The animated organization: international organizations, international law, Frankenstein and Freud

by | 13 Sep 2021

Photo: Fram in the Arctic ocean, 1894, by Fridtjof Nansen (Nasjonalbiblioteket / National Library of Norway, Wikimedia Commons)

Part 1: symptoms

I want to start by citing Mary Shelley—the reproductive logic of her multiple framing narratives in the novel Frankenstein, doors opening onto doors opening—by citing Jan Klabbers, who cites Mary Shelley, or cites her novel´s narrator Robert Walton, who reproduces Victor Frankenstein´s story, which encapsulates the story told to him by his creature, who implicitly cites John Milton´s Paradise Lost, where Milton cites Adam´s protest to his creator-god, lines by Milton which Mary Shelley herself uses as her novel´s epigraph: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay // To mould me man?”

In other words: I refer to Jan Klabbers´ book, An Introduction to International Organizations Law—not to the book as a whole exactly but to his epigraph, which is a quotation of Mary Shelley from the novel Frankenstein, in the words of the creature: “You are my creator,  but I am your master; obey!” (Shelley 176).

Of course, I also refer to Klabbers´ book and its subject. Why this epigraph? Surely it is in part a reference to the functionalist legal concept of an international organization: itself an essentially benign apparatus, made for purposes only achievable by way of cooperation between member states, which stand in relation to apparatus as principles to agent, creators to creature, the latter being formally able only so far as its attributed and implied powers, privileges, and immunities. Sometimes the mechanical nature of the organization is echoed in the insistence that its purview is strictly technical, rather than political—as is generally the case for the subject of my PhD research, the International Maritime Organization (the IMO), the UN specialized agency for the international regulation of ships, and its regulation of ships in the Arctic under the Polar Code. The IMO is, under its constituting convention, explicitly a “machinery” for the cooperation of its member states.

But in what way is this machinery monstrous? In Frankenstein, horror comes of the palpable presence of both life and death in the same: the creature´s visible “luxuriances” of human bodily vitality in “horrid contrast” with his simultaneous corpse-being (83). As for an international organization, it gives the impression of being both machinery and more-than: it has legal personality—a status that in its constrained, technical sense is entirely “proper” to the functionalist machine—but possibly also something else. International organizations “may lead a life of their own” (Klabbers & Sinclair 490). Obviously there is animation in the people who populate or interact through the organization—the “behaviour” in “organizational behaviour”. Perhaps also there is life consolidated in broader contexts, in bigger bodies—for instance, in networks, the constellations in which international organizations interact with other actors, including from the private sector, to make and apply transnational rules and standards, and perhaps also in the neoliberal economies which, and in which, international organizations tend to reproduce. 

In any case, the excessive potential of international organizations clearly lends itself to monstrosity, the impression that an organization is animated apart from member states and people, that it has something like ego, even, in its external relationships, which are not accounted for by functionalist doctrine. And I think this impression arises specifically from the participation of international organizations in public international normative development—ie the making and application of rules, standards, or other norms in matters of public concern, in ways that touch not only on states but also on individuals and collectives in society. In the case of the IMO´s Polar Code, for example, the regulation of ships in polar waters both contributes to the law of the sea and touches on ships, crews, vulnerable ecologies and Arctic coastal people(s). In other words, international organizations have a “social life”, and yet they are not particularly well-seated as being subject to international law.

So, while it is not so novel to relate international organizations to Frankenstein´s creature, I would like to turn to Sigmund Freud´s text, The Uncanny, since this text is often brought to bear in readings of gothic literature and the novel Frankenstein in particular, but perhaps not so much brought to bear on international organizations and international law.

Freud situates this text in the aesthetic—not the concern with beauty in particular but the study of “qualities of feeling”(219). He acknowledges a paper by Jentsch, who says the uncanny is a kind of uncertainty, especially in ”doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate” (226). It seems clear how this description should be so attachable to the novel Frankenstein if not also the formally but ambiguously mechanistic international organization.

However, Freud moves beyond this description to locate the uncanny in what sounds like a suite of favourite Freudian things: animism, magic, death, involuntary repetition, the castration complex, and perhaps especially, infantile narcissism—developmental processes of doubling, the projection of internal threats as though they were foreign, alienation from those projections and attributing agency to them, and the repression of all that having happened, which in sum results in a reversal of the double´s character, from being an “assurance of immortality” for the constituting self to being to a threat to that self, an “uncanny harbinger of death” (235). 

