We do this for each other

by | 2 Feb 2023

It’s a tip, a trickle. I’ve read international law and international relations in three institutions and three countries. In each, I’ve twisted and turned, tripped and fallen willingly into rabbit holes and inexplicable complexities. People wrapped in clothes that shimmered, shone, and flowed as if (un)made, (un)crafted from fabrics beyond this world lived in lamp-lit corners, creaking crevices, and atop loose floorboards, breathing in fumes from sandalwood and cherry-blossom scented candles, teakwood furniture, wearing bamboo socks. There’s a frightening magnitude of detail in the legal scholar’s life, found if they’d look, if they paid as much attention as they did the law, the jurisprudence, the scholarship. 

Once, I walked with a friend from a conference venue to the luncheon after. Sharp cobbled pathways with crisp, bright green, freshly mowed grass on each side, well-trimmed bushes, and the occasional rose bud. She moderated a panel where I presented on the importance of the right to isolation, arguing for the need for isolated communities such as the Jarawa and Sentinelese in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean to be left alone, for legal frameworks and countries to denounce the paternalistic interventionism of “scientific” or “humanitarian” contact. I had one slide – a blurry image of an islander, arrow pointed at the helicopter taking the photograph, arrow ready to let loose. On our walk, I softly told my dear friend that I secretly wish someone made that argument for my sake, for my isolation: an epic work of academic testimony, of public international law, sovereignty, cooperation, that argued that I be left alone. ‘How much of isolation,’ I asked her, ‘is really about community?’

And sometimes it’s a jab, a deluge. A soft kiss from a man, a little older than me but much kinder, after a conversation on the merits of solitude. ‘They said no man is an island, but lucky for me, I’m no man,’ I said. ‘So be an island,’ he said, right before leaning, setting down his mug of tea. I smiled. An arrow, ready to let loose, drawn, steady, aimed. A lifetime away, a different world, a friend watched the stars next to a fire with her brother, her dog, and music. I suggested a constellation app, one of those which if pointed to the sky would reveal to you a whole other realm of celestial networking. But of course, they are networked. Stars sense proximity. Even if not sentient, there remains the call of gravity, the force that stretches, draws, sometimes quarters, and dispels too. The stars know that they are not alone. 

Studying the law, I often didn’t. Now, in my PhD, there’s a warm insistence that we find community for scholarship. I think back. The deluge. A creaky university-managed apartment building almost ready to fall apart. Every inhabitant almost certain that it would, that one day some tired professor would shut their bathroom door behind them a little too hard, and like Lego blocks they’d crumble. In the wreckage, curious (traumatized) purveyors of rubble would find Jenga blocks dispersed among artisanal stoneware recently dined in, all kinds of fascinating sartorial choices on the staff and lecturers who were seemingly gathered for a party, tulips, and wine of the local kind, the only kind they could find near the university. No one would ever believe they danced for scholarship. They just danced. I just danced. Barely. 

But most times, it’s just a trickle. A reminder. I think of my most prized academic contributions. On some nights when the light shines just right, I can see the printed pages of some soft writings past and allow them their stay, view them kindly despite their flaws. I remember glistening eyes, wide smiles, kisses, and hugs. Our rigors of legal scholarship, judicial reimagination, rewritten judgements, revisited socio-, psycho, and eco- legalities, are tender; like dough, kneaded, needed, in a kitchen whilst a companion watches at noon when all is right in a quiet home, softened and hardened by our places and people. The joy of one day of endless Jenga decades past, a kiss, a dance, a party, a conversation, a walk, the rain and the trickle, the ocean, and the deluge – these are not ingredients for methodology, but methodology itself. Joy is self-fulfilling methodology, and so is its memory. The method and the goal, alike; joy, not joy unconcerned with the problem, the crisis, and the analysis, but joy that exists with it, because of it, for it, and because it can. Joy that commits itself not to rescue, but repair. 

Ultimately, as scholars, we write and work to better understand and improve the law, or so we are taught to believe. But as every scholar really knows, somewhere, and somewhen, we work for the tip, the trickle. The small, surprising, sometimes painful quiets that slip in. Truly, truly natural method, method not born of deliberation, interpretation, or intention, but method immanent, immediate, and whole. Method to talk, to move, to make yourself (and a friend) whole, to add spirit and beauty to words, and fill our homes with pastel tones, curiosities, hoard our shelves with cheap gifts from lovers, and hoard their intimacies too, slip them in small ways, a tip, a trickle, sometimes, a jab, a deluge, to our scholarship, to the law, the little excesses that get away from us and synthesize, take shape.  

On a hill, a breeze, there’s a Japanese maple tree with leaves a deep shade of maroon. ‘Maroon’, also to abandon on a desolate beach or island. The latter connotation is etymologically derived from the Spanish cimmaron meaning wild, untamed, which in turn is from Old Spanish cimarra meaning ‘thicket’, from cima, ‘summit’. The dictionary notes: “the notion is of living wild in the mountains”. Would it destroy us, our credibility, or our work, to admit that we do this for each other, and not for the law? To live wild in the mountains, and soak in every second of fraught anxiety, care, and grief we find, create, or leave behind unnoticed is to build our academic wealth, in such that legal academia is foremost, us. The trickle, the tip, the jab, the deluge. 

*Q writes care and grief as political action in Fife, Scotland.


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