The Politics of Annihilation: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to be hosting over the coming week a symposium for Benjamin Meiches’s important new book The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Following Benjamin’s introductory post below, we will have a rich set of interventions from Jelena Subotic, Alexander Barder, Jessica Auchter, and Myriam Fotou before a final rejoinder from the author. All the entries in this series will be collated here. Previous symposia are also available.

Benjamin Meiches is Assistant Professor of security studies and conflict resolution at University of Washington Tacoma. In addition to his new monograph, he has contributed a variety of articles to International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue, Critical Studies on Security, and Review of International Studies.


“New conceptions require new terms” – Raphaël Lemkin (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe)

“To affirm is not to bear, carry, or harness oneself to that which exists, but on the contrary to unburden, unharness, and set free that which lives.” – Gilles Deleuze (Nietzsche and Philosophy)

Raphaël Lemkin coined the neologism ‘genocide’ in 1944 in a publication called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a voluminous study that documented legal and policy changes in Europe under Nazi rule. Little did Lemkin know that less than a century later this term would become one of the most charged terms in contemporary politics. Indeed, within a generation, an explosion took place that transformed the concept of genocide from little more than a scholarly heuristic buried in the midst of a legal tome into the most symbolically vexing and affectively potent form of rhetoric in global politics.

Although barely seven and a half decades separates the genesis of the concept of genocide from today, a great drift took place during this period. Consider, for example, a popular and critical use of genocide discourse today. NK Jemisin, author of the brilliant science fiction series The Broken Earth, uses the character of Nassun to speculate about the meaning of genocide. In the text, Nassun is a member of a hunted group called ‘orogenes’ that suffer murder, enslavement, and torture over millennia. Through Nassun’s voice, Jemisin addresses the problem of genocide. Specifically, Nassun states: “But breathing doesn’t always mean living, and maybe…maybe genocide doesn’t always leave bodies.” In some sense, Nassun (or Jemisin) are correct to view this statement as a new (and important) image of genocide because, today, the dominant images of genocide focus primarily on the act of mass killing based on ethnic, religious, national or racial identity. The irony is that Jemisin’s (or Nassun’s) image of genocide, the genocide that may or may not leave bodies, resonates far more powerfully with the vision of genocide articulated by Lemkin and many of his interlocutors at the inception of this discourse.

In fact, when it was first formulated the concept of genocide incorporated many different forms of violence including, potentially, disenfranchisement, displacement, the separation of families, the distribution of alcohol as well as mass killing and many identities defined by their singularity or ‘genius’ rather than their type. The creation of the concept of genocide was an attempt to make intelligible forms of violence that were no longer guided by principles of sovereignty and right, but, to use Michel Foucault’s terms, by biopolitical decisions on the value or nonvalue of life and its extermination. Lemkin viewed these practices as colonial in origin and life destroying in essence. He treated the groups subject to genocide as diverse and open-ended rather than defined by axioms of identity. He understood genocide as diffuse, involving many layers of agency and intentionality. Jemisin’s description of genocide in The Stone Sky certainly represents a break from prominent understandings of genocide today, but this break is only possible because of an equally important amnesia about the historical forces surrounding and implications of the concept of genocide.

This break leaves academic studies of genocide in a curious place. Genocide is an unusually historicizable discourse as it was invented within living memory. At the same time, the discourse rapidly become a potent language in global politics, yet, in this same window, radically deviated from Lemkin’s conception. The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide explores this discursive transformation of genocide. The work poses the following questions: How did genocide mutate from a complex vision of emergent violence and international justice and, instead, become a more conservative language strictly defined by hegemonic standards of identity, intentionality, and violence? How did genocide discourse so swiftly reformulate expectations about statecraft and redefine performances of identity and bereavement? What are the consequences of this discursive transformation for the present? While addressing the debate over the ‘meaning or definition of genocide’ is a key part of this project, since it impacts what subjectivities are considered worthy of international protection (and implicitly what forms of life matter), the book primarily speaks to the implications of genocide discourse on the construction of international institutions, armed conflict, and political struggle. To tease out the complex relationship between the changes in genocide discourse and the productive effects of this discourse, the book is divided into two sections.

The first section of the book, ‘The Concept and Its Powers,’ examines the historical shifts and deviations of genocide discourse from its creation to the present. To do so, the book turns to Gilles Deleuze’s often uncited work on sense. Sense, for Deleuze, is an assemblage, which emerges “at the frontier, at the juncture of things and propositions.” Sense occurs as part of an event, as a paradoxically essential supplement, that joins what are otherwise discrete series or processes. A battle, for instance, involves millions of separate material changes and occurrences to bullets, bodies, animals, minerals, and ecologies. However, the battle, as an event, emerges through the intervention of sense to these series of changes resonate as a singularity. Sense, for Deleuze, is what holds together a particular order of things, but is also immanent, generated by the difference between unthought events and the forces surrounding them.

This account of sense plays a particularly important role in the book’s argument because it helps to explain both the creation of the concept of genocide, the alteration of the concept over time, and the strong attachments to this discourse in contemporary politics. To illustrate this process, the book approaches the concept of genocide as a product of the confrontation or fusion of four different elements that it labels ‘groups,’ ‘mereology’ (the parts/whole distinction), ‘destruction,’ and ‘desire.’ Each chapter of the first section traces the historical evolution of genocide discourse in relation to different forces such as the widely identified effort of the Great Powers to subvert the Genocide Convention (see Weiss-Wendt and Irvin-Erickson) or the more subtle rearticulation of genocide during the rise of the human rights movement (Moyn). Each description includes brief case studies to show how the assumptions structuring genocide discourse in turn produce historical and contemporary exclusions at the level of what lives and deaths are intelligible as such.

