Centres of Worlds: On International Law and Maps

Maps in the 21st Century, such as this screen capture of Google maps, are readily available for anyone with an internet connection. To uses a variety of different data sets to bring together a functional map. It uses satellite data, shows seabed formations, gives traffic information whilst giving directions, has peer-sourced images and street-view. Simply astounding how all this information has been democratized.

Maps in the 21st Century, such as this screen capture of Google maps, are readily available for anyone with an internet connection. It uses a variety of different data sets to bring together a functional map. It uses satellite data, shows seabed formations, gives traffic information whilst giving directions, has peer-sourced images and street-view. Simply astounding how all this information has been democratized.

Recently, I had the intention to engage with a call for papers entitled “International Law’s Objects: Emergence, Encounter and Erasure through Object and Image”. Unfortunately, in light of doctoral writing and other publication timelines, it became clear that it was unlikely that I could give the proposed contribution the attention it required. So, rather regretfully, I decided to give the call a miss.

Giving the call a miss, did not sit comfortably with me, as I had already carried out some research and writing. The reason of deadlines was significant in suspending work, but deadlines are not unusual. In part, I abandoned sending in the proposal, because of the broad manner in which I chose to engage with the call. My attempt to be holistic proved naive and my proposal was simply too vast. This is not helpful when making academic contributions, particularly with regards to the criteria of rigour. I came to recognise that my contribution would be a list of interesting references (if at all!) without a clear message of the ‘insight’ intended for the reader. So, here I am, blogging about something that was too vast to condense into an academic paper. Hopefully as a thoughtful record of my questioning of the subject, whilst my work on this is temporarily shelved (and for the ideas to brew a little more).

The contribution hoped to interrogate the manner in which international lawyers conceived the world, particularly through the use of maps. I hoped to question the continuities of international lawyers’ identities between different eras of global governance. This is not to say that there is, thus, a continuity. Certainly, I do not think there is some underlying “solid-central-universal-continuity”. Such a view would involve a belief in global governance that can only be speculated. Rather, I hoped to explore the manner in which narratives of continuities succeeded or failed.

The circumstances and reasons one discovers for the continuation or discontinuation social projects, provide a basis upon which one could reflect. Particularly, to reflect on what ideas are important to people, why a group of people might think something might be important and why another group might think it is not. Some of these circumstances could be described as projects of narrating continuity. Others are studies of institutional and literary responses when moments of discontinuity arose. An ever-present question posed is: what images of society underpin any narrative of global governance? Did those images evolve, get abandoned or returned to?

International society, with all its diverse histories and contemporary dissonances, presents a difficult problem for the practice of international law. The problem relates to finding a balance between two kinds of narrations. On the one hand, narrations of continuity – such as theories of civilisation, progress, and the State. And on the other, narrations of discontinuity – such as the practices of self-determination, pluralism and cultural agency. What I often find, is that it is only partially possible to pit continuity and discontinuity against each other. Yes, certain moments in history marks the arrival of some new overarching theory of continuity between eras. Though, more often than not, new discontinuities emerge. Where, for example, progress and pluralism are at odds.

My interest comes with the premise that international lawyers have been a crucial technician within and between different eras of global governance. This statement is generic enough to describe the work of the Dutchman Grotius in Paris as ambassador for Sweden between 1634 and 1645, as well as any contemporary legal adviser working at the United Nations. However, this sort of continuity narrative is underpinned by a number of problems. Problems pertaining to the manner in which one defines the nature of work done by international lawyers. Was Grotius an international lawyer at all? Perhaps when Grotius published De Jure Belli ac Pacis, but when he was ambassador to Sweden? Similarly, looking at the recent speeches of the Under-Secretary-General of Legal Affairs’ speeches, it appears that part of the work of international lawyers involves being a cultural exponent of sorts.

It is not fruitful to take only specific examples of work as the correct parameter through which to define international lawyers. For example as a private international lawyer dealing with mergers and acquisitions across a region with many legal jurisdictions, or, a university professor who teaches and researches in international environmental law. I do not mean to suggest that these depictions should not fall into the kinds of work international lawyers do. Rather, it is important to address that the work of any individual international lawyer is different from the manner in which the work of international law is narrated in history and wider society. I do not think one narrative is right and the other wrong. This would be like comparing my collection of reflections on this website to some major author who has been translated into many languages and read by millions over an extended period of time. The point is, when attempting to think of ‘literature’, there is another narrative at play, one that intersects, but, is not the same, as the story of the individual author.

So, it is in that sense, I set out to investigate in what ways and to what extent a history of cartography overlapped, reflected, was produced by, correlated with a history of international law. The proposed work required research selecting maps, pulling together writings of historical transitions, and some critical reflection on my part on the narratives provided to international lawyers to understand the evolution of their discipline. It became clear that such a proposal was not a 3000-4000 word piece. I am not sure if it even should be a book, as there are a number of themes and questions. I also realised that I was only raising interesting questions, without a plan of how to either explain the questions better or to propose some answers. On both those counts, my proposed contribution was merely reflective of how difficult it was to think about the questions and answers. The idea behind it was, if I may say so, “good”. Just that it was not an idea that could be worked into an article in six weeks. I have no doubt that it is much bigger than my doctoral project, and doctoral projects take years!

