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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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On the British Empire Among Empires, and on Property Beyond Sovereignty

This guest post, from Kerry Goettlich, is the second contribution to our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s  Colonial Lives of Property. Kerry is a PhD candidate in the IR Department at the London School of Economics. His research is on the historical relationship between space and international politics, particularly the origins and consequences of linear borders. His latest work is ‘The rise of linear borders in world politics’ in the European Journal of International Relations. He was also recently co-editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies.


As part of the fieldwork for Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar witnessed the seventieth razing of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib by the Israel Land Authority since 2010 (p. 116). Some Bedouin living under Israeli authority are now so used to having their homes destroyed that they have begun building them with particularly pliable materials in order to make reconstruction easier. Others destroy their own homes in order to avoid being charged bulldozing costs by the state. One of Bhandar’s interviewees ‘paid for someone to build his house and paid the same person to destroy it’ (p. 117).

This is just one of many ways in which Colonial Lives of Property powerfully demonstrates the meaning of a ‘history of the present’. The book is a compelling history of private property regimes in settler colonial contexts which never loses sight of what makes this material important for scholars—and, I think, particularly IR scholars—today. It takes us through many centuries of different articulations of the concept and practice of property, each abstracting land space in different ways, and shows us historically how property came to be the upholder of racial and gender inequalities that it is today. It brings together a wealth of theoretical resources to do this, from legal studies scholars such as Cheryl Harris and Alain Pottage to more general social theorists such as Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson, and many more. The book without a doubt demolishes any account of property as natural, as somehow separate from race and gender, or as emerging fully formed within a self-generating Europe. These, in my reading, would be the main counterarguments, and after reading this book, it would be quite difficult to sustain any of them.

With that in mind, what I want to offer in this post is less of a critique of Colonial Lives of Property than some reflections on some relevant questions it raises. In particular, I focus on two things that are not as prominent here as one might expect: non-Anglophone imperialism and the sovereign or imperial centre. The point here is not that these things are missing, but rather to think about how their relatively subdued roles might help us appreciate the book’s significance differently.

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Booker’s Bitter Legacy: British Guiana after Empire

A guest post from Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Ben researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and is currently completing an ERSC project Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards on which this post is based.   


Awarded annually for the best novel in the English language, the Man Booker Prize has established itself as a major event in the British cultural calendar. Its fiftieth anniversary was commemorated accordingly: a documentary on the BBC; a festival at the Southbank Centre; a reception at Buckingham Palace for former winners. But the prize harbours a darker history, one which this Anglocentric story of literary triumph firmly seals within the distant past. The prize takes its name from its initial sponsor, Booker McConnell, one of the preeminent companies of the British empire. The commercial lifeblood of Booker had been sugar and its heartland was British Guiana, a colony on the northern tip of South America. Indeed, so dominant was the company in the country’s affairs that it became known simply as ‘Booker’s Guiana’.

Bringing a rare shaft of light onto this imperial relationship, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1977, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to publicly denounce the company’s exploitative practices in what by then had become the independent state of Guyana. Fusing race and class politics, he symbolically dedicated half his prize money to the Black Panthers and their ongoing resistance in the West Indies “both as black people and workers”. While Berger’s intervention retains critical force, it requires contemporary renewal. Booker’s has long since gone, divesting from the country and diversifying into other activities like wholesaling, slowly erasing public memory of their colonial past. For Guyana meanwhile, the preeminent issue in the sugar industry is no longer exploitation but expulsion, with mounting economic pressures linked to trade reforms in Europe erupting in plantation closures, mass redundancy and political discontent. The ongoing celebration of the Man Booker Prize thus provides a way to reconnect these developmental stories and consider again what the legacies of British imperialism mean for both modern-day Guyana and the UK.

Formerly owned by the father of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Wales sugar estate was closed in 2017. Source: author.

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The Internationalist Disposition and US Grand Strategy

img_3010A guest post from Stephen Pampinella, continuing our occasional series on left/progressive foreign policy in the 21st century. Stephenis Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. His research interests include US state building interventions, hierarchy in international relations, race and postcolonialism, US grand strategy, and national security narratives. He is on leave from SUNY New Paltz during Spring 2019 and is conducting research on the practice of diplomacy in the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry in Quito, Ecuador.


Alex Colás’ “The Internationalist Disposition” provides an excellent framework for evaluating foreign policy debates in the Democratic Party. The failures of the War on Terror combined with the emergence of economic and environmental threats have led many to engage in a far-reaching reappraisal of US foreign relations based on left critiques. This new approach toward foreign affairs is called progressive internationalism. It attempts to resolve the tension between adopting greater military restraint and remaining engaged in global governance.

But in recent weeks, establishment voices have sought to reassert their control over foreign policy debates by arguing for the necessity of US hegemony and classic liberal internationalist forms of cooperation. Colás’ methodological internationalism illustrates why traditional US foreign policy approaches will fail to provide actual security for ordinary Americans. It also suggests (somewhat counterintuitively) what kinds of grand strategies could do so. A great power concert strategy, in which the United States pursues a balance of power among its rivals while committing to more democratic forms of international cooperation, can best resolve the non-state threats to US democracy generated by its own liberal order.

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