Toward a New Concept of Genocide: A Reply

Our symposium on Benjamin Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) concludes with the author’s response to the participants. You can find all the previous entries listed here.

As I read each of the pieces in this symposium, I felt a sense of deep gratitude. While scholars regularly discuss issues with one another, it is truly rare that our research becomes the subject of such serious, thorough engagement. Each of the contributors to the symposium made insightful comments, showcased their critical acumen, and read The Politics of Annihilation with agonistic respect. Each commentary gave me new insight into the work. Indeed, a friend of mine in Disability Studies maintains that you only know what a book is about after you finish writing it. To the contrary, I think you only know what a book is about after you hear what it has done (or not done) for others. In that sense, these contributions have given me some of the first insights into what this text is actually about. So let me begin by extending a heartfelt thanks to Jelena, Alex, Jessica, and Myriam for their time, generous feedback and consideration. I also wish to thank Antoine Bousquet for both suggesting and organizing the symposium.

Jelena’s piece calls attention to the problem of linguistic policing and the danger of focusing on language rather than actual violence. She describes this as an international phenomenon by pointing to the ongoing debate in the United States about whether the Trump administration’s detention facilities are ‘concentration camps’ and to the classification of Srebrenica as the only ‘act of genocide’ in the context of the ICTY. Each case, Jelena contends, creates a distinct problem. On the one hand, the politicization of ‘concentration camps’ involves “gatekeeping of the use of certain historical terms and the prohibition of analogizing from past to today that is freezing political action.” Entrenched debate over terminology saps energy that could be used to dismantle these institutions of confinement and violence. On the other hand, language is important since it lays the groundwork for other types of denial and disavowal. At worst, historical designations may become the touchstone that legitimates contemporary political violence. The difficulty then is that focusing too much on language obscures material conditions, but, at the same time, ignoring discursive power risks the derealization of violence.

One of The Politics of Annihilation’s key claims is that the concept of genocide has, quite recently, become bound up with expectations of performative power. Calling an event genocide is supposed to “do something,” “mean something” to, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, induce “incorporeal transformations” just like a judge’s sentence. Yet, there is little evidence that such performative utterances incite the type of political change that their advocates envision. Yet, invocations of genocide do involve significant political and normative implications. Part of the goal of treating the discourse of genocide as an assemblage (or series of assemblages) is to demonstrate how the concept operates in vastly different ways depending on context. Scholarly attention should thus not fall prey to a regressive debate over the best (or most accurate) definition of a term nor dismiss designation as unimportant but engage the situations where concepts (like other things) operate with differing forms and degrees of power.

Part of the benefit of reconstructing this history is also finding new political potentials in the contrast between past and present. Discovering these moments in the history of genocide discourse may constitute a form of what Foucault called “insurrectionary knowledge” that can disrupt hegemonic forms of power. As such, I will respond to Jelena’s point about the crisis of detention centers and the reduction of children (and adults) to bare life with one fragment from Raphaël Lemkin’s late writings on genocide. While it would be incorrect to say the statement speaks for itself, I suspect some resonances will surface. Here is Lemkin: “there is one social situation characteristic of modern genocide, which presents special problems; this is the concentration camp…the survivors of genocide should receive attention. In the case of children, the effects are most fundamental…The permanent psychological injury and the arrest of normal development of the child victim is perhaps the most shocking and tragic result of genocide.”

Shmuel Dresner, ‘Benjamin’

Alex begins by pointing to the book’s critical challenge to dominant epistemologies in International Relations. As I read him, Alex suggests that The Politics of Annihilation deepens a critique, first offered by Martin Shaw, that the discipline needs to take the problem of mass violence more seriously as an ethical, historical and epistemological problem. Alex then raises a few key issues about the book’s presentation of the relationship between horror and genocide. First, Alex questions whether associating genocide with the genre of horror, particularly Eugene Thacker’s model of it, depoliticizes destructive processes by “relegating [them] to a kernel of incomprehensibility.” Second, given that scholars including Césaire, Fanon, Du Bois, and Mike Davis described, predicted or comprehended events such as Nazi genocide or the ‘late Victorian Holocausts,’ is a commitment to incomprehensibility an obstacle to thinking about the rise of mass violence? Digging a bit deeper, I also interpret Alex’s question as implicitly asking whether a sense of horror presupposes a Eurocentric framework. Finally, does the emphasis on horror undermine the need for important (and creative) institutional responses to genocide especially at a moment when fascism has acquired newfound institutional power?

