DR JESSIE HOHMANN

Objects of International Law
EARLY CAREER FELLOW: OCTOBER 2017 – JULY 2018

Jessie Hohmann is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London. She previously completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she was also a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, and has degrees from the University of Sydney, Osgoode Hall Law School, and the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on the objects and materiality of international law, on human rights (particularly the right to housing), and on indigenous peoples in international law. She is a founding editor of the Queen Mary Human Rights Law Review, and Co-Director of the Queen Mary Centre for European and International Legal Affairs.

Jessie’s ISRF project seeks to open an innovative new theoretical and methodological direction for international legal scholarship, prompted by the question: what would be revealed if we began with things, and material objects, rather than with texts?

Material things fill our homes, our cities, our bodies, and we are surrounded by objects from the minute and ephemeral to the enduring and the enormous. Yet we seldom consider international law’s role in creating these objects; giving them force and authority; according them special or everyday status; or – on the other hand, stripping them of the authority to be, preventing their coming into being, or resulting in their destruction. From this perspective, our world is filled with objects of international law, and each of these material objects exists in a manner which is caught up with international law’s objects as purposes. In revealing the deep entanglements of international law and the material things around us, we can begin to understand how international law structures us as its subjects – and sets the contours for the possibilities and limits of our lives – through objects. This will enable new ways of thinking about, but also opportunities for contesting, resisting, and re-forming international law and its implications for our lived experience.

Abstract

This project opens an innovative new theoretical direction and methodology for international legal scholarship, prompted by the question: what would emerge or be revealed if we began with the material object – the paper shredder, say, or the armed drone, the AIDS virus or gavel – rather than the text?

In raising this question, I depart from existing scholarship and practice in two ways. First, the project rejects the discipline’s normal horizons, where the interpretation and proliferation of state-created text is the central – sometimes exclusive – reference point. Second, it resists the gulf between international law’s deep effects on the lives of individuals, and the perception of international law as remote and unaccountable.

The project’s theoretical innovation is the shift from regarding international law as state-focused, text-based and distant from ordinary lives, to understanding it as having a range of material effects and a major role in constructing the world around us. The methodological innovation is to begin with the object rather than the text or the intentions and motivations of states, and to use interdisciplinary approaches to ‘read’ objects and understand and demonstrate how they are given meaning and value by international law.

My current work (Hohmann & Joyce (eds), forthcoming late 2017) tests the ‘object’ methodology through an edited collection of forty material things. Each chapter examines an object and through it provides an account of international law’s operation in the world. It opens up a rich vein of deep questions for international law, to be investigated during the fellowship. Through a monograph and web-gallery, I will draw on and apply insights on objects, things, and material cultures from disciplines including anthropology, museum studies, philosophy, sociology, design studies, architecture, science and technology studies, resulting in an account of a richly socially embedded and intensely relevant international law.

The Research Idea

We are surrounded by objects. Material things fill our homes, our cities, our bodies, and we are seldom seen in public other than decked in and accompanied by material possessions.

Yet we seldom consider international law’s role in creating these objects; giving them force and authority; according them special or everyday status; or – on the other hand, stripping them of authority, preventing their coming into being, or resulting in their destruction. From this perspective, our world is filled with objects of international law, and each of these material objects exists in a manner which is caught up with international law’s objects as purposes.

In revealing the deep entanglements of international law and the material things around us, we can begin to understand how international law structures us as its subjects – and sets the contours for the possibilities and limits of our lives – through objects. This will enable new ways of thinking about, but also opportunities for contesting, resisting, and re-forming international law and its implications for our lived experiences.

Examining international law’s symbolic aspects and the claims it makes to authority and power through material things provides new insights on longstanding debates on the relationship between objects and subjects in international law and the relationship between law’s objects (as purposes) and its material effects. In addition, objects invite reflection on the preoccupations, even object fetishes, and blind-spots of international law, enabling and highlighting the inherent selectivity of its processes of memory, encounter, and erasure.

Background

Although many international lawyers and scholars are deeply committed to international law as a means to social change, international law is perceived as remote and technical: something that happens only far away at the UN, or when world leaders shake hands at lavish, highly securitized summits.

Efforts to make international law more relevant on the ground often centre around calls for the creation of more, more specific, or better, law, or increased enforcement: for example for international treaties on indigenous rights, agreements to combat climate change, or the right of individual petition under a human rights convention. This project posits a different route: we need to understand international law’s role in making the material world around us, and call attention to that role by giving thought to the material things it makes possible or precludes.

This approach is as yet unexplored in the discipline, but represents a rich theoretical yet practically motivated opportunity to enliven our understanding of law’s relevance. There is some research on the local relevance of international law (Eslava 2015; Stewart, 2011; De Feyter et al 2011). A number of important works in history have taken objects as starting points (MacGregor 2010, 2014; Cooper, Paterson, Wanhalla 2015). Nevertheless, with the exception of Perry-Kessaris’s legal treasures project, there is very little that seeks to bring to bear on law thinking on / theories of the object (discussed further, Methodology). This project is, thus, poised to make an important contribution and move beyond existing disciplinary preoccupations in meaningful ways.

The Focus

The body of international law, its flesh supported and moulded by scholars and practitioners, is ever more enmeshed in daily life, governing everything from food packaging (through international trade, health and agricultural standards), the appropriate expression of sexuality (through human rights and global health law), to the regulation of legitimate movement within and beyond state borders (international control of migration and refugee flows, and internationally implicated national security regulations). Yet, it is experienced as remote, opaque, and unaccountable.