But the setting of this cast of Freudian characters is a very particular quality of feeling that the text returns to again and again. The uncanny is precisely “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (220). In other words, the uncanny produces a recognition that nibbles at the edge of consciousness, of remembering, not full on enough to be made sense of, just enough to disturb. The recurring thing is not in itself horrifying, rather, the horror lies precisely in its recurrence after having been vigorously repressed, and when properly it should remain hidden, forgotten, unknown. And finally Freud illustrates with an example which may be the most favourite Freudian thing, the exemplar of the most familiar, the most alien, the most frightening, the most uncanny: a woman´s body, entrance to “the former [home] of all human beings” (245).

And so, the uncanny international organization produces some feelings.

There is the discomfort of theory, in the idea that one reason for the “under-theorization” of international organizations law is a taxonomical problem—that is, “it is by no means clear what the object of theorization would be, given the difficulty of producing a consistent and coherent definition of what an international organization is” (Klabbers & Sinclair 493).

There is the discomfort of international law, long-occupied with fragmentation and deformalization (of itself) and perhaps other things. Jan Klabbers and Guy Fiti Sinclair, noting the lack of influence of women writers in the earlier development of international organizations law, in the introduction to a 2020 symposium on same that comprised six papers, on six male international lawyers, by six scholars, all but one being men, cite (to their credit) the work of Felice Morgenstern, who wrote in 1986:

In some ways the position of international organizations in international law is reminiscent of the status of women in national law. It is accepted—with varying degrees of enthusiasm—that they are subjects of the law with a claim to rights and obligations equivalent to those of States, where a need for different treatment is not inherent in their nature. At the same time, there is controversy as to the ´inherent´ differences and their implications. The imagination to define the needs that are different from those of States and to provide appropriate solutions is signally lacking. (Morgenstern 135)

Morgenstern´s book went out of print in 2000.

There is the discomfort of member states with what I am calling the animated organization—as with the uncanny, “when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one”, and ”when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes”, like ”feet which dance by themselves” (233, 244). The impression is of an anxiety of authorship, an echo of the enduring questions of howsoever Percy Shelley contributed to Frankenstein. However, there is also that special character of the uncanny, the feeling of the recurrence of something old and familiar—and the horror of origins, which is also or really a horror of what origins illuminate, which is contingencies, and ends, such as the contingencies of sovereignty and traditional conceptions of sovereign consent. Recalling the epigraph from Klabbers´ text, a quotation of the creature´s words, but here at more length: “Remember that I have power. You believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator,  but I am your master;—obey!” (Shelley 175). The discomfort of member states, of principals, may be at the same time an anxiety attendant on principles, ie more generally on sovereignty itself.

There is the discomfort of “society” (and international law): the ubiquity and urgency of questions and concerns about the accountability and legitimacy of international organizations contributing to normative development, “without any democratic pedigree” yet touching on people “of flesh and blood” (Klabbers “Cheshire” 281, 283).

Finally, there is the discomfort of the international organization itself: a potentially or actually fatherless creature, with a kind of yearning for society, in the sense of its efforts to secure regulatory jurisdiction and social licence, and to self-legitimize in matters of so-called “global governance”.

Part 2: analysis

To speak of the uncanny opens doors onto other Freud and Freud-related texts. I want to turn to the case history of Anna O, which appears in Studies on Hysteria, by Josef Breuer and Freud respectively. Freud re-presents this case in “Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”, but the original work was by Breuer and is the first in the collected studies. Breuer´s study is in one sense more charismatic than Freud´s, insofar as it is more focussed on Anna O. In describing the problem of Anna O, what Breuer´s text does as much as anything is to make plain, by accident or design, that this “hysteric” was actually quite ordinary: a young, intelligent, rather bored, arty woman whose most evident problem, if not the only one, was that she was guilt- and grief-stricken over the death of her father. (Freud himself concedes there was “nothing pathological” in her focus on her father´s death (“Five Lectures” 17).) Also, Breuer´s text is powerfully about technique—that is, her technique: a “systematic day-dreaming”, her own “´private theatre´”, in which she was able to access and to express her most difficult, even unconscious, thoughts (Breuer 22). Under so-called hypnosis—to be clear, self-enacted—she expressed these thoughts in stories, narratives in “free” or poetic form, word pictures, and in this way she was able “to follow back the thread of [her] memories” and to “[talk] herself out” (35, 27). “The stories,” says Breuer, “were always sad and some of them very charming, in the style of Hans Andersen´s Picture-book without Pictures… as a rule their starting-point or central situation was of a girl anxiously sitting by a sick-bed.” (29). To be perfectly clear, this was Anna O´s technique, and it was she who named it the “talking cure” (30).