These are excellent lines of inquiry and, in truth, I share many of these anxieties about the genre of horror. As Alex points out, Thacker’s work develops from specific traditions of horror (demonology, speculative fiction, etc.) that stage an encounter between humans and the possibility of “the world-against-us.” The maladies of soul possession and the tendrils of Cthulhu seem far afield from the all-too-human problem of genocide. That said, I think there are a few useful points made by this literature. For instance, The Politics of Annihilation uses Thacker’s writing to contrast two different modes of horror. On the one hand, the status quo and the hegemonic understanding of genocide embrace a mode of moralizing horror that makes genocide into a consequence of monstrous, inhuman men who need to be policed, hunted, tried and eliminated. Often this model of horror reifies violent divisions and forms of colonial power. On the other hand, horror is a genre that explores thought at the limit. The goal is to use the second sense of horror to destabilize the first because, perhaps contrary to Alex, I think horror already structures many prominent invocations of genocide even if it works as an implicit presupposition. Emphasizing the incomprehensibility of plastic processes and emergence of horror contests the reduction of genocide to static causes, figures or individuals. This later point is important because the hegemonic understanding of genocide offers a narrative that makes it difficult to see how biopolitics, colonial power and other seemingly everyday modes of governance create the conditions of possibility for atrocity. Furthermore, I believe this genre played a key historical role in the genesis of the concept of genocide since Lemkin created the concept in response to a self-identified sense of horror at the capacity for the existing politico-legal order to condemn murder while producing and legitimating atrocity.

Another point to consider is, as Myriam’s piece notes, the futural dimension of plasticity. Here, I think a key distinction in the book is that horror occurs from an encounter with the plasticity of violence, which remains future oriented (formative rather than formed). A major ambition of the book is to show how the institutionalization of discourse and affect surrounding genocide works against engaging this plastic potential. Plasticity both concerns material acts of violence and, of course, the evolution of concepts and discourse. While I think there is a great value in reading the predictability of genocide or the Holocaust as a consequence of the colonial condition, I also suspect that a critique that interprets the Nazi genocide, or any other genocide, as merely a product of earlier conditions of atrocity, including responses from critics as sensitive as Fanon, Césaire, Davis or Sven Lindqvist, downplays the degree of plasticity in mass violence. To engage Alex’s own work a bit, there is a colonial boomerang, but that boomerang involves some important plastic swerves.

I believe thinking with horror offers a model that foregrounds the plasticity of destructive processes so as to create new distributions of sense and, potentially, new institutions. Indeed, the genre and ontology of horror do not prescribe or guarantee any particular ethical or political response. The book’s concluding focus on We Charge Genocide, climate genocide or genocide in the industrial slaughter of nonhuman animals was designed to show incipient efforts to coalesce around particular streams of genocide discourse in ways that resist this condition. If they come across as pessimistic that is perhaps because of how horrific current conditions actually are. The aspiration of the book is not to cede institutions to the right or deny the importance of genocide intervention since these are important challenges. Rather, it seeks to support struggles that contest how these institutions have been structured and couched, to open up a conversation about how to embrace a politics where seeking to prevent one form of atrocity may tacitly extend another. For instance, there is a kind of horror in settler colonial states advocating an agenda of genocide prevention while actively perpetuating material dispossession and destruction of indigenous peoples. To steal and modify a line from Foucault: “In the smallest of its cogs, peace is waging a secret [atrocity].”  We do not know what future forms violence will take and, even if we did, that knowledge would not save us. Horror, at its best, inspires a creativity and vigilance without succumbing to the drive to securitize.

