Chatting with Jean d’Aspremont
Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Prof. Jean d’Aspremont, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of his interests, sources of inspiration and habits.
Welcome Prof. d’Aspremont and thank you very much for accepting our invitation!
I am grateful for your invitation. May I take the liberty to formulate a preliminary remark so as to manage the expectations of your potential readership? I must warn you and your readership that I am not going to say anything personal, let alone something that will lead your readers to the “person behind the academic”. This is not only because I am not inclined to reveal anything worldly, juicy or sparkly about myself. It is more fundamentally because I do not think that there is such a figure as “the person behind the academic”, i.e. a sort of autonomous self pulling the strings of the academic puppet one sees in the lecture halls, the books, the blogs, on Youtube, etc. In other words, I do not think there is the private person on the one hand and the public academic on the other. There only is an evanescent fugitive figure that leaves occasional (written and vocal) traces in the world. Our conversation here is just one of these traces.
Duly noted! May I first ask what it was that brought you to academia and what made you stay?
Here too I want to start with a caveat. Claiming that one chose academia or, conversely, that one was chosen by academia can prove awfully pretentious, overly romanticized, and, above all, very simplistic. I do not think there is an independent agent behind one’s career. I want to resist the idea of describing a career as the product of a choice. At least in my case, I have always had the feeling that my academic career – provided that one can speak of a career – was an accidental non-event. I will never feed my own (self-narrated) career story with big causal narratives marked by fanciful events. Causality and causal events are always meant to be precarious (remember Hume!) and hence very disillusioning. I just happened to be a privileged boy. I had the chance to study in a very decent university and, some day, crossed the path of an esteemed senior academic who, for reasons I am still trying to fathom, invited me to consider doing some post-graduate research in law. Not to mention that thereafter I always proved incredibly lucky to secure enough funding and support to continue to go down that route. I want to add that, when the opportunity to do post-graduate research came up in the circumstances that I have just described, I hardly knew what research in the humanities possibly entails or leads to. I just took the chance, mostly because I was rather tepid at anything else than a law degree could lead me to.
If you were not an academic, what would you be?
To be honest, I have always struggled with anything that has to do with counter-factual thinking. The counter-factual past is not only bound to be articulated around very precarious causalities but is always the product of the story one is telling oneself in the present. In that sense, in telling you what I could have possibly been doing, had I not been an academic, I am primary telling you a story about what it is for me to be an academic in the present. Now, for instance, by telling you that I would have liked to be some kind of a writer of books, you can appreciate that what I love in being an academic is the writing, the struggle with the text, the composition of the text, and all the thinking and the reading that feed into such engagements with the text. Although academia is all my life and will always be, I admire a lot these few colleagues of mine who decided to leave academia to devote their entire time to non-academic writing, even at a high cost in terms of standards of living. It is true that the contemporary managerial university can sometimes prove a somewhat hostile and unhospitable place for writers…
Could you share with us three authors that have had a major impact on your work?
I believe that disclosing some of my thought companions does not say much about where I stand, which is why I am ready to answer your question. We may well read similar texts but perpetually load them with a very different and varying content. After all, texts are spaces which each of us fills, refills and unfills very differently. Because telling you whom I read tells very little about me, I can mention a few of the intellectual companions that have accompanied me over the last years. It is very difficult for me to elect just three of the companions who have been with me over the years. It is also impossible for me to rank them. So let me just mention a few of those whose work has been decisive for me. Among them, surely one finds Homi Bhabha, Roland Barthes, Henri Bergson, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Michel de Certeau, Régis Debray, Jacques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Timothy Mitchell, Jacques Rancière, Paul Ricoeur, Edward Saïd, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, George Steiner, Hayden White and many others (I am mentioning them in alphabetical order and not in order of importance).
Let’s be honest: mentioning such intellectual companions is very unspectacular. There is hardly anyone interested in legal theory who would not refer to most of these authors. What warrants a comment, however, is that too many of these thinkers are western and male figures. This is yet another manifestation of the – very messed up – ordering of our world, and yet another sign that we have to do something about it. That said, one cannot deny that the tools that the abovementioned authors have left us with are among the most powerful instruments to unmake that gendered, western, and unjust ordering of the world I am so loath of. It is no surprise that, in post-colonial and feminist scholarship, these names are very commonly relied on. Once again, this is no reason for complacency. We all have to constantly enlarge and diversify our sources and our references. For instance, we need to be moving more quickly toward a scholarship where footnotes would meet a very high and strict standard of diversity and gender balance…
What is your favourite place to read and write?
I have some favourite places to read and some other favourite places to write. This is because I have a tendency to strongly distinguish the two processes and hence the places where they are carried out. What matters for the way I think and work is less the place than the change of place. Moving in space and changing one’s location – which in itself is a privilege of a happy few – is most conducive to reading, thinking, and writing because they enable rupture – or relief – from the spatial standardization we are condemned to, as mortal human beings constrained by distance and life conditions. To put it differently, human beings inevitably standardize the spaces they live in. Stepping out of such standardized spaces can generate a disruption of the commensurability of our world, this disruption being instrumental in new thoughts and inspiration. So more than specific places, what matters to me is to create spatial ruptures at regular intervals.
What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?
As an academic, I never feel I need extra energy or inspiration. First, contemporary academia leaves one with so little space to properly read and write that one cannot afford lacking energy or inspiration when that space opens up. Second, and more fundamentally, I reject mechanistic depiction of my academic work. Indeed, I do not look at myself as some sort of machine in need of maintenance. Instead, I see my engagement with the world as a being-in-the-world. Rather than energy, one thing that requires, in my view, sustained attention in the contemporary academia is a very high level of organization and time optimization. Among others, constant adjustment and re-allocation of one’s tasks are key in my view. I spend a great deal of time organizing my time and shifting my duties so as to do them at the most optimal time and conditions. Why answering emails when one feels inspired? Why trying to write when one is tired or consumed by the stress and anxiety of other tasks? Why preparing a class or a talk too much in advance whereas preparing it closer to the delivery or deadline will make one so much more efficacious and sharper? More than energy, it is optimal scheduling which is a main enabler of my academic work, which, ironically, is very time-consuming.
Which of your publications is your favourite one? And which of them is your least favourite?
Once again, I would find it extremely pretentious to elect one of my outputs as a favourite and imply that such an output is any good. The possible satisfaction that one can experience in relation to one’s publication is, in my case, always very short-lived. There is always a point where I come to dislike what I have written and wish that I had never published it. So, to answer your question, all my publications are, at some point, my least favourite! Because this work is more recent, I still consider that my recent book After Meaning makes an argument that still stands on its feet. If taken seriously by international lawyers, such argument would be devastating for the way they approach textuality and interpretation, which is why I think this book makes a claim that is currently inaudible to international lawyers. This is why, in contrast with all my other books, I can still live with that publication. And yet, I wish I had written it completely differently. So my relation with my own works, as you may appreciate, is a relation of désamour.
Be that as it may, in an ideal world, I wish I could publish each and every output of mine under a new name unknown to the readership. That would allow my new work to be read as the work of a new author without being immediately caught in the traces of my previous works and the experience thereof which readers possibly remember. And if I could, I would even push that utopia further and write author-less books and articles, just like we did before modern times. Author-less-ness would make academia a more interesting place! This is not so preposterous. Let’s remember that personalizing the production of literary work and attributing it to a named author is a very modern – and bourgeois – invention, one that contemporary academia has made itself very dependent on.
Michel Foucault has wonderfully verbalized the utopia I am speaking about in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969):
“Don’t ask me who I am and don’t tell me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write”.
Have you ever drawn influence from any form of art in your work? Is there anything artistic about writing academic texts on international law?
The very distinction between law and art is a very slippery one. Let’s remember that the distinction between law and art, just like the distinction between law and literature, is a very modern invention, one that is informed by a hierarchy of discourses inherited from the Enlightenment and that gives primacy to discourses about the “real world”. Art is art because it is not about the real world, they say. Interestingly, art, as a distinct practice or activity, is a rather recent category. It is only after the authors of such works became named and paid as artists, among others in Italian cities at the Renaissance, that art emerged as distinct activity.
So let me put it bluntly: I do not see any major difference between art and legal texts. I appreciate this is an eccentric thing to say, but pieces of art, just like pieces of legal scholarship are interventions in the world. Producing signs, forms, symbols and texts is the most common way for human beings to address their world. What is the world if not a big textual and symbolic universe? What is more, whenever such signs, forms, symbols, or texts are produced, they enable a space for signification in which the reader, the art lover, the museum goer, the legal scholar can venture into. So, from a literary standpoint, I see no difference between art works and legal texts, let alone between the art viewer and the reader of a legal text.
If you could, which unspoken rule or practice of academia would you instantly erase?
Without hesitation: the symbolic violence and the lack of accountability at work in processes of review of scholarly works. This is really a huge scandal of contemporary academia which we all let unfold without saying a word. And like for most big scandals, all actors and stakeholders in the field are complicit. Contemporary academia has instituted a system whereby journal and book series editors can hide behind a fake veil of scientificity, objectivity and conceal their sovereign power. Indeed, under the banner of quality control and peer-review practiced by all scholarly journals and book series, a huge exercise of power goes unacknowledged and is unaccounted for. Editors, shielded by the peer-reviewers, can wield their swords at whim, make heads roll, hamper careers without being ever accountable for a decision which they ultimately are the only ones to take – and not the reviewers. But the journals and book series editors are not the only ones to go unchecked. Reviewers themselves, shielded by anonymity and empowered by journals or book series editors, can go on destroying peers’ works, sometimes with a very disturbing brutality.
Anonymous peer-review, as is it currently instituted in contemporary academia, facilitates terror in the profession. You may think that I dramatize things a bit too much and that, in the end, the peer-review system works well, for most reviewers are decent colleagues who do their job properly. This may be true. But let me say that, thanks to the various positions I hold in academic publishing, I constantly witness unaccounted exercises of sovereign powers by editors as well as symbolic violence by anonymity-protected peer-reviewers. The crux of the matter is this. Although many peer-reviewers take their role seriously, provide constructive comments and help refine articles, peer-reviewers inevitably exercise a form of symbolic violence: they speak the language of the right and the wrong, they award marks and judgements, they repudiate arguments, they discontinue emerging or nascent ideas, they even sometimes participate in terminating careers and throwing authors in depression. However good-intentioned reviewers are, reviewing a draft manuscript is a form of symbolic violence and I cannot see how we can justify it being exercised anonymously. It is said that anonymity is aimed at protecting the peer-reviewers and upholding the quality and robustness of the review. In this regard, I am struggling to see how the transparency of the peer-review process necessarily runs against the quality and robustness of evaluations. I believe that the decency of quality-control processes and the protection of the reviewers are better guaranteed by disciplinary ethics rather than procedural anonymity.
What distresses me the most in this scandalous institutional practice that I have just described and which I denounce whenever I can is how young colleagues from less mainstream institutions – and surely from outside the West – are sometimes treated by peer-reviewers. I regularly witnessed the terror I mentioned being exercised towards less established colleagues who are much more dependent on being published in the refereed journals fetishized by the field. Equally disturbing is that such violence is often – anonymously of course – authored by some self-labeled critical theorists. I have seen too many outputs of early career researchers from outside mainstream institutions being decimated and demolished by scholars known to play critical celebrities on Twitter. In my various editorial positions, whenever I can, I try to have such reviews dismissed and such reviewers not solicited anymore.
If I may, I would like to share with our readers that when you were invited to this symposium and before deciding on whether you wanted to participate, you enquired information about the diversity and inclusiveness of the project. May I assume that this was your way of tackling discrimination in academic circles? Any other suggestions for how this could be done?
This brings us back to a question that we raised earlier when discussing my sources of inspiration. Indeed, I am very keen on not participating in projects that would just foreground the usual suspects that already dominate the field (usually from the same part of the world and of the same gender as mine). There still are very heavy and compelling discriminating structures, discourses, and practices in place that need to be dismantled. Whether through conferences, blogs, the management of books series with major publishers, recruitment of PhD students or fellow academics, I am working, to the best I can, on helping dismantle such structures, discourses, and practices. Making international legal academia a more inclusive place is certainly one of my main ambitions for the rest of my career.
Ideally, whom would you want to find waiting for a meeting with you outside your office next Monday?
No one. I wish I had a day without a single meeting (smile).
Would you like to share with us a ‘sacrifice’ that you have made for your work? Do you regret it?
However challenging the managerial contemporary university may be, my work is a blessing. I feel extremely privileged and lucky to have had the chance to do this job. So, I would find it inappropriate to speak of ‘sacrifices’. I just wish I could see my beloved ones more, which can prove difficult sometimes for someone working as an international academic. But I am not the only one. We surely all feel this way.
What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?
I have currently two books in the pipeline. First, I am currently wrapping up a book on the law of international organizations where I defend a phenomenological approach to international institutional law. The – heuristic – claim made in this book is that the law of international organizations is constituted by a series of experiences by international lawyers of the being and the doing of international organizations. More specifically, the book identifies and discusses 5 of such experiences that are constitutive of the way international lawyers engage with international organizations. The ambition behind this book is to contribute to a greater theorization of the legal thought on international organizations and possibly enable new ideas in a field that has been revolving around the same constructions for the last 70 years. This book also rejects approaches to international institutional law that treat the latter, their relations, their rules, their procedures, their actions, their outputs, etc. as having some actual materiality. This book should be out later this year.
I am also working on another book on what I call the secretism of international law that I see as being pervasive in international law, both in orthodox and critical circles. It is a book that sheds light on yet another feature of international lawyers’ modernism as many of my recent monographs. In this new project, I argue, that, since the advent of modern thought, we are all secrets-hunters and international lawyers even more so. On every side of the scholarly spectrum, it is all about discovering the hidden meaning, the hidden agendas, the hidden actors, the hidden hegemonies, the hidden capitalistic structures, the hidden histories, etc. And yet, as the history of religious discourses have shown us, revealing the hidden and cultivating the search for the hidden have always proved efficacious modes of ordering… I hope this will come out in 2024.
Thank you very much for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!
Thank you for inviting me.
This must’ve been the most difficult piece to finish reading I’ve came across in recent years. The self-congratulatory (under)tone is simply unbearable.