Reflections on The Sentimental Life of International Law

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.

Having read several times Gerry Simpson’s 2015 article in the London Review of International Law by the same name, it was an absolute pleasure and delight to read this book. Behind every piece of writing is an author, a person with sentiments, thoughts, and unique experiences. And behind every reader is likewise a person with sentiments, thoughts, and unique experiences. I must admit to feeling like a bit of a fraud in commenting on this tremendously rich book, and that my reflections are only very minute, personal, and highly sentimental. I hope that I do not deviate too far from what the author had intended to convey, but even if I do, at least it should be clear that the book has made me think and feel, which seems to me the most important thing. I will raise three themes that resonated with me most in reading this book. The first theme is “interdisciplinarity” and international law, the second is the link with law and emotions scholarship, and the third is on the dealing with the grandeur of international law’s ambitions through the mundaneness of everyday life.

At the beginning of chapter five, Simpson writes that the encounters discussed in this book “might even be labelled ‘interdisciplinary,’ though that would be a pity.” (113–114). This opening struck a particular chord with me, as I have been thinking about what “interdisciplinarity” means and how international law might fit in a world of “interdisciplinary” research and teaching. My first thought here was: why would it be a pity for the encounters between international law and literature, sentiments, language, to be labelled “interdisciplinary”? It would be a pity because the label interdisciplinary suggests that literature, sentiments, language, history (what chapter five focuses on), and all sorts of other “things” are outside of the discipline of international law. The word “interdisciplinary” upholds the boundaries between disciplines, and makes it seem as though a book like The Sentimental Life of International Law is not really an international law book. Rather than suggesting that this work is of an interdisciplinary nature, such explorations should be part and parcel of the study and practice of international law and international lawyers.

The reason why this sentence resonated with me relates to my own experiences of being questioned about the extent of my “international lawyerliness.” Even though I have obtained an LLM degree with a specialization in international law, a PhD in international law, and am currently an associate professor of international law, I am frequently told (to my face and behind my back) that I am not a real international lawyer. Such comments often come in the form of rejections from academic publishing outlets, noting that while my research is “interesting,” it is does not fit within the scope of this or that international law journal. I should emphasize here that I have seen significant changes over the last few years of my own early career, and I find many more openings today in engaging in what might have been considered something other than international law (“interdisciplinary,” or otherwise) a few years ago.

Another reason for my interest in the question of “interdisciplinarity” is my position in an institution that is unique in its “interdisciplinarity.” A substantial chunk of my teaching is done for interdisciplinary masters’ programs, and because of the small size of the Geneva Graduate Institute, I also have the luxury of meaningful research engagement with colleagues from various disciplinary backgrounds. As exciting and privileged as this position is, it also raises difficult and important questions about what the discipline of international law is and how it relates to and is situated within the wide spectrum of other disciplines. The question of what international law is and who international lawyers are and what they do—the fundamental question of identity—is more pronounced and conspicuous in a context where we work so closely with “others.”

To go back to Simpson’s comment on labelling the encounters that he explores in the book “interdisciplinary” as being “a pity,” what I take from this and from the book more generally is a call for dropping the fixation on disciplinary boundaries. This does not entail a lack of commitment to the discipline of international law. On the contrary, Simpson emphasizes his commitment to international law and given his influential work, this commitment can hardly be challenged. When I engage with questions and employ methods that are considered beyond the confines of a traditional idea of what international law is, I do this because I strongly believe in international law as a discipline. The book to me reads as a strengthening of the discipline of international law and a call for more greater confidence in the work of international lawyers by expanding our idea of what the discipline entails. Language matters, sentiments matter, personal experiences matter, theatre matters, culture matters. They matter for international law and should be embraced by international lawyers in efforts to better position our work. Through this book, my understanding of “interdisciplinarity” is solidified as signifying not borrowing from other disciplines but expanding our own discipline.

Drawing again on my own interests and experiences, a second reflection I want to make on this book relates to the link between the work that Simpson does and the field of law and emotions research. As my own recent research project is exploring emotions and international law, I was intrigued with the meaning of the word “sentimental” in the book’s title. And, especially, what the relationship is between sentiments and emotions. Sentimental, as Simpson notes also, can have a rather negative connotation. Being sentimental is often regarded as not just displaying feelings but excessively or even inappropriately so. Of course, most people read the acknowledgements in books, or in footnotes of academic articles, to try to get a glimpse of the person and the sentiments behind the words and arguments in a piece of writing. But what do these insights tell us? And how are they reflective of “the sentimental life” of international law and international lawyers?

