Revisiting Genocide: From Hegemonic Narratives to Plasticity

The last guest contribution to our symposium is penned by Myriam Fotou,  Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the ethics of hospitality, inquiring into conceptualisations of Otherness within an increasingly securitised intellectual and policy migration framework. She is currently working on people smuggling.

Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation constitutes a deeply nuanced and impressively thought-out genealogy of genocide, offering a detailed account of its complexities and interaction with global politics. Focusing on the hegemonic understanding of genocide – the one we, as IR scholars, have tried over the years to grapple with in our research and teaching – it moves beyond it in an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how such an understanding predefines and constrains our comprehension and conceptualisations of violence and its destructive processes. Bringing in the Deleuzian logic of sense and his and Guattari’s work on the theory of concepts as assemblages (and Malabou’s plasticity in the second part of the book), it succeeds in dealing with the elusiveness and unease the concept presents most of us (or at least the less initiated to genocide studies) with. It argues convincingly for genocide’s ontological independence as concept, an independence that we must take into account when considering the possibilities of its future forms.

Ben Meiches’s book identifies a series of “unique dangers” deriving from the hegemonic understanding of genocide’s tendency to limit and suppress such future forms and any conceptualisations beyond the canon in general. First, the hegemonic understanding acts as a barometer of what truly counts as genocide, constraining more nuanced or multi-aspect genocide discourses, namely limiting the politics that respond to genocide per se. Secondly, it engenders mechanisms, institutions and other tools of global governance imbued by governmentality that in essence define who and what should either be protected or abandoned, leading to serious inequities and exclusions. Thirdly and closely related to the above, it does not allow any space to understand, articulate or even foresee future, novel or more loosely formed destructive and deathly processes that could count as new forms of genocide.

What follows is a series of thoughts and very rudimentary reactions to this astounding book, which I am not sure will make it justice. The first is a reading of the Greek Pontian genocide through the multifocal lenses that Meiches’s book provides. The second touches on the topic of teaching genocide, which, even if it is not explicitly discussed, I think surreptitiously underlines to some extent Ben’s concern and intent to unsettle genocide’s hegemonic narratives. Finally, there is a very brief comment on the issue of plasticity and the limits of genocide’s analytical cogency. The cited pages refer to Ben Meiches’s book unless indicated otherwise.

G is for Genocide – On the Performative Use of Concepts

An archaeologist, a graphic designer, a police officer and two mechanical engineers formed the group of friends that applied and won the designing contest for the logo of the 100th anniversary of the Pontian genocide on 19 May 2019. Referring to the Greek Christian population of the Black Sea (Pontus in Greek) massacred in the period 1914-1923 (but identifying 1919 as the key year), the contest was organised by the Federation of Pontian Greek Associations and the winning logo consists of an elaborate presentation of the letter G: its semi-circle is formed by human figures, “on their marches towards death”, according to the designers, while at the end of the semicircle and letter G, there is a bouquet of regional yellow everlasting flowers symbolising the force of life that never withers. The designers stated that their main purpose was for the logo to be recognised by international observers.

Such recognition by “international observers” would however be fraught. Proclaiming May 19th as “a Remembrance Day for the Greek Genocide in the Black Sea” by unanimous vote, the Greek Parliament established in 1994 the official recognition of the Pontian genocide, which remains to this day largely a domestic affair for internal and Greek diaspora consumption. At the international level, it is mainly a thorny issue in the relations with Turkey for which the same day – May 19th –  constitutes one of its main national holidays, commemorating Mustafa Kemal’s landing at Samsun in 1919 and the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence. One date, two national identity constitutive myths in a region where nationalism and identity are particularly delicate topics.[i]

The first part of Ben’s book (on groups, paradoxes of identity, parts and mereology, destruction, intent and desire, and unintentional genocide) makes it possible to anatomise astutely such and other similar cases beyond the traditional explanations of genocide studies’ mainstream approaches:  the growth of the hegemonic understanding of genocide as symptomatic of the rise of identity politics in a young state and insecure regional actor, which in turn “provide a site to anchor regimes of political governance” (p42); the role of the Greek socialist party in the leveraging of “fantasies of democratic space to both promote new forms of international governance and, simultaneously, to intervene on the historical past in order to reconstruct dominant sensibilities about a history of violence” (p.81) at the time of a new wave of Black Sea ethnic Greek immigrants following the fall of USSR; the same political party’s investment in electoral self-preservation; the need to maintain the presence of a current barbaric other in the face of Turkey, etc. are only some of the aspects that The Politics of Annihilation helps us understand.

Event at the central square of Thessaloniki, Greece for the recognition of the Pontian genocide in May 2019

The ability to question and dissect the performativity of such occurrences of the concept, an ability manifested eloquently in this book, may appear as a useful theoretical tool for some of us but may be vital for the political survival of others. Such is the case of Dimitris Kairidis, a Greek International and European Politics scholar and academic, whose MEP candidacy in the recent European parliamentary elections came under fire when a short extract of a longer lecture, where he disputed the Pontian genocide as myth and spoke of genocidology and genocido-lagny,[ii] went viral in the run up to the elections. Answering to nationalist but also more moderate circles painting him as a traitor, Kairidis attempted to clarify his position by invoking his academic authority, his right as an academic to question what he called “the political use and manipulation of history”, clarifying that he does not in essence dispute that a massacre did take place, finally underlining that he is Pontian himself, implying a personal stake in the matter. “One casualty of the hegemonic understanding of genocide is politics itself” (p.20). Needless to say Kairidis was not elected. It would be useful if he read this book.

