Hegemonic Understandings of Genocide and Ontologies of Mass Violence

The third post in our series on Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation comes courtesy of Alexander D. Barder, Associate Professor of International Relations at Florida International University. His current research explores the relationships between nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics, race and violence. He is the author of Empire Within: International Hierarchy and its Imperial Laboratories of Governance (Routledge, 2015) and (with François Debrix) Beyond Biopolitics: Theory, Horror and Violence in World Politics (Routledge, 2012).

There’s a curious moment in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. In Chapter Six, Waltz argues that the recurrence of violence does not, in and of itself, distinguish international from domestic politics. “The most destructive wars of the hundred years following the defeat of Napoleon took place,” Waltz writes, “not among states but within them.” As he continues, “Estimates of deaths in China’s Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1851 and lasted 13 years, range as high as 20 million. In the American Civil War some 600,000 people lost their lives. In more recent history, forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges eliminated five million Russians, and Hitler exterminated six million Jews.”[1] To be sure, Waltz glosses over the fact that these examples actually reflect a combination of domestic and international factors. To simply situate them within the domestic realm is highly dubious historically.

What is interesting in Waltz’s gesture, however, is not only how a conceptualization of what the study of international relations is supposed to be essentially brackets the question of (genocidal) violence. What is also noteworthy is an amalgamation of violent events without necessarily discerning a specific genocidal event versus others. Benjamin Meiches’s text The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide takes this head on by problematizing not only how we should understand genocide as a crucial subject of international relations but also in terms of the very conceptualization of genocide as a discrete and self-evident event. In a very compelling but deeply sobering book, Meiches forces us to reflect much more carefully about the very conceptual scaffolds that genocide studies has erected since Raphael Lemkin’s coinage of the term. Part One is a convincing refutation of what Meiches calls the “hegemonic understanding of genocide” (12). Meiches shows how this hegemonic understanding of genocide, which developed through a mixture of academic studies and policy/political initiatives takes for granted objective metrics to discern a genocidal event, reifies the attributes of what is a (victimized) group, takes for granted a notion of juridical intent and normalizes what genocidal violence is supposed to look like. This hegemonic understanding of genocide is problematic, for Meiches, because it “depoliticizes” and “normalizes” mass violence within a constricted epistemology: only certain kinds of violence then merit the categorization of genocide which provokes a hierarchy of claims and counterclaims about its usage. Indeed, in contesting the hegemonic understanding of violence and its conceptual edifice, Meiches shows how its depoliticization actually reflected a political development and commitment to bracket certain forms of violence versus others, expand state powers to militarily address mass atrocities and to create legal and political institutions which serve and continue to serve the interests of great powers.

Key here is Meiches’ recognition that this depoliticization of the concept of genocide as politics tacks with its Eurocentric development and a continuous racialization of global politics. While the construction of stable racial attributes reflect an epistemologically problematic foundation for understanding mass violence, it corresponds to the foundation and maintenance of a racialized global order over many centuries that values certain lives over others. It takes for granted the place of the West as reflecting pristine values of democracy and pluralism by which to judge others as lacking those attributes. The hegemonic concept of genocide is thus tied to a specific governmentalized conception of life, which relegates postcolonial conflicts as ahistorical racial conflicts and thus “genocide often provides a neocolonial language for describing the necessity of monitoring, distinguishing, and intervening in political antagonisms in the Global South” (69).

While the emergence of the concept of genocide through Lemkin after the Second World War gave impetus to calling attention to the lacunae in the international juridical order, little attention was placed on its foundational violent racism that this order took for granted. One could certainty recognize here Aimé Césaire’s entirely valid point about the boomerang effect of colonial violence reaching the heart of Western European civilization with the Nazi genocide. Apathy towards the long history of Western imperial violence gave way to ‘surprise’ and ‘indignancy’ – “And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect…” – because Nazi-like violence was typically assumed to be normal for non-Europeans.[2] Meiches’s point aligns with Césaire’s and many other postcolonial theorists such as Fanon and Du Bois, who recognized not just the hypocrisy of Western ideals, but also the very inability for many to see and sense how this racial order was predicated on the long-term misery, cruelty and destructive violence towards its colonized others. This epistemological blindness to the myriad and creative forms of violent practices that maintained the West eventually came back – for Césaire, Fanon and (albeit, more problematically) Arendt to haunt it in ways that appeared ‘surprising’ to many in the West. It is this epistemological blindness that underpins much of genocide as politics up to this day through different forms of structural violence, typically operating at different temporalities. The problem with genocide as politics, then, is that its remains caught within a temporally restricted event and a “metaphysics of presence” unable to discern the perpetually morphing conditions of harm.

Survivors of the Herero and Namaqua genocide (1907)