Jessica’s contribution praises the book’s ability to highlight multiple inequities in genocide discourse. She also comments on the pedagogical value of the work since it challenges traditional exercises of applying the definition of genocide to indigenous or marginalized cases of genocide. I will return to this topic in a moment since the question of pedagogy also surfaces in Myriam’s commentary. Jessica then goes on to offer several inquiries about the work. First, she questions whether a genealogy of genocide is the best mechanism for conceptualizing and contesting cases of colonial violence. Second, Jessica notes that the book focuses on assumptions rather than the structural obstacles to acting on genocide in international politics, a story that doesn’t say much about “the purposeful choices of particular political actors in making it so.” Third, Jessica ponders whether an assemblage approach merely replaces one hegemonic understanding of genocide with another based on colonial genocide. Finally, she raises a particularly critical question about the book’s emphasis on foresight and recognition, stating that there is “a moral project implicit in the book under the guise of a political project with an aim to render more forms of life visible.”

Aerial view of Auschwitz-Birkenau

These are important questions about the work and the problem of genocide more generally. I will briefly respond to each point because I think that they all merit attention. With respect to the issue of contesting colonial violence, I do not argue that the notion of genocide is the only or even necessarily the best means of contestation in these contexts. Nonetheless, the anticolonial orientation of genocide discourse is something that has been largely forgotten. As Dirk Moses notes, Lemkin’s first formulation of genocide explicitly describes the act as a two-phase process of colonial destruction. Douglas Irvin-Erickson is also developing a project about the anticolonial aspirations and alliances that led to the initial call for the Genocide Convention. Further, the We Charge Genocide movement, which the book spends some time discussing, understood the Genocide Convention as a vehicle for contesting the global color line and colonial imposition. These anticolonial dimensions of the politics of genocide have been largely lost. I see the work less as calling for colonial violence to necessarily be understood as genocide, but rather as helping to open that possibility and showing the strong resonances in the politics of genocide with this ambition. This also relates to Jessica’s third point about whether an assemblage approach substitutes one hegemonic understanding of genocide for another based on colonial genocide. Dominant or hegemonic orders ceaselessly emerge in any discourse. The goal of thinking about both concept and violence in new ways, including in relation to colonial violence, is not to privilege one model regarding coloniality, but to create space for thinking about genocide differently in the settler colonial context, postcolonial context and beyond.

However, this aspiration raises Jessica’s second point about the book’s lack of reflection on structural factors or particular actors that obstruct genocide prevention and intervention. The book’s ambition is, as Alex pointed out, not directed at precise institutional change so much as the possibility of contestation through the language of genocide, a possibility that the hegemonic understanding of genocide is set against. Case in point, take a look at how Samantha Power almost automatically dismisses the We Charge Genocide petition as based on a crude misinterpretation of the Genocide Convention in ‘A Problem from Hell.’ Certainly, specific actors made crucial decisions at points in the evolution of genocide discourse, but some of their interpretations are informed by presuppositions that are often arbitrary and unthought. Given the large literature already discussing the structural barriers to genocide prevention, awareness, and activism, bringing to light how assumptions hopefully further shifts the dialogue.

How does the book contribute to that process? Like most academic texts, its pathway forward is limited by audience and genre, so the ambition is to change the way different epistemic communities think about genocide and genocide prevention. For example, when I am teaching about genocide I often counsel students to consider their responses to settler colonialism and indigenous genocide as proximate forms of antigenocide activism since so many of these conversations (in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere) paradoxically occur on occupied lands. I raise this example to show that a shift in disposition can be an important tool even if it does not have a linear method of persuading the powerful or changing institutions.

