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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What We Talked About At ISA: Cognitive Assemblages


What follows is the text of my presentation for a roundtable discussion on the use of assemblage thinking for International Relations at ISA in early April.

In this short presentation I want to try and demonstrate some of the qualities assemblage thinking brings with it, and I’ll attempt to do so by showing how it can develop the notion of epistemic communities. First, and most importantly, what I will call ‘cognitive assemblages’ builds on epistemic communities by emphasising the material means to produce, record, and distribute knowledge. I’ll focus on this aspect and try to show what this means for understanding knowledge production in world politics. From there, since this is a roundtable, I’ll try and raise some open questions that I think assemblage thinking highlights about the nature of agency. Third and finally, I want to raise another open question about how to develop assemblage theory and ask whether it remains parasitic on other discourses.

Throughout this, I’ll follow recent work on the concept and take ‘epistemic communities’ to mean more than simply a group of scientists.[1] Instead the term invokes any group that seeks to construct and transmit knowledge, and to influence politics (though not necessarily policy) via their expertise in knowledge. The value of this move is that it recognises the necessity of constructing knowledge in all areas of international politics – this process of producing knowledge isn’t limited solely to highly technical areas, but is instead utterly ubiquitous.

1 / Materiality

Constructivism has, of course, emphasised this more general process as well, highlighting the ways in which identities, norms, interests, and knowledge are a matter of psychological ideas and social forces. In Emanuel Adler’s exemplary words, knowledge for IR “means not only information that people carry in their heads, but also, and primarily, the intersubjective background or context of expectations, dispositions, and language that gives meaning to material reality”.[2] Knowledge here is both mental, inside the head, and social, distributed via communication. The problem with this formulation of what knowledge is, is that decades of research in science and technology studies, and in cognitive science, have shown this to be an impartial view of the nature of knowledge. Instead, knowledge is comprised of a heterogeneous set of materials, only a small portion of which are in fact identifiably ‘social’ or ‘in our heads’. It’s precisely this heterogeneity – and more specifically, the materiality of knowledge – that assemblage thinking focuses our attention on.

Knowledge is inseparable from measuring instruments, from data collection tools, from computer models and physical models, from archives, from databases and from all the material means we use to communicate research findings. In a rather persuasive article, Bruno Latour argues that what separates pre-scientific minds from scientific minds isn’t anything to do with a change inside of our heads.[3] There was no sudden advance in brainpower that made 17th century humans more scientific than 15th century humans, and as philosophy of science has shown, there’s no clear scientific method that we simply started to follow. Instead, Latour argues the shift was in the production and circulation of various new technologies which enabled our rather limited cognitive abilities to become more regimented and to see at a glance a much wider array of facts and theories. The printing press is the most obvious example here, but also the production of rationalised geometrical perspectives and new means of circulating knowledge – all of this contributed to the processes of standardisation, comparison, and categorisation that are essential to the scientific project. Therefore, what changed between the pre-scientific to the scientific was the materiality of knowledge, not our minds. And it’s assemblage thinking which focuses our attention on this aspect, emphasising that any social formation is always a collection of material and immaterial elements.

In this sense, questions about the divide between the material and the ideational can be recognised as false problems. The ideational is always material, and the constructivist is also a materialist.

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