I understand that this book has a different sensitivity and objective, but I think that engaging more closely with law and emotions scholarship can take the insights and openings made in this book further. Building on my previous reflections on “interdisciplinarity,” Simpson’s book creates meaningful space to engage with law and emotions scholarship to explore further the role that sentiment and emotion play in international law. Law and emotions research developed in the US in the early 1990s and focuses on the relationship between emotions and domestic law. There are many flavors in examining emotions (which can be many things) and law (which can likewise be many things). Some common assumptions in law and emotions scholarship are that reason and emotion are not distinct, as neuroscientists and social psychologists have already shown, but that law remains largely committed to upholding this distinction and grounds itself on the side of reason. A driving objective behind law and emotions scholarship is to challenge law’s continued commitment to “reason” and “rationality,” and to demonstrate that emotions influence law perpetually.

While Simpson does not explicitly engage with law and emotions scholarship, his book implicitly does a great deal to advocate for more interest and research in emotions in international law. The book invites us to consider the persons behind international law, to be sensitive to the languages of international law, and to take the theatricality of international law seriously. These are not insignificant details of the discipline, but instead are at the center of what international law is and what international lawyers do. I will therefore shamelessly and gratefully make use of Simpson’s wonderful work as a stimulus to develop my research on emotions and international law.

The third and final reflection I would like to make on this book is perhaps the most personal and most mundane, relating to thoughts it provoked on how I attempt to manage my feelings of inconsequence in the face of the grandeur of international law and its objectives. Something that in my reading runs through the book in various ways is an interest—a curiosity—in the connection between persons who practice international law and the discipline of international law. This thread in the book made me think about the disconnect that I sometimes see and feel (depending on my own mood, I see and feel this more or less frequently) between the noble and lofty goals of international law and the inconvenient fact that international lawyers are just human beings with flaws like all human beings. To give a concrete example: I have felt unease with international lawyers who work on grand issues such as promoting global justice, human rights, the protection of the environment, poverty and inequality, and so on, but at the same time fail to show kindness and compassion in everyday settings. It might be easier to write big words about achieving global justice, than it is to treat a taxi driver or office cleaner with respect.

My biggest botheration has not been with other people’s behaviors, however, but with my own. This sense of uselessness really dawned on me for the first time in my first job after completing my LLM, before commencing my PhD research. I was working as a civil servant in a privileged graduate job and dealing with a variety of important public issues such as sustainable food consumption, climate change adaptation, and law of the sea. I was in a professional job that on the surface I was proud of, but in my day-to-day work I often wondered what I was really contributing to any of these issues. I recall staring out the window of my office and feeling a pang of envy at the construction workers and window cleaners. At least they could see the tangible result of their labor, something I certainly could not say for myself. In the years that followed I got older, gained more experience, hopefully got a tiny bit wiser, or at the very least more kind and forgiving with myself. And I learned some small ways to cope with these feelings of uselessness, with the disconnect between “being an international lawyer” and being a human being who happens to work in the field of international law.

The final chapter of the book on gardening is where my thoughts on how to cope as a person who happens to be working in the field of international law with the grandiosity of the discipline really came out. My first reaction to the title of chapter seven was very instinctive. I thought about my own recent extreme amateur gardening and at my delight at having managed to grow some zucchinis, tomatoes, broccoli, and strawberries. I shared some photos of our modest harvest with a colleague, saying that I now had a Plan B in life (becoming a self-sustaining gardener) should my academic career in international fail miserably. I was only half joking with that comment. The chapter on gardening brought to the fore the mundane ways in which I have personally learned—and am still learning—to deal with the disconnect between international law and myself as a person “doing” international law. Continuing to commit myself to academic work by reading, thinking, writing, and teaching “big issues” like global food security, climate change, and inequality, I simultaneously and very intentionally commit myself to more mundane things in life. These include amateur gardening, cooking meals, and taking the time to speak with people who do not care about academic or international law.

I will end these brief reflections by reiterating what I said at the start, namely that these are my reflections that may in fact not be what Simpson had in mind in writing this book. The book evoked many thoughts and feelings—sentiments!—and allowed my mind to go into various directions. How I read the book reveals my own current state of being, feelings, and experiences. What I got from this extraordinarily rich and creative book is an intensified motivation to contribute to developing international law as a relevant and important discipline, while staying in close touch with the deeply personal, the everyday world around us. In Simpson’s words, “resisting tears but staying close to them.”

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About Anne Saab

Anne Saab is an Associate Professor in International Law at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Her areas of interest and expertise include food and agriculture, climate change, intellectual property law and more recently, emotions and international law. Her first monograph, entitled Narratives of Hunger in International Law: Feeding the World in Times of Climate Change, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. Prior to entering academia, Anne worked as a legal advisor and policy officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Economic Affairs and at the Foreign Office in The Hague.