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Favourite Readings 2018: The Power of Words

Favourite Readings 2018: The Power of Words

Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we have selections from Jan Klabbers.

Somehow, 2018 has been for me a year of epistemic concerns, of wondering about the social, emotional and above all political power of language and words and concepts. Many of my favourite readings of the year are related to the exercise of power, legal and otherwise, by epistemic means: the exercise of power through the ways in which we use our concepts, our words; through the ways we express our thoughts, and the ways in which these thoughts come to lead a life of their own, relatively independent even from the work we originally wanted those thoughts to do. This runs like a red thread through all the academic studies on this list, and even, in perhaps less obvious ways, through the non-academic works as well, characterized as these are by their distinct use of language.

Perhaps the most gratifying book I read during 2018 is written by Guy Fiti Sinclair, To Reform the World: International Organizations and the Making of Modern States (2017). I am not the only one who thinks the book is excellent: a jury of the European Society of International Law awarded it the Society’s ‘book of the year’ prize, so I am in good company. Sinclair neatly traces the ways in which three international organizations (the International Labour Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank) have come to influence their member state policies and practices and have done so not only, as may have been expected, through formal decisions or resolutions, but also through far less formal channels for exercising influence, ranging from gathering and discussing statistics to setting priorities in the field. The book is in part a study in politics, studying how organizations wield influence, and how in turn this influence feeds back into the organizations (and, importantly, the law relating to those entities), and as such it is at least as insightful as much work done by professional political scientists. But what gives added value to Sinclair’s study is that this could only have been done by a very good lawyer: the political scientist studying this sort of thing tends to ignore legal frameworks, legal settings, legal conditions, and legal niceties; Sinclair, by contrast, realizes all too well that every human activity is coloured by legal considerations, set against a legal background, and that legal discussions form part of the political drama being played out. The story is Foucauldian in inspiration, but it took a sensitive international lawyer to bring it to fruition.

During a long trip I read Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007), a philosophical study outlining how political and social power can be exercised by epistemic means, and how this can lead to injustice. For instance, a powerful section is devoted to the dismissal of the idea of female intuition: by pointing to female intuition, we tend to downgrade the reliability of female observations, and therewith do an injustice. In addition, we might be doing an injustice when we fail to take events seriously because we do not have a recognized term for them: this may have plagued an issue such as climate change for a long time. Given the prevalence of epistemic power and epistemic governance – power exercised through words and concepts – the importance of recognizing that these things can lead to serious injustice should not be under-estimated; doing so would in itself constitute epistemic injustice. And it should be clear that international law academics do much the same when ignoring or deriding the works of colleagues working in different intellectual traditions: not taking the doctrinal lawyer seriously because she works in that particular tradition is not just short-sighted (why ignore potentially valuable insights?) but also unjust (Klabbers, ‘On Epistemic Universalism and the Melancholy of International Law’, (2018) 29 European Journal of International Law, forthcoming).

Another book that owes much to epistemic concerns is a recent study by political theorist Mark Button, titled Political Vices (2016). Button makes the point that liberal democratic politics is threatened by three distinct political vices, and must be one of the first to systematically address the issue (There are studies of ordinary vices, and some work on specific vices in politics (in particular about lying), but I am not aware of any other more or less comprehensive study on political vices). To his mind (and one can easily concur), democratic politics is threatened by hubris on the part of our political leadership (hubris here referring to the idea that the speaker is always right and the opponent always wrong), by moral blindness (the refusal even to recognize that one has blind spots), and by recalcitrance (roughly, the unwillingness to take other opinions seriously). Unlike the other books on my list, the writing here could have been crispier: Button loves his commas and parentheses; quite a few of his sentences go on for eight, ten or fifteen lines, and he takes many of his examples from Greek tragedy – this is not the easiest book to go through. But the message is clear, and is remarkable and rewarding. The book is published in 2016, which means the manuscript must have been completed in 2015 or earlier, way before a certain real estate project developer from New York City could be seen as a serious candidate for the presidency of the US. Indeed, there is no mention of Donald Trump in the book. And yet, on every page it seems that Trump is described, in considerable detail and with considerable precision. This is a wonderful example of political philosophy at its best: well-informed, analytically rigorous and normatively compelling, and very, very timely. One may quibble about his limited notion of political vice: surely, these and other vices also operate outside the setting of liberal democracies. And one could have hoped for less esoteric illustrations and crispier sentences on occasion, but what stands firm is the main point: democracy is threatened, seriously threatened, by leaders engaging in political vice, and those vices entail not so much the use of brute force (as traditionally associated with leadership vice, and applicable to the likes of Putin, Erdogan and Duterte) but can often also be epistemic in nature, and one of the great merits of Button’s book is that it helps to understand just why the rhetoric of someone like Trump is not much better than the naked exercise of brute force.

