“New Forms of Genocide”: Annihilation and the Politics of Seeing

The Politics of Annihilation symposium continues with a post from Jessica Auchter, Guerry Professor and Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Jessica’s recent articles include “Imag(in)ing the Severed Head: ISIS Beheadings and the Absent Spectacle” in Critical Studies on Security and “Stories of a Death Tourist” in Journal of Narrative Politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the global politics of dead bodies.

The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide offers a critical take on the traditional story told by genocide scholars of the importance of the concept of genocide: Raphael Lemkin sees the need for a name to describe the violence he observes, and as this concept evolves, so alongside it emerges a consciousness of human rights and a slow expansion of international law. Benjamin Meiches takes issue with such a “progressive” account of genocide, noting that it does not offer an explanation of how genocide became a concept, does not analyze how concept of genocide links to other ideas, and that the history told in this story is too linear and sets aside the complex histories of great power violence. The main purpose of the book, then, is to examine how the hegemonic discourse of genocide depoliticizes violence. To do so, Ben distinguishes between genocide as politics (the use of mass violence to target groups) and the politics of genocide (the discourses surrounding the concept of genocide), the latter of which he seeks to uncover in his genealogy.

Using assemblage theorizing, the book draws on theoretical ancestors such as Deleuze and Guattari, Latour, Malabou, and Lacan. It is a well-written and immaculately theorized piece of work that takes a well-worn concept and says something new about it. The book is also an impressive review of the larger field of genocide studies in many ways. In this post, I want to highlight what I see as the three main contributions of the book, using each to raise questions about the larger impact this book will have, ending with some reflections on annihilation itself.

First, Ben draws attention to the way in which what he calls “hegemonic genocide discourse” is oriented towards specific types of persecution, and renders us unable to properly account for colonial violence and neo-colonial genocide carried out by so-called liberal democracies. His point is that the story often told by genocide scholars is of the failure of the Global North (read: US) to prevent genocide, but “never about the creation of mass atrocities, since the latter might disturb the arc of a progressive history” (7) (read: indigenous genocide in the US undermines American moral claims, as one example among many). This fits with his larger point in the book that the politics of genocide can produce its own forms of inequity (18).

While others have made the point that genocide scholars should pay additional attention to the genocide of indigenous persons, such as Native Americans in the US and Canada, Maori in Australia, Herero in Namibia, and others, much of this work has the express purpose of applying the already existent definition of genocide to a particular set of empirical circumstances. Indeed, I have conducted this same exercise in the class I teach on genocide, where I ask students to apply the legal definition of genocide to particular “contested cases.” Ben’s work is novel precisely because his project is not an empirical one and his focus is not on labeling or relabeling cases. His purpose is to ask after the political effects in starting with the definition of genocide as most genocide scholars do. As a result, he shows the way in which understanding violence against indigenous populations is largely foreclosed by the assumptions made about groups that are inherent in the very process of construction and reiteration of the concept of genocide itself. In other words, the definition and the assumptions within it are already stacked against interpreting particular cases as instances of genocide. Let’s just say I will be teaching my class quite a bit differently after reading Ben’s book.

As an example of this in action, he tells the story of FADISMA’s charge that the UN committed “unintentional genocide” in Haiti after the earthquake, since MINUSTAH’s peacekeepers spread cholera into the water supply after not properly managing their own waste, in the midst of already failing sanitation infrastructure. For Ben, this case “contests how the hegemonic understanding of genocide normalizes the massive distribution of violence across colonial space and time, as well as acute forms of violence concentrated against particular groups (162). While I agree that this is the case, and that the label of genocide is unevenly applied across groups, I wonder whether genocide as a concept is really needed to make this case. In other words, if we begin with a genealogy of genocide, it can lead us to challenging colonial violences. But if we begin with the need to reckon with colonial violence, is the genealogy of the concept of genocide the best route to get there?

