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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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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The case against Woodrow Wilson, after 100 years

This guest post is a collective statement, written by Philip Conway in consultation with several other current and former PhD candidates at the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics. It is co-signed by a number of current and former Aber PhD candidates, not all of whom were directly involved in the drafting process. It does not, therefore, necessarily present a consensus. However, it does, we hope, present a constructive and forceful contribution to an important debate.

At Aberystwyth University, the year 2019 marks the Centenary of the Department of International Politics. A century, that is, since the philanthropists David, Gwendoline, and Margaret Davies donated a sum of £20,000—more than £1m in today’s money—in order to establish a Chair of International Politics (the first of its kind in the world). The Chair was established “in memory of the fallen students of our University.”[1] It was to be named after the then-current US President, Woodrow Wilson.

This was, and is, an appellation heavy with significance. At the end of the War, as Lord David Davies himself later wrote:

“Among the protagonists of the new Jerusalem stood President Wilson, towering head and shoulders above them all. […] By all those who sincerely desired a permanent peace and were prepared to sacrifice their imperialistic conceptions, he was acclaimed as the leader.”[2]

On 25th October last year, as part of the Department’s Centenary celebrations, a roundtable seminar was held, titled “Reflections on Woodrow Wilson.” It was instigated by the current incumbent of the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics, Andrew Linklater.

This instigation had, in turn, been prompted by a student request to take the occasion of the Centenary as an opportunity to re-evaluate the Department’s association with this particular historical figure.

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Property Abolitionism: Race, Colony, Body, Land

For the final post in our symposium on Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar replies to her interlocutors. Brenna is Senior Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London. She is author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership (DUP: 2018) and co-editor (with Jon Goldberg-Hiller) of Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality and Metamorphosis in the Work of Catherine Malabou (DUP: 2015). She is currently completing Thinking Liberation: anti-racist feminist practice, a book on critical race feminisms with Rafeef Ziadah.


Thanks to all five contributors for these incredibly thoughtful interventions. It is a real gift to have such expansive and thorough responses to one’s work, and to have been given the opportunity to consider the questions they raise about the potential for some of the ideas in the book to travel into domains unexplored in the text. It is impossible to respond to each of the issues raised, but I have chosen 4 different themes to discuss which I think connect many of the articles.

One of the themes arising from the responses to the book is a question about the extent to which the concept, “racial regimes of ownership” is adequate to grasp the realities of colonialism outside of the sphere of British colonial and imperial rule.  To what extent has the co-emergence of racial subjectivities and capitalist property relations been a central part of the advent of colonial modernities beyond the settler colony?

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‘Don’t take my shit…’ Property, Identity and Abolition

The fourth post in our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property comes from The Disorder of Thing’s very own Kerem.


In the last few years, I have become increasingly interested in the ways race and racism are being reconfigured in the UK and ‘the West’ more broadly, not least in light of the War on Terror, the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and the election of Donald Trump.[1]  Prompted by the conversations in organising, academic and online spaces (as well as outside of those spaces, where the real conversation happens), I have also become increasingly concerned with the ways in which activists, academics and commentators have attempted to comprehend and describe the politics of race and racism in the UK. Although the wearisome hegemony of liberalism has long marginalised radical theorisations and activisms against racism in favour of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism, more recent discussions of race and racism have taken on a new cadence wherein ‘debates on race and class have descended from inadequate to toxic’.

One side of this debate argues that race and racism is a false consciousness which obscures if not hinders the necessity of political work centred on class oppression. Softer versions of this argument tend to portray any racialized grievance as secondary to class, whereas harder versions have sought to defend the cultural integrity of an imagined ‘white working class’ from the dual threats of racialized Others and ‘political correctness’.[2] On the other side of the debate is an increasingly popular form of antiracist politics which prioritises the category of race through fixed and hermetically defined cultural differences that are reducible to the experiences of any given individual. Softer versions of this argument have sought minority recognition and representation from historically hostile institutions; harder versions have rejected any possibility of reconciliation and have advocated political work that corrects problematic behaviours and attitudes in racially defined, discrete and coherent ‘communities’ (often inadvertently centring the agency of white and ‘white proximate’ people in doing so).[3]

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Property as Futurism

The third post in our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property is by Sara Salem. Sara is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Sara’s research interests include political sociology, postcolonial studies, Marxist theory, feminist theory, and global histories of empire and imperialism. She is particularly interested in questions of traveling theory, postcolonial/anti-colonial nationalism, and feminist theory. She has recently published articles in journals such as Signs; Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies; Review of African Political Economy; and the European Journal of Women’s Studies, among others.


Brenna Bhandar’s ‘Colonial Lives of Property’ is an incisive and exciting book on questions of race, empire, property and the law. Drawing on multiple settler-colonial contexts—Palestine, Australia and Canada—and various time frames, Bhandar meticulously unpacks the loaded legal and social concept of ‘property’ to reveal its entanglements with histories of settler colonialism and race. Bhandar shows us that there cannot be a history of private property law that is not also at the same time a history of land appropriation in the colonies. The colonial drive to appropriate indigenous land—often in the process exterminating indigenous peoples—did not only have specific social, political and economic effects, but also produced legal understandings of land, property and citizenship. Bhandar notes, “Property law was a crucial mechanism for the colonial accumulation of capital, and by the late nineteenth century, had unfolded in conjunction with racial schemas that steadfastly held colonized subjects within their grip. Property laws and racial subjectivity developed in relation to one another, an articulation I capture with the concept of racial regimes of ownership,” (p. 2).

The book demonstrates that by unveiling these processes of appropriation and extermination, we come closer to understanding the categories we today so often work with, such as property and private ownership, and who belongs in the category of the ‘modern human’ and can thus access these. It shows us that the law was developed in and through colonialism, and that “there cannot be a history of private property law, as the subject of legal studies and political theory in early modern England that is not at the same time a history of land appropriation in Ireland, the Caribbean, North America, and beyond,” (pp. 3). This is a particularly important project because of the ways in which property is often associated with freedom. To purchase property means to secure freedom from various calamities, including economic insecurity. Private property has long served as the bulwark of modern liberalism, and one only has to think of the various institutions that were set up primarily to defend private property, among these the police forces.

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