But what of the analysis of international organizations and international law? The recalcitrant air of the animated organization feels familiar here. Anna O was, remarkably, “completely unsuggestible” to the interventions of her household and of Breuer himself (Breuer 21). And so, Breuer gave up on hypnotic persuasion and just listened to her, wrote things down, and eventually, having come to understand the power of her technique, adopted it as his own—ie catharsis—which to his credit he makes plain (46). Freud also adopted this method, however, he had some trouble with it, because he found it difficult not to interrupt (Freud, “Frau Emmy von N.”).

The legal doctrinal preoccupation with the taxonomy of international organizations is one possible response. However, Breuer´s adaptation and style of case study, his focus on details of character and technique, on more specificity rather than less, is also instructive (Breuer 41). It suggests that studies of what exactly particular institutions express about decision-making, legality, legitimacy and “public” governance is a key to the matter: what the animated organization says formally about these, what it tends to do, formally and informally, what is explicit and implicit—and including historically specific (re)productions. After all, a very curious aspect of Anna O´s technique was its temporal dimension: she not only talked herself out but also re-enacted, day-by-day, in real time, her entire previous winter, the troubled time, during which she knew but was unable to prevent her father from dying (33).

Part 3: cure

As for the question of “cures” and normative ideals in respect of the animated organization, I am not sure what lies in the novel Frankenstein along these lines: the novel loses the creature in the Arctic sea. That is, he was not lost, we lost him, there on the ice, a place that itself invokes the uncanny, being both real and sublime, more small and finite than we ever imagined and yet somehow also exactly how we imagined, a place we want to be indomitable while realizing that it is not, and is now instead a scene of obvious loss. All of which we probably always already knew.

Freud´s uncanny does not really have a transformative aim beyond description. On the other hand, it describes a very particular (mis)understanding of others and of dissociation, and many writers have elaborated on this—Julia Kristeva, for example, on the possibility of heterogeneous community, and Hélène Cixous, on Freud´s curious enactment of the uncanny in his approach to the subject: hesitant, symptomatic, repetitive and flickering, itself uneasy-making. Freud´s uncanny also provides an opening to speak of the “talking cure”, an essentially restorative technique. I think any normative implication of this lies in recognizing the always already “public” character of international organizations, regardless of their actual pedigree. It is this public character—politics, law, states, state responsibility, people inside and out, social and eco responsibility—that nibbles at the edge of questions about the animated organization. I think “cure” probably lies in reconnecting the threads of that character, or in connecting them in the first place, as the case may be—by study, theorization, political contestation, institutional design, and the evolution of international law.

After all, as far as I know the creature is still out there, somewhere on the ice, still longing to connect. And I think this allows me to end by citing Mary Shelley again, whose name of course was not Mary Shelley but Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, after her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In her introduction to Frankenstein, she speaks of the novel´s pedigree, her waking from a dream with writerly joy: “Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in on me. ´I have found it! …´… On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.” (Shelley 351).

**I am indebted to Prof. Dr. Ellen Hey, Erasmus School of Law, Erasmus Unversity Rotterdam, and Prof. Dr. Vito De Lucia, Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea, Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. Any errors are my own.

Works cited

Josef Breuer, “Fräulein Anna O.”, in James Strachey with Anna Freud, trans. & eds., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychologcal Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol II (London: The Hogarth Press & The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955) 21.

Hélène Cixous, “Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud´s Das Unheimliche (The “uncanny”)” (1976) 7:3 New Literary History 525.

Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, in Strachey & Freud, Vol XVII 217.

________, “Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”, in Strachey & Freud, Vol XI 9.

________, “Frau Emmy von N.”, in Strachey & Freud, Vol II 48.

Jan Klabbers, An Introduction to International Organizations Law 3e (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

________, “The Cheshire Cat That is International Law” (2020) 31:1 EJIL 269.

Jan Klabbers & Guy Fiti Sinclair, “On Theorizing International Organizations Law: Editors´ Introduction” (2020) 31: 2 EJIL 489.

Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, Leon S Roudiez trans. (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

Felice Morgenstern, Legal Problems of International Organizations (Cambridge: Grotius Publications Ltd, 1986).

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, the original 1818 text, 3e, DL Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf eds. (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012).


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