Beyond this, part of the purpose in drawing attention to the inequities of genocide discourse in the book is to reevaluate the assumptions about what genocide means and how they form the basis for moral and legal claims (10). Yet I wonder whether an examination of these assumptions, however well it may be done in the book, will really have any practical political effects. In A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power draws out the argument that non-intervention is not a failure of the system, but the system working as it is designed to. In this sense, the current hegemonic discourse of genocide is something similar: a political choice to ignore the politics of genocide precisely because it forces reconsideration of a narrative that depicts the Global North as the moral heroes in the story. While Ben illustrates how this depoliticization functions, less is said about the agents of such depoliticization. That is, while it becomes clear in the genealogy the ways in which the concept emergence is exclusionary, and for whom this generates benefits, less is said about the purposeful choices of particular specific political actors in making this so.

The second key point of the book that I want to draw attention to is the idea of assemblage thinking: expanding who counts as an actant, in the language of Latour. As his focus is on the concept of genocide, Ben proposes a new form of concept ontology which theorizes the concept as having the “power to produce and mold political life” (10). While assemblage thinking is a recent turn in IR, I found Ben’s book to be one of the best examples of this approach I have seen, perhaps because of the immense degree of organization of the genealogy in the book.

For Ben, contesting the hegemonic genocide discourse allows us to draw together “the material agents and networks that facilitate the emergence of violence within colonial conditions” (162). In other words, key to his project of drawing attention to colonial violence that I discussed earlier is thinking about relationality, as in his chapter on destruction, where he elucidates the idea of destruction as a form of social relations, following the work of Tony Barta on the genocide of indigenous persons in Australia. He asks, for example, “what kind of process genocide is and how genocide relates to other actors, entities, and epistemologies” (126). Yet we do not always hear what these other epistemologies might be, and I wondered whether assemblage thinking could risk creating a different hegemonic genocide discourse, which focuses mainly on colonial violence, one of the key areas of concentration of the book.

The third key contribution of the book I want to highlight is the recurring language Ben uses of ”new forms of genocide” (137).  He argues early in the book that the hegemonic discourse on genocide “undermines the ability to foresee new forms of genocide” (15), for example. This becomes clearest in the conclusion in the form of two examples: the We Charge Genocide document about the treatment of black Americans, and the killing of non-human animals in the context of slaughterhouses and climate genocide.

In this sense, the purpose of the book becomes clear: to counteract the exclusionary politics of genocide associated with the hegemonic definition. As he notes: “the problem involves a long-standing colonial process, subtended by material agencies and underwritten by disdain and disavowal, that determines the conditions under which forms of life are considered worthy of protection under the auspices of cosmopolitan institutions” (163). I see a moral project implicit in the book under the guise of a political project, with an aim to render more forms of life visible and thus worthy of protection, while at the same time, and in some ways via a project of, questioning the way in which these institutions of protection are built on the very politics of exclusion. Yet I worry this can devolve into competitive genocide claims and return us back to debates over whether the definition applies to particular unconventional cases, precisely the opposite of the entire point of the book.

The rhetoric of being able to “foresee” and this notion of rendering more lives visible, such as the victims of colonial and neo-colonial violence, gestures to one of the areas where the book, for me, raised more questions than it answered: the realm of the visual politics of genocide. Given the book’s titular focus on annihilation, a form of disappearance, and the focus on marginalized groups that have been rendered invisible under the hegemonic discourses of genocide, I wonder whether there is more to the story of how each element of the concept of genocide traced in the book (group, destruction, intent), is at its heart an issue of how genocide as a concept functions to render things visible, and hence political, a process difficult to escape even for a critical genealogy such as this. While the book traces the way in which things become politicized through reference to the concept of genocide even as it claims to be apolitical, less is said about the assumption inherent in the idea of foreseeing new forms of genocide: that it still relies on seeing as a precondition for politics. While Ben’s focus is on the politics of genocide, rather than genocide as politics, I wonder whether the obliterative function of genocide as politics in fact offers up a way of understanding the elisions and disappearances of the politics of genocide.


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