Jessica’s final concern is by far the most troubling for me. At times, I confess to a degree of ambivalence about whether the book is grounded in an underlying moral (rather than ethical) project. Much of the work, like the politics of genocide itself, is anchored in a model of recognition that seeks to links a form of identity, no matter how loose, to a form of violence in order to see that moment of connection as valuable, meaningful and politically actionable. I think the book succumbs to this model all too often in the process of demonstrating what identities or histories of violence have been excluded from genocide discourse. In the background, the implicit ‘moral project’ Jessica hears is the unspoken ‘and ought to be included’ in this discourse. However, I do not think the book is completely structured by this model. The ambition of thinking about plasticity and reframing the concept of genocide as a confrontation with an event that is unintelligible is to introduce a new paradigm. At its best, the book argues, the concept of genocide supports a much larger, creative undertaking that is not bound up with moralizing recognition, but about questions regarding the relationship between power and violence and the way in which so much about the state, the international system, the constitution of authority, and so on relies on the production of horrors. In this sense, to ‘see’ differently, to ‘understand’ the form of violence as generative, I argue not merely recognizes more cases of atrocity, but is part of a productive project of revisiting what constitutes community and politics in a future structured by mass violence.

This actually brings me to Myriam’s reflection on the book. Like each of the other contributors, Myriam sees the work as primarily contesting the limits, exclusions and forms of governance at stake in genocide. She then raises three key points. First, related to Jessica’s comments, Myriam emphasizes the book’s orientation toward plasticity and futurity. Second, she calls attention to the pedagogical benefits of the text. Finally, she showcases the way in which genocide discourses have been deployed in the context of the Pontiac Genocide. Here, Myriam illustrates how different sections of the book might provocatively help to explain the rise of these narratives in connection to competing socialist and nationalist parties within Greece. While I found this an evocative example, I will address my comments primarily to Myriam’s other points.

Myriam discusses plasticity and futurity at the end of her piece. She fruitfully describes certain insights of these terms in relation to her own work on migration and in connection to the politics of ecocide. While she clarifies that there is a richness to the notion of plasticity, she is concerned that “plasticity of this kind may end up undermining the concept of genocide beyond the danger of abandoning the language of genocide altogether.” I agree with Myriam that there is a risk of the concept of genocide deterritorializing too much, becoming everything and nothing, and, as a consequence, losing political efficacy. However, I counterbalance this risk with the strictures and limitations of the hegemonic understanding, which entails very little, if any, plasticity and, equally important, the plasticity of destructive processes themselves. I believe much of the already existing innovation in genocide discourse operates on the basis of an implicit plasticity. This plasticity occurs at the level of discourse, changing the composition of a discourse over time. However, it also operates at the level of political relations, involving the transformation of different forms of life in resistance to conditions such as structural racism, ecological annihilation and so on. In short, I think plasticity is on display all of the time, the question is how it is engaged and understood as generative both of changes in violence and social relations.

Karl Robert Bodek & Kurt Conrad Löw, ‘One Spring’

Pedagogy, for example, is one of the moments where embracing certain forms of plasticity is incredibly valuable both because the class or seminar room flourishes as a result of the plastic potential of the participants and because it explicitly invokes the ability for thinking collectively to alter the form of the future. In this regard, I found it particularly thrilling that both Myriam and Jessica felt the book had potential to change teaching practice. As someone who wrestles with the problem of how to address the multiple causal explanations of mass violence, the various international regimes surrounding mass atrocities, the historical exclusion of particular identities from the history of mass violence, and the myriad of other issues surrounding this topic, it was glad tidings to hear that the text might inspire new pedagogical approaches and orientations. Indeed, if a book is going to make meaningful institutional change, this likely depends on its ability to incite new discussions in seminars, classrooms or forums such as this one.

Today, stating that ‘genocide is an important problem’ is likely stating the obvious. Questioning the obviousness of this statement, explaining how such a statement becomes obvious in the first place is a challenging task. Foucault once commented that critique was “a matter of making facile gestures difficult.” Jelena, Alex, Jessica, and Myriam’s comments highlight many ways that The Politics of Annihilation makes apparently obvious aspects of the politics of genocide more difficult. However, their comments also reveal, in brilliant fashion, that advancing this critique is no easy task. I wish to once again extend my thanks to all of them for taking the time to compose such rich commentaries. In conclusion, I will simply say that I hope that this dialogue inspires more critical thought about the concept of genocide, what it has done and what it can do in the contemporary condition.


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