Meiches’ breakdown of the epistemological stakes of the hegemonic understanding of genocide is persuasive and leaves the reader with an agonizing sense – the key term of the book derived from Gilles Deleuze – of an inadequate political and academic project. Part Two delves more carefully into the political stakes involved in the discourse on genocide and the possibilities of breaking out of this depoliticized and normalized discourse. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Meiches’ work lies in Chapter Six on the plasticity of destructive processes. To summarize, Meiches argues that genocides studies in its current form cannot “explain the ontogenesis of destructive processes” (206). It cannot do so because, all too often, it approaches to the study of genocide by privileging a causal analysis designed to make intelligible and legitimate a political project of prevention and response. However, as Meiches has shown in Part One, such forms of causal analysis cannot make sense of the multitude of different “invisible” variables which might in one moment or another create the conditions of mass violence. Thus Meiches presents us with an altogether different approach to the ontology of mass violence. As a way of highlighting the complexity of the constellation of variables that crystalize into the event of mass violence, Meiches turns to Catherine Malabou’s notion of plasticity to describe destructive processes as variations that “form, reform, and transform themselves and others in the process of unfolding” (212). In other words, no two events can necessarily be treated in a similar fashion because they continuously transform themselves through different elements and continuously possess novel characteristics. As Meiches writes, “destructive processes would become horrifyingly creative or productive in the positive ontological sense of inducing transformation in both the processes of destruction itself and in the lives and spaces touched by such destruction” (214). Key here is the reference to horror: genocide naturally evokes a certain horrific disposition to the possibilities of mass death. But Meiches guards us against this understanding of the relationship between the plasticity of destructive processes and horror. Turning to Eugene Thacker’s work on horror, Meiches asserts that horror should be understood instead as the conceptual limits of the ontology of destructive processes. As Meiches writes,

[G]enocide also becomes a problem of horror because it entails destructive processes that exceed traditional categorization, reason, empathy, and understanding…the concept encounters the limits of human comprehension with respect to the formation and transformation of violence … [T]he production of knowledge about genocide constitutes the paradoxical attempt to ground knowledge on the basis of something unintelligible, without definite limits or exact or objective existence…This failure, however, is not reason to reject the politics of genocide, but a site for the creation of new modes of response, ethics, and thought in relations to mass violence (220-221).

Thacker deployed this concept of horror in order to highlight the fact that we live in a universe which cares not about our (human) desires and fears, about our intentions, politics, ethics, etc. From one moment to the next we might be extinguished, our common world gone forever and entirely forgotten in the larger cosmic arc of time. The paradox, for Thacker, is to think the unthinkable of a world-without-us insofar as we think in a human world of our creation. Thacker is probing the meaning or role of politics and ethics in the end of times given the growing existential threats to humanity. However, here I do not necessarily see Thacker’s philosophy of horror as coterminous with Meiches’ own deployment of the term. I do wonder whether characterizing the plasticity of destructive processes as a horror of the “limits of human comprehension”…of grounding it in on “knowledge on the basis of something unintelligible” is not itself a form of depoliticization insofar as it relegates it to a kernel of incomprehensibility.

German POWs react to footage of concentration camps (1945)

As I mentioned above, for Césaire, Fanon, Du Bois and many other first generation postcolonial writers, for example, there was nothing really surprising about the Nazi Holocaust; its horror was not incomprehensible because they recognized (which many refused to do) the very nature of this racial international order that could result in such a possibility. Or, for example, as Mike Davis shows in his brilliant book Late Victorian Holocausts, the “colonial genocide” of the late 19th century through famine was a concatenation of non-human (El-Niño) and human actants (a particular political-economy) which crystallized in novel ways to kill tens of millions of people.[3] Davis brilliantly and creatively renders intelligible the very horror of how such destruction proliferated across the world and defined a particular political-economic order. I don’t see Davis grappling with what Meiches refers to as the “horror [that] recurs because the concept of genocide confronts something unintelligible at the limits of thought, sensation, and experience” (220). Instead, Davis is explicitly trying to disabuse us of the possibility that this late nineteenth century event was anything but incomprehensible. Put differently, does positing the ontological incomprehensibility of such destructive processes not work at cross-purposes with an epistemological (ethical) commitment of creative thinking to illuminate the conditions of possibility of such violence?

This understanding of horror naturally gives the reader a deeply pessimistic sense about the ethical and political possibilities for addressing such destructive processes. Perhaps the most dispiriting moment of the book is how Meiches shows a certain parallel between the 1951 petition by William L. Patterson and Paul Robeson We Charge Genocide and the appropriation of the language of genocide by white supremacists. Whereas We Charge Genocide turned to the concept of genocide to highlight the systemic and structural American racism that impacted the lives of African-Americans, the malleability and creativity of the concept of genocide has also allowed for its appropriation by the panoply of alt-right white supremacists –  #whitegenocide. Meiches questions the usefulness of tying the concept of genocide with an institutionalized politics rooted in juridical claims of recognition and remedy. What he stresses instead is a persistent disposition of our “capacity to think destructive politics anew in order to expand the capacity to act in response to them” (246). But if the #whitegenocide movement shows the ability to creatively appropriate the language of genocide and its affective possibilities for a neo-fascist politics then we seem to be caught in a perpetual struggle against the unintended consequences of such creative possibilities. I understand Meiches’ critique of the “slow institutional remedies” (261) associated with the hegemonic concept of genocide. But I also wonder how this creative politicization translates into an institutionalized politics and jurisprudence that can address, for example, the structural racism and violence that persistently harms so many. Without a clearer sense of this, do we not risk precisely allowing the forces of fascist ressentiment to appropriate (politicize) not only the language of destructive processes but also institutionalized power – something I fear we are witnessing today. If anything, climate change highlights the failure of not only our conceptual language of violence and harm but especially the very institutions that may allow us to survive.

Notwithstanding these minor questions, Benjamin Meiches has written a brilliant book that really should shake the foundations of genocide studies, specifically, and the study of politics, more generally. Pace Waltz, violence and the various destructive processes are and will remain the central issues that define the study of politics.

[1] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1979), 103.

[2] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Press Review, 2000), 39.

[3] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (New York: Verso, 2001), 37.


One thought on “Hegemonic Understandings of Genocide and Ontologies of Mass Violence

  1. Pingback: Toward a New Concept of Genocide: A Reply | The Disorder Of Things

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