Between Irony and Credulity

The structure

Simpson’s Sentimental Life of International Law – literature, language and longing in world politics is composed of seven chapters loosely organised around ‘sentimental’ themes and international law. The book seeks to ‘combine cynicism with speculative hopefulness’, and contribute to a professional culture of ‘passionate, puckish, kind-hearted scepticism’ (p. 8).  Uncomfortable with the label of a ‘book about theory’ (p. 8), the structure and style of the book seek to do theory by ‘stealth and indirection’ (p. 9). His emphasis is on aesthetics over content – rather than insights into institutions, legal instruments, or international lawyers’ practices per se, the book’s goal is to convince us that ‘style matters a great deal’ (p. 20), and that there is transformative poignancy in textual form. In shifting international law towards a literary (even poetic) language (p. 18), Simpson hopes to will international law anew from the margins. The book continues Simpson’s important work of highlighting how international law is ‘personal’, and appropriately shines brighter when discussing the author’s main areas of expertise – international criminal law and its histories. In a project in which writing takes centre stage, however, the overall tone of the book shifts rather uncomfortably between irony and credulity. This, allied with Simpson’s prolix language and sometimes heavy-handed literary references, can distract even the most sympathetic readers from the book’s laudable sentimental enterprise.

The personal is political, but not all personal is made equal

The second chapter, ii. the sentimental lives of international lawyers, most echoes the original article that gave rise to the book. In it, Simpson dissects the absence of ‘life’ (p. 31) from international law’s scholarship and practice, in contrast with international law’s recent biographical turn (p. 36). I am partial to Simpson’s plea for us to look for the ‘sentimental’, the private, in ‘marginal spaces’ of international law publications, such as acknowledgements; they are the cracks in the otherwise dry ‘depersonalised expert advice’(p. 37) through which life seeps out. His tripartite classification of works in the burgeoning genre of the ‘biographical turn’ in international law is perspicacious. He teases out biographies that emphasise role of particular individuals in the furthering of international law and institutions (here, here), memoirist history that tells familial tales against the backdrop of international legal developments, and autobiographies that revel in the ironies between international law’s promises and its practice. 

The second half of this chapter is less convincing. While commending lawyers that ‘break the fourth wall’ – international lawyers should ‘think of themselves as individuals with moral agency and responsibility’ (p. 37) –, he warns against ‘sentimental excess’ and ‘over-feeling’ (p. 38). One wonders what feminist thinkers, mentioned by Simpson earlier in the chapter as pioneers in the study of emotion, (p. 33) would say about the book’s proposal that we approach international law from a place of irony and ‘tough sentimentality’ (p. 52). In Simpson’s view, over-feeling makes one succumb to ‘standard vices’, such as theorising in a manner that ‘comes to the point, [renders] the world transparent, [clarifies] the thesis, [makes] explicit’, and lacks the irony and the poetic ‘tingle’ to which international lawyers should aspire (p. 53). Irony is also at the core of iii. international law’s comic disposition, where it is conflated with comedy. In this chapter, Simpson favours comedy over earnestness in engaging with the discipline. The roles available for those engage in the critical enterprise are that of the ‘ironic international lawyer’ who uncovers the idiosyncrasies of the discipline, or the ‘kynical international lawyer’ (p. 87), who outwardly defies and rebels against the system. 

In Simpson’s sentimental life, emotions are laudable (p. 33), but only if infused with the rationality of irony. Not all sentiments are made equal – to be taken seriously, one must avoid the earnestness of tears or giddy hope (p. 53). 

Close to his heart – insights on International Criminal Law and history 

The book is at its best when it broaches international criminal law and history, subjects closest to Simpson’s heart. Chapter iv. ‘bluebeard on trial’: the experience of bathos, argues ICL first harnesses authority from ‘unprecedenting past atrocity’ (p. 92)  – the trope of ‘never before have we witnessed such horror’. Later on, however, it needs to ‘[discover] precedents for the unprecedented’ to comply with the legality principle (p. 92). In this oscillation between ‘unprecedenting’ and inventing precedent, grand promises are diluted by institutional bureaucracy. Simpson’s example of the establishment of the ICC and its promises of ‘transformative justice’ contrasted with its first trial of the low-ranking Thomas Lubanga, for the relatively narrow crime of conscription and use of child soldiers, is poignant (p. 96). His proposal to avoid the unavoidable bathos of international criminal trials is to create a history of international law that is ‘not international, criminal, or law’: instead of courts, he proposes institutional responses such as Truth Commissions (p. 112), or memorialisation (p. 111).