Anyways, that is enough background and proposition. Here are some maps and a small quote from my draft paper.

The south-up map orientation is suprisingly arresting. The north-up map orientation is the more popular one. I am not sure if studies have been done on why maps are 'north-up'. My guess is that for navigation purposes, and bright presence of Polaris as a 'Pole Star', meant that there is a benefit of the north-up map in terms of navigation. Not to mention, that the European colonial (whether ancient Romans or Spanish Conquistadors) imaginations would have preferred the north-up perspective.

The south-up map orientation is suprisingly arresting. The north-up map orientation is the more popular one. I am not sure if studies have been done on why maps are ‘north-up’. My guess is that for navigation purposes, and bright presence of Polaris as a ‘Pole Star’, meant that there is a benefit of the north-up map in terms of navigation. Not to mention, that the European colonial (whether ancient Romans or Spanish Conquistadors) imaginations would have preferred the north-up perspective.

Though, some folk during that time, had far more radical views about how to challenge the senses! British Musuem description: Popular print representing the world upside down in sixteen compartments, with animals behaving like men, flying fishes, women adopting the role of men and the earth above the sky. c.1790

Though, some folk during that time, had far more radical views about how to challenge the senses! British Museum description: Popular print representing the world upside down in sixteen compartments, with animals behaving like men, flying fishes, women adopting the role of men and the earth above the sky. c.1790

This map was created by the Italian Jesuit Giulio Alenio around 1620. Notice China at the centre of the map. I think this is really important, and tells us how powerful the centre of the map is to the observer. In the past it was Emperor's who wished to be observed in the centre. Today, digital maps on smart phones automatically locates the phone (and therefore the user) at the centre. But of course, there are differences with an algorithm finding your location and the printing of maps for one's sponsor.

This map was created by the Italian Jesuit Giulio Alenio around 1620. Notice China at the centre of the map. I think this is really important, and tells us how powerful the centre of the map is to the observer. In the past it was Emperors who wished to be observed in the centre. Today, digital maps on smart phones automatically locates the phone (and therefore the user) at the centre. But of course, there are differences with an algorithm finding your location and the printing of maps for one’s sponsor.

The Ebstorf map circa 1235. These medieval maps of the world (like the contemporaneous 'Hereford Map') are full of myth and legend. Although not enduring in terms of practicality, it does provide insight into the minds of the medieval peoples. Notice the head, hands and feet of the map.

The Ebstorf map circa 1235. These medieval maps of the world (like the contemporaneous ‘Hereford Map’) are full of myth and legend. Although not enduring in terms of practicality, it does provide insight into the minds of the medieval peoples. Notice the head, hands and feet of the map.

The Gough Map of 1360. This is a another delightful map. It depicts Great Britain. There is a website regarding this map: http://www.goughmap.org Only two places in the map were annotated in gold, one of the places being London. The earliest human flight experiments were in the 17th-18th centuries I think. The accurate measurement of latitude happened also around the same time. This means, that it is rather astounding that one could draw the shape of the Great British islands as accurately as drawn here in the 14th century.

The Gough Map of 1360. This is a another delightful map. It depicts Great Britain. There is a website regarding this map: http://www.goughmap.org Only two places in the map were annotated in gold, one of the places being London. The earliest human flight experiments were in the 17th-18th centuries I think. The accurate measurement of latitude happened also around the same time. This means, that it is rather astounding that one could draw the shape of the Great British islands as accurately as drawn here in the 14th century.

This is another style of map. It is from the Roman era (although this is a reproduction in 1200s of an earlier map). It is more of a itinerary than a geographically accurate map. It shows places, as one would require, if travelling on the great Roman roads. This was of course before we had the sort of sea and air travel we have today. So roads were the trade routes, such as the Silk Road between Europe and China.

This is another style of map. It is from the Roman era (although this is a reproduction in 1200s of an earlier map). It is more of a itinerary than a geographically accurate map. It shows places, as one would require, if travelling on the great Roman roads. This was of course before we had the sort of sea and air travel we have today. So roads were the trade routes, such as the Silk Road between Europe and China.

This is a map drawn by the Almoravid Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Sicilian King Roger II. The map was commissioned in 1138 and took fifteen years to prepare. The King's version, apparently, was a 2 metre silver disc weighing 300 pounds. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_Rogeriana This is a map drawn by the Almoravid Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Sicilian King Roger II. The map was commissioned in 1138 and took fifteen years to prepare. The King’s version, apparently, was a 2 metre silver disc weighing 300 pounds.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_Rogeriana%5B/caption%5D

“International legal theory is often spoken about in rather axiomatic terms. The practical life of the international lawyer is to look for authorities and sources to design legal advice. Rarely though, do the daily routines require much effort in trying to locate these authorities and sources within a wider temporal and spatial framework. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the questioning of texts and images in more sociological and political terms is not considered to be the proper approach to legal method. To ask such questions is more often considered to sit within the methodological domains of history and philosophy. Second, perhaps linked with the first (in terms of methodological split), locating ‘authorities and sources’ within a wider temporal or spatial framework has the tendency to deprive the very same ‘authorities and sources’ of the kind of singular consistency that legal arguments require.” Stephen Samuel, 2015, Maps & Centres of Worlds in International Legal Histories

 

 

 

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