Law and the Time of Angels: International Law's Method Wars and the Affective Life of Disciplines

Recent method wars in international legal scholarship turn on the problem of law in time. Rejecting historians' focus on context and their “policing of anachronism,” prominent legal scholars like Anne Orford and Martti Koskenniemi have argued that the workings of modern law are not governed by the narrow strictures of sequential chronology and that legal scholars require alternate methods that reflect law's transfer of meaning through time. Contextualism, in this reckoning, represents a misguided methodological straightjacket that stifles critique by quarantining meaning and power in discrete historical silos; the embrace of anachronism, conversely, would foster a revitalized history of international law intimately connected with the political imperatives of the present. This essay uses the debate as an opening into a fuller exploration of law in history and in time. In considering the idiosyncratic way law frames time, sequence, and duration, it explores the connection between law's transtemporal transfers and its very mode of reproduction. To speak of law's capacity to escape context and travel through time is another way of describing its normativity: the laws of the past that survive to exert a normative force in the present are not, in their law-ness, past—they are simply present law. The essay suggests some ways to make that temporality itself the object of analysis (rather than naturalizing and affirming it, as Orford has, or, conversely, dismissing it as bad history, as some historians have). It draws on the history of science to generate an account of law's temporal habitus as a disciplinary knowledge tool, a kind of epistemic virtue that is intimately involved in law's internal criteria for truth and falsity.