Teaching Genocide

How do we teach genocide? For secondary education, the negative impact of some of the hegemonic narrative’s problems and rigidities that Ben’s book analyses are not only apparent but well documented: “[a]ffective technologies build convincing narratives of where and why violence occurs on the basis of claims about identity and utilize this knowledge, in connection with imagery, sound clips, statistical knowledge, and personal narratives, to promote simplistic visions of international relations and supercharge outcry” (pp.72-3). With the focus mostly placed on Holocaust and said teaching’s potential seen mostly as an “antidote to racism”, studies of teaching genocide at secondary level underline the simplism Ben identifies in the knowledge gaps and problems with students not grasping the context, the history, intent and motivations of genocidaires, and the overall complexity of the concept.

Contrary to expectations, things do not get better in higher education. Dedicating a lecture/seminar or two within a 3rd year UG or PG module on global justice or human rights as is common, at least at UK universities, is never going to do the concept of genocide justice. But even if the circumstances were ideal, how could we, as educators, rise to the challenge? Often bundled with other grave crimes, or engaging principally with Lemkin’s central role (with the presence of other important figures not just obscured but erased), starting at WWII and jumping to the failures of the international community in Rwanda and elsewhere,  the Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court, the trajectory of genocide teaching has so far been following a very similar and predictable path in various higher education institutions. The teaching practice still manages to present a linear conceptual and historical progress despite recognising the disagreements of scholars and the concept’s complexities; the narrative remains hegemonic, Eurocentric and embedded in the predominance of international law.

The nuance and depth of The Politics of Annihilation makes this challenge seem even more difficult and insurmountable: bringing to the fore indigenous genocide, querying exclusions and the monopoly of the current narrative cannot be enough. Meiches rightly identifies that the aim is not to overemphasise the messiness, the contradictions and complexities of the concept to undermine an existing body of knowledge, histories of violence or even relevant international law in itself (p.16) However, as he continues to argue, from an ethical point of view, we, as scholars, cannot continue to assume or pretend that “political action is unproblematic” in the way it is formed, informed and executed with regard to the hegemonic understanding of genocide. Embracing epistemological but also ethical ambiguity and being alert to the inherent power hierarchies and inequities created in and by the hegemonic understanding is key. Shedding light on its exclusions of others, its silencings, its erasures, and its allowing for state violence and racist power is of course important. However, we also need to find ways to include in our teaching the impact of the realisation that “the concept requires innovation to express the unthinkable character of the ontogenesis of destructive processes”. That is, genocide as politics and politics of genocide may engender “new strategies, practices and modes of destruction”, i.e. a type of conceptual and political transformation (pp.234-6). I explore this further below.

The Ethics of Assimilating Plasticity

The collapse of the politics of genocide into the hegemonic understanding involves serious implications for the capacity to think and act creatively in response to violence (…). At stake is a kind of ethics (…) [that] concerns employing concepts to render politics more capacious, to build new affiliations or allow communities to make claims that are otherwise impossible. (…). The rise of genocide discourse in political life suggests that the concept will continue to change self-understanding and the relations between people, communities, and states. (…). As such the ethics of the politics of genocide involve an open question as to what from this future will take. (…). This plea that emerges from this argument is for more generous mode of engagement with the politics of genocide, one that leaves open the possibilities for this concept in the invention of the future. (…) The concept of genocide certainly mutates as it finds its way into future political struggles. This ethics involves treating the concept as radically open and counter the prevailing paradigms of politics that define this moment. (…) The most basic step towards this ethics is the deceptively modest acknowledgement that the concept of genocide only recently required a form and that no one knows for certain what it will become, how it will affect the future and what it can do. – Meiches, pp. 266-7.

It is difficult to identify the biggest contribution made by this rich and deeply nuanced book; in this respect, I was particularly inspired by the politics of the future that the sense of genocide entails: the shift in sense that the ontological independence of the concept may engender. It is this possibility of radical reconfiguring the terms of political discourse described in the long citation above that makes the concept of genocide so difficult to handle, teach, theorise and for states to impose so many terms and conditions on (p.262). In the last chapter of the book, the author considers as one possible example of such conceptual creativity the destruction of groups (not necessarily bound by common identity or even belonging to the human species) brought about by climate change.

Working on migration in my own research and engaging with the issues of criminalisation of migrants and solidarity, colonial undertones and state racism of migration management, and the death and violence they cause, the concept of genocide often comes to mind. While it may appear as a conceptual overstretch, recent work on international law of group-based protection from discrimination, encompassing non-citizens, has sought to identify undocumented migrants as groups under threat and worthy of minimal support in ways that conform to the plasticity of destruction processes and the conceptual creativity Ben Meiches’s book discusses. As with ecocide, such consideration would challenge the powers that be, politicising destructive processes and probably offering “a new means of encountering, both in thoughts and practices” (p.259) recurring migration and other border-crossing deadly “crises”. However, I cannot help but wonder whether a plasticity of this kind may end up undermining the concept of genocide beyond the danger of abandoning the language of genocide altogether as discussed by the author on pp. 209-210. This could perhaps be an avenue for future research.

“One should neither abuse the figure of genocide nor too quickly consider it explained away” (Derrida, 2008, p. 25), the author quotes Derrida saying in his book’s concluding chapter. This is exactly what Ben Meiches has meticulously achieved in this provocative and indispensable book for any research on genocide and to all of us, teachers and scholars.

[i] Outside Greece, the Pontian genocide is acknowledged as part of the recognition of the Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the Empire as genocide (along the Armenian and Assyrian) by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (2007), and by Sweden (2010), the Netherlands (2015), Austria (2015) and Armenia (2015).

[ii]  -lagnia or – lagny, similar to -philia, is a suffix to medical terms in English, more widely used in Greek, meaning “lust or a sexual predilection”. Here, lust for genocide.



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