Professor talks history and international law

By EMILY MCDONALD | October 12, 2018

The English Department hosted Christopher Warren, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, as part of its English Literary History (ELH) Speaker Series. Warren gave a talk titled “Literature, History, and Authority in International Law” on Thursday, Oct. 4. The discussion focused on Warren’s forthcoming chapter on international law in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Warren commented on the way people perceived international law when he started researching it and the way it is perceived now. 

“When I first started thinking about the intersection of early modern literature and international law, way back in 2004 or so, it was a very different time politically. For example, there was an administration in the White House openly hostile towards multilateralism and international law,” he said. “Oh wait, that’s now.”

He added that due to current events during the Bush administration, literary critics began thinking more broadly about the role of international law in literature.

“There were key differences in the wake of events like the Iraq invasion, the war on terror, waterboarding and torture; literary critics were increasingly invoking terms like cosmopolitan, world, transnational and global, but none of these approaches carried with them the normative language of duty and obligation that law did, and so when I did encounter literary critics discussing law, it was almost always in domestic context.”

Warren then explained his motivation for writing his first book, Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580-1680.

“What began to trouble me as a scholar was the past, as I found most literary histories not only shared key assumptions with those Bush-era thinkers most hostile to international law, but it also produced in and for the present a past in which international law did not exist at all,” he said. 

In his book, Warren argues that one way of understanding international law in the context of literature is through genre. 

“The book’s main argumentative burden is demonstrating how the genres of epic, comedy, tragicomedy, history and biblical tragedy organize persons, actions, events and evidence into recognizably modern legal categories, like the laws of war, private international law and human rights,” he said.

He said that the book addresses international law in literature for people of various academic disciplines. 

“The book... is intended to help literary scholars who are accustomed to treating all law with a single broad brush, better confront the distinct complexities, faultiness and variegated histories at the heart of international law,” he said.

The talk then opened into a question-and-answer section and discussion.

Sarah Ross, a graduate student, noted that many of the questions were about Eurocentrism in the works and authors that Warren chose to highlight in his paper. Ross appreciated the discussion.

“It gave us a lot to talk about, and the questions are almost always exceptionally good, even when people come from a lot of different fields,” she said. “The questions were pushing in a direction that I was already thinking about, so I’m glad that we had a chance to hear some of those and to think of ways that the chapter or maybe his other work is closing itself off in a way it doesn’t have to.”

Daniel T. McClurkin, a graduate student, also said that he enjoyed the talk. He thought that getting Warren’s perspective on his paper was interesting because many graduate students had read the paper ahead of time.

“I really loved it, and it’s one of those where pre-circulated papers and talks are sort of slightly different,” he said.

He also noted the focus on Eurocentrism in the discussion portion of the event. 

“The really strong interest in blowing up the Eurocentrism of it,“ he said. “The fact that that’s something that the room really grabbed onto and ran with was remarkable, and it was again, one of the reasons why it was great to have everyone around.”

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