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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Libya and the Temptations of Geo-Political Reason

While Libya quakes, an assorted commentariat tussles over the legacy of the new military humanism and its possible revival. That such statements are now tempered with a caution absent for Kosovo and its successors mitigates matters somewhat, but not much. Despite the disavowal and dissimulation, the conclusions reached are much the same. Something must still be done. There is an obscenity about this rush to engage in geo-political reason, to pronounce on real and illusory national interests, to play soldier by speculating on where to move the battalions on the great chess board of high politics. In periods of less emergency, we might speak of a complex weaving of beliefs and interests, of competition between economic, military and political logics, or of international statecraft as a particular and peculiar kind of practice. But in the face of NFZ+, RPGs and UNSCRs, such vulgar and academic maneuvers appear to be surplus to requirements, for the cheer-leaders as much as for the poo-poo-ers.

But the advocates and the critics are closer now too. Both want the revolution to succeed. Both are wary or hostile to the rationales of power. Both see the possibility of a sub-optimal partition or stalemate. And both are engaging in some wishful thinking, whether by assuming that the authorisation of the UN or the absence of explicit lies will limit the reach of militarism or in simply asserting that the Revolution is on the verge of seizing the state without (faux) internationalism. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some fairly compelling assessments available.

All of this opens up a space for further discursive refinements. We might do well to talk about the confusion between ad bellum and in bello concerns, or about the wisdom of replacing a concern with the consequences of intervention with a folk-psychological assessment of the true intentions of its instigators, as if the legacy of ‘muscular liberalism’ mattered more than the fate of those with some rather more pressing concerns.

But what of the sudden convergence around a statist geopolitics?  Continue reading