A Style for the Human Heart

This essay is part of a symposium on Gerry Simpson’s The Sentimental Life of International Law. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

The Sentimental Life of International Law approaches anew “our age-old longing for a decent international society” (1). In search for such decency, the book critiques international law’s disciplinary constitution by means of what it “forbids its practitioners to do.”[1] This inquiry is driven by an existential unease over the strictures international law places on our engagement with the ineffable violence to which it is meant to respond.

In this unusual and unusually perceptive book, Simpson pursues this project across a landscape of international law’s forbiddances. Amongst these are international lawyers’ “hinterlands of [an] emotional life” (39, chapter two), ironic laughter at the “felt absurdities of international legal life” (58, chapter three), the bathetic struggle for precedent to judge unprecedented violence in international criminal trials (93, chapter four), “a plea for a post-method” (119f) that is “literary rather than technical” (188, chapter five), visions of lawful friendship that animate a more vital politics of international law (148, chapter six) and an anti-anti-utopian pastoral practice of gardening to cultivate sanctuaries of uselessness within the practice of international law (chapter seven).

The question of “style” animates these variegated explorations. An engagement with style, Simpson argues, invigorates international legal thinking such that it can exceed the merely unforbidden. Style—or, in fact, sentiment sans sentimentality—pertains to a certain way of engaging international law that avoids both the Scylla of technocracy and the Charybdis of melodrama, both of which, in Simpson’s account, define as much as hobble international legal argument. Taking “style” seriously, Simpson argues, is vital to nurturing an alternative ethical posture that steps beyond the ossified or teary façades of international legal reasoning. Style as a way of cultivating a “hard-boiled, unillusioned” sentiment (53) is neither a-political, nor bereft of normativity. This powerful claim merits scrutiny.

This is so especially because Simpson is wary of the “near enemies” of sentiment, namely depoliticization and cynicism. He thus insists that “the aesthetic obsessions of this book do not disqualify it as a contribution to the politics of international law” (25). He is also careful to evacuate sentiment from the dangers of sentimentality with a distinct normative intervention to avoid “an escape into shoulder shrugging” (26). How, then, does The Sentimental Life of International Law commit itself to both a political and a normative posture?

First, politics, on two counts: indirection and post-method. Simpson’s politics in this book seem to crystallize around a series of refusals. A refusal to answer the question as it is posed, a refusal to be technical, objective, useful, determined, definite or clear. The space freed by these refusals is where style comes alive in engaging international law. This style is one of hesitancy and indirectness, of committed uselessness and literary vividity. Style, then, is political as it offers a different mode of (not) approaching the question, or giving a different (non-)answer, one that abstains from deciding, from taking sides and from clarity. A sentimental answer thus does not answer to “what is to be done,” but rather to “how else might we experience” an international legal conundrum. A sentimental answer would not respond to “how to contextualize the Nuremberg Trials,” but enliven our imagination with the cyclamens grown in a Nuremberg greenhouse by the War’s bereaved survivors (208). It is worth quoting Simpson at length to clarify the stakes of sentiment for “an international law of politics” (25). The cyclamens are

a quiet pastoral rebuke to those who would over-sentimentalise the victims of war and a rejoinder to the idea of politics as a series of transformative events; instead, they represent a decentring of the trial, of the grand political moment. . . . Of course, this is sentimental but not in the way that lurid descriptions of the effects of bombing, or monumental histories of the Trial might be. . . . “Nuremberg” refers to the trial, of course, but also now . . . to the bombing [of Nuremberg by the Allies] and the greenhouse. These cyclamens decentre the trial with its effusive self-congratulations. . . . And the girl with the cyclamens reminds us that the victors have to offer remedy for their violence wrought over several miserable nights in Nuremberg (208–9).

To be sentimental, then, is not to be apolitical (26). Neither is it apolitical to advocate for “literary virtue after method” (143). “After method” breaks open what “method” occludes, namely that it is our predispositions, our “deep moral and aesthetic decision[s]” that “predate archive and method” (137–8). Historical methods themselves, in this light, are not “best practices” necessary to reveal a truth about the past uncontaminated by presentist concerns and the evils of anachronism. Instead, they appear as inclinations that yield decisions about contexts, perspectives, and traditions we actively take to write history (136). Literary virtue, rather than technical prowess, can produce “deliberately acontextual reasoning [that has] political potency” (127). Such virtue thus uncovers that the “debate over anachronism is partly a political struggle over the meaning of history and the requirements of the present, and perhaps not so much a choice of ‘method’” (126). The politics attending (post-)method we thereby source out of our “shared aesthetics” (119).

Second, normativity. Simpson lodges his normative argument between “a concern about dryness” and “an anxiety about melodrama,” between “the spectre of technocracy and the lure of sentimental indulgence” (51). Among the many pleas issued in the book, “the need for a sentimental life of international law to re-energise our (legal) politics” (27) is what speaks most strongly to the “age-old longing for a decent international society” (1). This longing (un-)fortunately requires our discomfort as the condition of our decency. Between the unbearable pain of others and the legalist inventions of the discipline, we must not shirk from “an intensely private reckoning with the self” (28), a self that does not balk at the bathetic deflations of war crimes trials. Ironic laughter, in this light, is part of the very decency that Simpson requests from “international society.” He captures ironic laughter “as a reflexive response to the felt absurdity of international legal life” (58) that “expos[es] international lawyering’s opacities, its pretenses and its self-satisfactions” (56). The decency of ironic laughter “arises organically from the gap between our hopes and the abridgement of these hopes or in the abyss between illusion and experience” (58). An insistence on judicial “solemnity” in the face of “unofficial chaos” (63), by contrast, contributes little to such decency because it papers over the “ironic disjuncture between the acts themselves and the legal language used to comprehend these acts” (65). Indeed, the judicial attempt to perfect legalist comprehension of incomprehensible acts entails “the possibility that the human heart loses some of its capacity for indignation when evil is judicialized” (69).  Our “human heart” thus requires irony, which is “a form of questioning about questioning, an existential uncertainty about life and professional identity” (77). To be decent, then, we must cultivate irony. To do so, we require style. The question thus stands, what is the source of style? Is it a matter of character, of disposition? Who is more likely to “have” it or to acquire it? And who is more likely to misrecognize the importance of its practice?


[1] Hayden White, cited in Gerry Simpson, Sentimental Life of International Law: Literature, Language, and Longing in World Politics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021), 12, fn 38; see also 58.

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About Sinja Graf

Dr. Graf’s research engages the intersection of international theory, (the legacies of) imperialism and international law. Her monograph The Humanity of Universal Crime (Oxford University Press, 2021) won the International Studies Association's International Ethics Book Award and the European Consortium for Political Research's Political Theory Award. Her single-authored, peer-reviewed articles have been published in the American Journal of Political Science, Law, Culture and the Humanities, Political Theory as well as International Relations.