The Flemish artist Jacques Brel was an intriguing singer and songwriter, who essentially left his family behind in order to concentrate on his art, and ended up in Polynesia, as had, seven decades earlier, French painter Paul Gauguin. Both ended up on the same small island of Hiva Oa, and both are buried there. It transpires from the eccentric but very fine biography of Brel by Flemish journalist Johan Anthierens that Brel was a passionate man, and Anthierens’ sumptuous, juicy use of the Dutch language (Purists (or the Flemish) may object that Anthierens was Belgian and wrote in Flemish. While it is probably true that one has to be Flemish to write like Anthierens, the pedant in me insists that Flemish is not a distinct language) mirrors Brel’s French and Brel’s passion. The book is not particularly straightforward; it contains a story seemingly told by the woman who was the model for Brel’s song Marieke; it contains fragments of interviews given by Brel; it contains an adventure with Anthierens flying to Hiva Oa to figure out how Brel could have lived there while being eaten alive by the local mosquitoes – in short, it is a jumpy book, but written in rich, earthy, Dutch, and with the same passion and pain Anthierens ascribes to Brel: form and function come together; some of the emotional (and social?) power of Brel’s lyrics is mirrored in Anthierens’ use of language, and one can only regret that the book has never been translated; then again, translation would pose a considerable challenge – many of the puns and word plays might not survive.

I have always liked crime novels (they probably appeal to my shady sides, which I otherwise keep hidden from view), but on condition that they are dark – and it does not get much darker than the novels of Peter Temple. Many of his novels have Melbourne as their background and bring this city to life, and visiting the city for the first time gave me a good opportunity to bring novels and city together. Truth (2009) and The Broken Shore (2005) are both at least in part set in Melbourne, and much of the stories revolves around the rich carving out special privileges for themselves and about corruption, especially in the business of real estate project development. The line separating the good guys from the bad is impossible to draw: the good guys are often just as bad as the bad guys, and the bad guys can on occasion be quite decent human beings. And as with Anthierens, the writing is truly something special: Temple had a brilliant ear for dialogue, not the wisecracks characterizing some of the hard-boiled US crime writers and rendering them almost into parodies of themselves, but crackling real-life communication – and mis-communication. Temple died while I was in Melbourne, which provided me with an additional incentive to re-read his novels, and I found they are even better the second time around.

Finally, I read several studies on what may broadly be termed the political economy of higher education, and two of them deserve to be singled out. Jim Mittelman’s Implausible Dream: The World Class University and Repurposing Higher Education (2017) is a surprisingly balanced study of the move to privatization in higher education, and what makes it stand out is that it is not merely offering a critique of market orientations in the academy, but expresses considerable sympathy for the plight of students who are expected to pay handsomely and are therewith entitled to receive education that can be useful for their future employment prospects. This means that Mittelman sees both sides of the coin: he is critical of purely professional training and the competition that drives universities nowadays (he works in a broadly neo-Gramscian tradition), but not blind to the position of students – and this kind of nuance sets him apart from much current criticism of developments in the academy.

Finally, not a particularly good book as such but a highly sympathetic manifesto is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), written by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, two Canadian academics working in the field of literary criticism and inspired by the Slow Food movement. They advocate that academics should leave the rat race for what it is and re-discover what once made an academic career look so appealing: the prospect of engaging our curiosity, the idea of helping others discover what we find so fascinating in a particular field of study. Doing so will improve our happiness, but will also help improve our work, so they suggest: we will at least be better teachers if we can engage our own passions, our own pains perhaps too. As a book, The Slow Professor is a bit repetitive and verbose, and mostly bringing together insights culled from other studies, but as a manifesto it delivers its message clearly, and is well worth spending a few hours with.

[via EJIL: Talk!]

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