Raphael Lemkin, initiator of the UN Genocide Convention

This section also focuses on two critical moments in the history of genocide. Lemkin’s invention of the concept of genocide and the rise of what the book calls the “hegemonic understanding of genocide.” The former, it argues, involved what Deleuze terms “disjunctive synthesis” in The Logic of Sense. Lemkin read law, sovereignty and other normative criminal and political categories as not only incapable of understanding intensely destructive processes, but as actively legitimating the wholesale slaughter of populations while simultaneously condemning the murder of a single person. For Lemkin, the existing socio-legal order was thus founded by what Deleuze calls a bit of nonsense. According to Deleuze, nonsense incites efforts to produce new forms of sense by linking seemingly disparate elements in new ways. In Lemkin’s context the nonsense of the political-legal order inspired the creation of genocide by connecting a multiplicity of practices, identities, desires, and forms of violence. In the end, the creation of the concept of genocide was an effort to grapple with the ontology of intensely destructive processes that imperiled what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben might call “form-of life” in ways that required conceptual creativity beyond existing legal statutes and norms. In contrast, what historically dominates the present is “the hegemonic understanding of genocide,” which treats the concept as defined by relatively stable categories of group identity, forms of (primarily on the act of mass killing), and strong visions of intentionality and agency. In doing so, the hegemonic understanding relies on a regime of sense, one indebted to Lemkin’s articulation of genocide, but is also bound up with dominant norms and tropes about each of these categories. As a result, the book contends that the restrictions on genocide occur a priori to any reading or invocation of the Genocide Convention, first and foremost they operate at the level of sense.

The second half of the work, ‘The Politics of Genocide,’ outlines the productive effects of the rise of the hegemonic understanding of genocide in atrocity prevention policy, practices of contemporary mass violence, and political struggle. With respect to atrocity prevention, the book describes how calls to prevent genocide work as a series of feedback loops that strengthen the need for new paradigms of international governance. This feedback loop led genocide prevention advocates to invent new mechanisms for managing life and atrocities at the level of futurity and emergence. In this way, atrocity prevention began to harmonize with many developments in late warfare and postcolonial politics, usurping local political agency and reinforcing exceptionalist rationales for action.  The outcome is agendas like the Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) or Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, which call for vast changes in the deployment of force in order to inhibit genocides prior to their occurrence. These documents explicitly view politics as an obstacle to successful governance and depoliticize the exclusionary character of their own assumptions about genocide, assumptions that, in turn, inform decisions about what forms of life are savable or disposable. The point is not to challenge the value of atrocity prevention per se, but to rethink the current paradigm in different, more open ways.

The book then transitions into a discussion of how genocide discourse impacts mass violence and turns to the work of Catherine Malabou on plasticity and Eugene Thacker on horror. Combining their insights, the book contends that genocide is difficult to conceptualize because it speaks to intensively destructive processes that are, in Malabou’s terms, plastic, capable of shifting at the level of form. It links this claim to Thacker’s observation that horror works as a genre for thinking about encounters at the limit of thought, experience and life. Horror is a common, if unnoted, analytical and cultural response to the ontological complexity engendered by the destructive processes called genocide. The chapter teases out a variety of insights based on this connection. It shows the difficulty of understanding mass violence in spatial and temporal terms as a result of this move. It describes how genocide discourse sponsors new forms of white supremacist and extremist violence. It also highlights the importance of the more porous articulations of genocide, which treat genocide not as an event defined by a static form, but as a process characterized by the capacity to transform. This chapter shows how Lemkin’s conceptual innovation of genocide was, in part, an effort to make thought equal to the much greater plasticity, or capacity for transformation, of mass violence.

Paul Robeson and other members of the Civil Rights Congress submit “We Charge Genocide,” a report on police brutality, to the United Nations Secretariat in New York in 1951.

The book concludes by examining the function of genocide discourse in political struggles. It explores the use of genocide in the struggle against anti-black and colonial racism by the Civil Rights Congress, the emergence of genocide as a language to critique factory farming, and the appearance of genocide in response to climate change. Here, the book reveals insurgent discourses that contest the prevailing regimes of sense surrounding genocide. While these are far from unproblematic, each example involves an experiment with the conceptual powers of genocide in order to make new events of violence and new distributions of power and responsibility intelligible. This capacity, the book ultimately argues, is part of the reason genocide remains an important language to contest violence and inequity in contemporary politics. It created a sense of the insensible that produces responses to the formative power of mass violence, as both a condition and event, that constitutes the practices, reflexes and communities within which everyday global politics takes place.

Genocide, in short, is a concept capable of politicizing specific experiences of horror in relation to violent politics. Ultimately, the value of genocide discourse has been neglected. The concept of genocide not only describes gratuitous cases of mass killing, but interrupts the status quo and enables new productions of truth about the value of different forms of life and the conditions and events that imperil or destroy them. In this sense, it is unclear what the future of genocide discourse may be, whether it maintains formative power over state identity and inspires new regimes of governmentality or recedes as the conditions of identity and means of violence change. Nonetheless, it has already shown itself to be a remarkably porous discourse – one that will surely impact the future.


One thought on “The Politics of Annihilation: A Symposium

  1. Pingback: The Meaning of Genocide and the Political Stakes of Naming | The Disorder Of Things

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