The perceived gulf between international institutions, regulatory frameworks and laws, and the lives of individuals and communities, echoes in recent world events. The UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU (‘Brexit’), exemplifies disengagement from international institutions, while rapidly rising nationalist and protectionist political movements are notable in their rejection of international legal rights and standards.

The project seeks to respond to this gulf on two levels:

First, by bringing to light the material things that are enmeshed both in international law and everyday life, and writing about them and in a clear and accessible way: a number of the outputs are designed to be appealing to an interdisciplinary and non-specialist audience, with short, accessible chapters, vibrant use of images, and open access formats where possible.

Second, the project responds to this gap by calling attention to, and interrogating, the ways international law and lawyers are implicated in making and unmaking; claiming and disclaiming; legitimising and delegitimising objects, so as to open new avenues for understanding, critique and dissent, and ultimately, reengagement.

Theoretical Novelty

The project asks how we might understand and identify material objects of law? What makes a material thing an object of international law, and how does international law create, appropriate, police, or erase objects? Do objects of international law have politics, and if so, how do we identify and critique them? And what are the implications of these entanglements for the individuals and communities who use, produce, are exposed to, and must at times resist these material things? These questions, further, prompt interrogation of the relationship between material objects and objects as purposes, and reveal how international law’s objects are implicated in the creation of its own subjectivity.

Raising these questions through material objects is novel for international law: no work as yet has mapped out this field of inquiry. There is to date no real consideration of, first, the material objects through which international law becomes embedded and implicated in the world, and second, the role of international law and legal practice in constructing, authorising, legitimising and giving force to those objects.

The project will draw on a range of insights and theories of the object from across the humanities, social, and information sciences, which remain unexplored in international law. Attention to objects as international law’s material culture and its biography; as assemblages and ‘things’, for example, represent a rich vein for future work, connecting anthropology, material culture studies, history, and museum studies in novel ways, all through the concrete objects through which international law relates to the world.

Methodology

This project seeks to develop a new methodology for international law, and in applying that methodology, to move the discipline forward in a way that has both conceptual bite and potential real-world effects.

Beginning with the object is a well-established methodology in history, museum studies (MacGregor, 2010, 2014), anthropology and material culture studies, (Appadurai 1986; Miller 1998, 2005, 2010). But it is only beginning to be explored in international law, a discipline where methodological innovations have often faced stiff challenges from the establishment (see, symposium ‘Method in International Law,’ (1999) 93 AJIL).

The first phase of the project tests the methodology through an edited collection (Hohmann & Joyce (eds), forthcoming late 2017). Each chapter examines an object (among them data, opium, boots, the whale), and through the object provides its own account of international law’s operation in the world. Each chapter explicitly or implicitly reveals its own theory of the object, and prompts further deep questions of the role, purpose and effect of the material things in international law.

These ideas have begun to be explored in the edited collection, but the fellowship will provide the opportunity to develop in a sustained and focused way both the theoretical and methodological aspects. During the fellowship I will draw on and apply insights on objects, things, and material cultures from the disciplines mentioned above, as well as from philosophy, sociology, design studies, architecture, science and technology studies, to result in an account of a richly socially embedded and intensely relevant international law.

Work Plan

I would take up the fellowship for 10 months, beginning October 2017.

The first output, an edited volume (Hohmann & Joyce (eds), Objects of International Law, OUP), is expected late 2017. This underpins the work to be undertaken during the fellowship which would centre on: 1) the creation of an open-access web-gallery of objects, to be updated on an on-going basis and to provide a beautifully presented, thought provoking, accessible archive; 2) a flagship seminar series on the materiality of global law, drawing together scholars, practitioners, activists, and artists to consider objects and their implications in and for law. Together, the edited volume, seminars and website will provide the foundation for the most significant output of the fellowship: 3) a monograph, to be co-authored with Dr. Daniel Joyce, (UNSW law) addressing the theoretical questions raised by thinking about international law through objects. A book proposal will be submitted to a major publisher and a number of key chapters will be written during the fellowship. An important aspect will be the inclusion of visual materials, heightening the interdisciplinary appeal, and accessibility, of the volume as well as its innovative aspect.

The fellowship will support my ability to spend several months in Sydney, to work with Dr. Joyce on the monograph. I also plan shorter trips to VU Amsterdam, Kent, Liverpool, and Princeton, with the aim of creating a strong network taking forward research on objects as a vibrant new direction in global and international law.

Outcome

Thinking about international law through objects is a major new research direction for international law. The fellowship will provide a secure base from which to build further practical and conceptual work.

Practically, the project’s outputs and methodology will be available as planks for engagement with activists, civil society, policy makers and the public, and will provide much needed opportunities to demonstrate, engage with, and critique how international law works. Conceptually, the project opens a new direction and methodology for international legal scholarship, one that moves the discipline beyond the text and the state, to investigate and consider the implications of its entanglements in the material world. Poised between the practical or policy focussed and the conceptual outcomes are opportunities for innovative and interdisciplinary teaching; for further engagements with designers, architects, and the arts; and for fostering an interdisciplinary network of scholars.

The web-gallery will provide an accessible, open access hub for ongoing work on objects and international law. Specific plans include bringing objects together with other innovative projects now being pursued in international law, including objects as art, and feminist readings of objects. Open access dissemination will facilitate participation from junior, global south, and unaffiliated scholars.

There is much scope for further work leading to longer term outputs. I anticipate publishing a number of important journal articles in the aftermath of the project, including on 1) the materiality of the right to housing, and 2) how international law appropriates objects to itself, drawing on work from botanical systems of classification.