Favourite Readings 2020 – Remembering George Steiner

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George Steiner, Errata. An Examined Life (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1997)

Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Steven L. Winter, A Clearing in the Forest. Law, Life and Mind (The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book. The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (Transl. David Gerard, Verso, 2010)

Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia. Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (Colombia University Press, 2007)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 200. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Jean d’Aspremont. You can read all the posts in this series here


It has been a few years since I last contributed to EJIL editors’ choice of books. Whilst I had wholeheartedly supported the initiative at its inception, I found myself growingly reserved towards that practice for two reasons. First, I came to think that the EJIL editors’ choice of books could be perceived as complacent and self-indulgent. Indeed, it could possibly be interpreted as an attempt by EJIL editors to boast about their readings as well as to project an image of themselves as self-congratulating armchair intellectuals. Second, and for the very same reason that I resent Zoom calls where one could see what lies on my bookshelves, what one reads – just like what type of music one listens to – is a very private and personal matter. Said differently, gaining even a glimpse on what someone reads is extremely intrusive. Thankfully, and luckily, Christian Tams convinced me that the editors’ choice of books ought not to be experienced this way. I owe him for my belief now that EJIL editors’ choice of books can serve a useful informative function while also contributing to a sense of an intellectual community which is so often lacking in contemporary academia. So here I go again.

George Steiner, Errata. An Examined Life

As the pandemic was looming large and anxiety was growing in most parts of the world, international lawyers may have overlooked the sad news of George Steiner’s passing on 3 February 2020. George Steiner leaves us with an immense oeuvre in which international lawyers will continue to find amazing insights on translation, interpretation, comparison, and language. Whilst Steiner’s After Babel is probably most known among international lawyers, his short autobiography Errata is more likely to evade the latter’s radar. Yet, this book is a jewel, not necessarily for what it reveals about George Steiner’s – otherwise fascinating – life but for its reflections on intra- and inter-culture exchanges, translations, music and, more fundamentally on what it means to read. Much more accessible than After Babel, Errata simultaneously recalls some of its author’s most fundamental claims, for instance on the use of context in the formation of meaning; on the reasons for his distrust of post-structuralism; on the extent to which speaking a language is to inhabit, to construct, to record a specific world-setting; on why Babel is an opportunity rather than a curse; or on the idea that a dictionary is the most alive and comprehensive of atlases.

Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt

At a time of a greater sensibility of international lawyers vis-à-vis international law’s instrumentality in the preservation and perpetuation of a (neo- and post-) colonial order, this book by Timothy Mitchell – certainly one of the sharpest critiques of modernity’s modes of representation – provides precious considerations on how colonial projects function as well as which conceptual devices they rely on. Indeed, in Colonising Egypt, Mitchell shows how colonial projects deploy abstractions and all kinds of other conceptual devices that inscribe in the social world a conception of space, forms of personhood, and means of manufacturing the experience of the real that support the colonial order. With an emphasis on Egypt, Mitchell sheds light on how colonial powers’ reorganisation of towns, their laying out of new colonial quarters, regulation of economic or social practice, construction of the country’s new system of irrigation canals, control of the Nile’s flow, building of police stations and class-rooms, completion of a system of railways, etc. are undertaken to conjure up the abstractions of progress, reason, law, discipline, history, colonial authority and order. Colonizing Egypt is a fascinating – and somewhat scary – study of the sophisticated machinery of hegemony.

Steven L. Winter. A Clearing in the Forest. Law, Life and Mind

In his wonderful A Clearing in the Forest, Steven L. Winter draws our attention on the extent to which metaphors are lawyers’ way of having reality. The book shows that law is primarily a metaphoric language and that law’s metaphors provide a versatile and highly adaptable repertoire for managing an often difficult and diverse environment. According to the author, what is at issue in law’s metaphors is not the truth or falsity thereof but the actions that are sanctioned by them. For those international lawyers interested in literary theory as well as those who work on the world-making performances of international law, Steven L. Winter offers valuable insights on how the imagination at work in international law’s metaphors can constitute a powerful worldmaking device.

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book. The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800

First published as L’Apparition du Livre in 1958, The Coming of the Book (translated into English in 1976) provides a breathtaking journey into the convoluted kinship between the book – as an artefact – and the Reformation, the development of Protestantism, propaganda, censorship, the decay of Latin as a European language, the rise of national vernaculars, the fragmentation of the world of letters, the fixing of languages in their modern form, the consolidation and later fall of European monarchies, the birth of the modern State as well as capitalism and the search for financial gains. This is also a story where international lawyers learn that Grotius was writing tragedies in Latin on The Exile of Adam and The Passion of Christ before writing what they consider to be his magnus opus on international law. Rewarding from the first to the last line.

Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia. Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought

In this fascinating volume, Cemil Aydin – who more recently published the equally enthralling The Idea of the Muslim World (2019) – examines why anti-Western critiques thrived in noncolonized parts of Asia such as Japan and Ottoman empire. He shows that the relationship between anti-Westernism and colonialism is much more complex than is commonly assumed. And so is the relationship between anti-Westernism and modernity, the former being not a crude rejection of the latter but, according to the fascinating claim made in this book, its vindication! Indeed, in The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia, Cemil Aydin makes the point that pan-Islamic and pan-Asian visions of world order emerged during the late 1870s in response to the perceived rejection, by the European center, of its own claim of universality. In that sense, Cemil Aydin argues that pan-islamic and pan-Asianist thought and the anti-Westernism they embodied can be construed as modern corrective moves aimed at the fulfillment of the universality of modernity. For those international lawyers that study the relationship between hegemony and counter-hegemony, imperialism and resistance, universality and particularity, and more generally between modernity and colonialism, the work of Cemil Aydin provides a useful reminder that much work remains to be done in international legal scholarship.

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