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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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.

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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 Meaning of Genocide and the Political Stakes of Naming

Following Ben Meiches’s introductory post yesterday to our symposium on his new book The Politics of Annihilation,  we welcome a first guest contribution from Jelena Subotic. Jelena is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, Atlanta. She is the author of two books: Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans (Cornell University Press, 2009) and Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell University Press, forthcoming, 2019). She is the author of more than twenty scholarly articles on memory politics, national identity, human rights, and the politics of the Western Balkans.


In his deeply thoughtful book, The Politics of Annihilation, Benjamin Meiches invites us to reconsider one of the fundamental concepts in the contemporary study of mass violence – the concept of genocide. He then asks us to separate the construction of the term genocide from its political usage. Meiches carefully traces the development of the concept of genocide, and in the process challenges the conventional narrative that situates the birth of the term squarely with the individual entrepreneurship of Raphael Lemkin in the mid-1940s. Instead, Meiches demonstrates, Lemkin built on a vast array of already existing scholarship in philosophy and international law. The concept of genocide – and Lemkin’s understanding of it – was immediately contested both theoretically and politically and has remained an unsettled field of meaning, prone to politicization.

It is this political power of the concept of genocide that truly bothers Meiches and that forms the heart of the book. As The Politics of Annihilation persuasively demonstrates, the fluidity of the concept of genocide has allowed for pervasive international hypocrisy – where only some conflicts, in some countries, among some groups, in some time periods get to be understood and processed as genocide, while many other instances of mass atrocity, brutality, and political murder do not earn the same designation, leaving them outside political conversation but, much more important, also outside any meaningful political response.

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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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