Equally good is the subsequent chapter, v. an uncertain style: after method in international legal history, that proposes a way around arguing the ‘right way’ to do international legal history (here, here). Simpson favours historical method that is radically personal and introspective – ‘an invitation to think about, defend, and elaborate a distinctive method of one’s own’ allied with an enhanced focus on ‘literary virtue’ (p. 143). In other words, ‘a more acute awareness that we write history’ (p. 136, emphasis in the original). His personal stylistic preference? Histories that adopt a ‘vernacular of irony’ (p. 142).

From irony to friendship

Chapter vi discusses friendship, ‘something often … thought of as ‘literary’’, and how it converses with international law. After discussing some categories of international law’s non-friends – enemies, pirates, criminals, neutrals –, Simpson proposes a practice of friendship that denotes ‘care, kindness, a “banality of the good”’ (p. 161). He contrasts his ‘lawful friendship’ with thin, liberal friendship of trading and living together (p. 165), in the Treaties of Amity and Commerce that paradoxically only crop up through enmities (think ICJ jurisdiction in cases such as Nicaragua v United States or Iran v United States) (p. 167). 

Simpson pre-emption of critiques about idealism in this chapter (p. 178) do not, however, prepare readers for his examples of ‘lawful friendship’. Mao’s and Nixon’s approchement in 1967 (p. 179) renders Henry Kissinger an incidental orchestrator of radical friendship in international relations. Equally disconcerting is the romanticised description of Khrushchev’s correspondence with Castro during the Cold War. Less compassionate readers may consider Khrushchev’s reminiscences about the Russian countryside less as friendly, and more as diversions from a harsh political blow to a former ally (p. 183). The account of Nehru and Tito’s friendship forged on common anti-colonial sensibilities is more convincing as an aspirational example of the ‘poetic-diplomatic’ friendship in international relations Simpson seeks to inspire (p. 181).

Cottagecore international law

The book’s final chapter proposes ‘gardening’ as a solution to the question often posed by ‘critics of the critics’: ‘[if not reform], what would you do instead?’ (p. 186). Simpson’s proposition is that international lawyers break disciplinary boundaries, and delve into ‘literature’ (pp. 189-191). He advocates for the creation of literary gardens or ‘enclaves’ (p. 196) – places in which imagination can flourish ‘at a distance from the governing orthodoxies’ of the discipline (p. 203). To avoid the unavoidable bathos of institutional reform or legal practice, one must explore gauche subjects, in defiance of methodological restrictions, resisting the ‘instrumentalised transmission of knowledge’ required by neoliberal academia (pp. 4-5).  Similarly to the chapter on friendship, the wistful tone of this chapter does not sit well with the first half of the book’s sardonicism. Despite Simpson’s best efforts to demonstrate self-awareness (p. 185), it is also doubtful whether gardening is a viable proposition to most international lawyers: early career researchers, Global South scholars, precarious academic staff, in all their intersectionalities. Literally and metaphorically, gardening remains a luxury for those with time and real estate to do it.


Simpson’s homonymous article helped open the discipline’s doors to inquiries into international law’s ‘personal life’ as not only a scientific, but sentimental enterprise. The book has not disappointed in expanding this insight: the first chapter’s reflexions on the biographical turn, and the fifth chapter’s argument about the relationship between method and personal preferences, are refreshing. Chapters iv and v are also strong – their central arguments about international criminal law and historical method, respectively, are perceptive. 

The book’s shifts in tone, however, undercut some of its arguments. Chapters vi and vii’s musings on ‘friendship’ and ‘gardening’ sound saccharine when compared to chapters ii and iii’s preference for irony and warnings about the dangers of ‘over-feeling’. In attempting to balance irony and credulity, the book misses the mark: after reading it, one is more likely to write a sardonic ‘tight ten’ about international’s failings than pick up their gardening gloves. That said, Simpson would probably be content with either.


Compartilhe / Share:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter