Amsterdam Center for International Law

Fleur Johns (UNSW Sydney)

On Nonevents - Public lecture

14June2018 17:30 - 18:45


Fleur Johns will present a public lecture on Nonevents in International Law, asking the question: what if international legal scholars were to identify possibility with pattern and formula, storage and transmission, rather than irregularity and insight?

This event is part of the Contingency in the Course of International Law Conference


Many an international law scholar has traced a route for her readers from ignorance, via debunking, to contingency, and onwards to possibility. Carrying scholars along this route is a presumed connection between awareness and agency. If only people recalled how chancy and open-ended is history, they might have the wherewithal to take their presents and futures in another direction – or so it is often assumed. I am not the first to query just how enabling any universalized sense of contingency might be. In this talk, however, I wish to consider not the falsity or truth of this assumption, so much as the humanist circuit it installs and maintains (specifically, that circuit linking capacity to insight). Amid the increasingly self-organising streams of digits and ‘stuff’ shaping global affairs, this circuit may be dangerous for the distractions and disassociations it engenders.

Characteristic of this ‘circuit’ is a circular connection between knowledge, multiplicity, and the prospect of redirection, with the latter tending to lead back to known repositories of power and agency. Consider one of the possibilities with which the call for papers invited us to toy. What if one were to speculate that “the terrorist attacks of 9/11” might “not have happened or might have happened differently”. Imagine several of the key figures in those attacks being stopped at the airport, their plans foiled. Or think of the attack taking on even more hyperbolic dimensions: the Pentagon and the White House destroyed, along with the World Trade Centre. Entertain, for a moment, the conspiracy theorist’s fantasy of the whole event being concocted in a movie studio: some unusually realistic CGI projection. Each of these alternative versions elicits a sense, just for a moment, of many different ‘9/11s’ densely packed into one, each a seed of possibility. Envisioning some of these seeds taking root, however, one quickly finds oneself routed back around familiar figures. Had the Bush/Cheney program continued uninterrupted, would the ‘War on Terror’ have been unimaginable? Would it have been far more intensive, or differently conceived, if every hijackers’ wildest fantasy for that day had been realized? And beyond the sphere of those existentially affected, would the global resonance of 9/11 have been any less if someone, somewhere could prove that it did not, in fact, take place in the way described by the 9/11 Commission? Somehow, all alternative routes seem to lead, more or less, back to the same line-up of characters, pathways and interests, albeit differently arranged. And in each instance, so large do these loom that it seems difficult to expose to question the Enlightenment credo that knowledge and visibility enlarge transformative possibility, let alone consider how the latter might be techno-materially conditioned (about which I intend to talk more).

To work against this is not a matter of extricating from circumstance or heroizing the agents concerned, so much as breaking (or perhaps rewiring) the circuit between consciousness, contingency, and change. However necessary contingency may have come to seem (per Quentin Meillassoux, for instance), it cannot be the case that contingency – and knowledge of it – are predicates of action in the international legal field or elsewhere. Rather, what merits greater critical attention is the “schematism of perceptibility” (Friedrich Kittler’s phrase) that insists on their relation: schematism featured regularly in international legal work. Working against this entails, moreover, not expanding that schema (so that more possibilities are perceptible) so much as junking it. What might come to count is not the knowing agent or the range of her consciousness or vision, so much as the blur out of which she only occasionally emerges: nonevents, in other words. So, in the 9/11 example, what might count could be the moirés of that day before 8.46am, when the first plane struck. What, this talk will ask, if international legal scholars were to identify possibility with pattern and formula, storage and transmission, rather than irregularity and insight? This may spawn a politics better attuned to the now.

The speaker

Fleur Johns is a Professor, Associate Dean (Research) at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). She works in the areas of public international law and legal theory. Fleur studies patterns of governance on the global plane, employing an interdisciplinary approach that draws on the social sciences and humanities and combines the study of public and private law. In recent years, her work has focused on the role of automation in global legal relations, building on her prior research on financial modeling and other non-legal techniques of governance.She is currently working on a three year, collaborative, Australian Research Council-funded project entitled 'Data Science in Humanitarianism: Confronting Novel Law and Policy Challenges'. Fleur is the author of Non-Legality in International Law: Unruly Law (Cambridge, 2013) and The Mekong: A Socio-legal Approach to River Basin Development (co-authored with Ben Boer, Philip Hirsch, Ben Saul & Natalia Scurrah, Routledge 2016). Fleur is also editor of two further books: Events: The Force of International Law (Routledge-Cavendish, 2011; co-edited with Richard Joyce and Sundhya Pahuja); and International Legal Personality (Ashgate, 2010); as well as having authored articles in journals in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.



Published by  ACIL