingness to create and sustain orders which rely on harm, whether that harm is sacrificial or otherwise. These Omelas highlight the potential harms of end-state utopias that in their unwillingness to evolve reconstitute harm. Reflecting on these utopian stories forces us to consider (as international lawyers) how much acquiescence is required to maintain a “good life” based on that harm, but also, we are faced with questions about the willingness to ‘fix it’, whether the fixing is internal to the system or from some outside intervention. Jemisin’s Omelas story specifically raises questions of the ‘pre-utopian’ moment – what processes have to be followed or what has to be achieved for all in society before it is “utopian” – but in doing so she highlights that we never get there, it is always an iterative process of becoming.

Legal academic scholarship often ignores utopianism as a potentially dangerous and probably wasteful thought-experiment. But in this current moment, where climate change is happening, tech tycoons talk of colonialising the moon, and global inequalities are expanding, in a search for some answers there has been a turn towards utopia in the academy, in popular culture, and by activists. The science-fiction Omelas stories provide an approach to utopian-thinking that negates a grand progress narrative as a response to global challenges. These Omelas stories force us to interrogate the foundational structures of international law for the harms perpetuated, to question whether our methods as international lawyers might re-entrench those harms, and to acknowledge the absolution of the utopia/apology feedback loop.

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