A Genealogy of Genocide

by Eric Loefflad, University of Kent

The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide, by Benjamin Meiches (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019)

Few terms possess the affective potency of “genocide.” This simultaneous ability to captivate and defy imagination gives strength and importance to the academic field of genocide studies, a remarkably multi-disciplinary engagement mobilising lawyers, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists, amongst others. Such disciplinarily eclecticism would challenge the most ambitious critical theorist seeking to analyze genocide in its totality, which makes Benjamin Meiches’ The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (hereafter, Annihilation) a highly impressive effort. A far-reaching critique of mainstream presumptions in the field and beyond, Annihilation presents theoretically-sophisticated engagements with a vast array of genocide scholarship backed by numerous case studies. For Meiches, this intervention is warranted by a general observation about the limitations of definition: all attempts to define genocide end up excluding certain forms of destructive violence, and by extension, those who suffer them. Given genocide’s frequent placement atop moral and legal hierarchies as the “crime of crimes,” the force of this exclusion cannot be underestimated.

Guided by these considerations, Annihilation attacks a hegemonic understanding of genocide that Meiches sees emerging from “a form of discursive practice…which operates as if the concept of genocide may be defined by more or less objective criteria, has stable political implications, and can be used to set up a static taxonomy or hierarchy for governing mass atrocities” (p. 12). In devising an alternative, Meiches analyses genocide instead through a Foucauldian genealogy of the term and its transformations, while also understanding it as a “concept” in the manner of of Giles Delueze and Félix Guattari. Meiches paraphrases their view as follows: “Each individual concept is also an assemblage composed of different parts or notions and ideas that connect it together [while it] . . . also interacts with other larger assemblages” (p. 23). On his account, then, the emergence and reception of genocide discourse is inseparable from its surrounding political contexts, while genocide discourse itself enables forms of political contestation that could otherwise never exist. However, because of the hegemonic understanding that he seeks to undo through his concept work, this politically dynamic discursive landscape is denied, concealed, or misrepresented.

The first part of Annihilation challenges the hegemonic understanding of genocide by highlighting issues raised by attempts to define genocide. Chapter One shows how the determination of what constitutes a group susceptible to genocide is inherently political, and inseparable from racialized colonial legacies. Once a group is identified, given that genocide is defined as a group’s complete or partial destruction, at what point does killing group members constitute a genocide? Confronting this undertheorized question, Chapter Two shows that numerous scholars have dealt with this issue—or ignored it—by idealising liberal pluralist systems as inherently anti-genocidal.  

Chapter Three turns to examine how depictions of harm in the hegemonic understanding are often removed from the lived experience of victims, as well as that of perpetrators (who develop novel modalities of destruction once their violent campaigns are underway rather than sticking to one script for annihilation). A particularly questionable presumption of the hegemonic understanding is the rigid divide it institutes between life and death, hence leading genocide scholars to ignore instances where life is prolonged under degrading conditions. Chapter Four then examines the concept of “genocidal intent” and its contradictory rift between a broad view of liability, able to cover extensive command structures and negate
“superior orders” defences, as against portrayals of génocidaires as manifestations of an ungoverned “radical evil,” which help justify genocide’s status as the most serious of all crimes.   

Shifting from definitional shortfalls, the reminder of Annihilation focuses on “the productive dimensions of the concept of genocide in contemporary political assemblages” (p. 33). Chapter Five examines the genocide prevention initiatives of humanitarian interventionists and reveals how their technocratic logic erases political agency, or even explicitly recasts it to serve interveners. In Chapter Six, Meiches confronts the limits of explaining the causes of genocide, highlighting its plasticity as something that changes form while never reverting back to what it once was. This clarifies the stakes of his argument. Approaching genocide as something potentially knowable diverts attention from the broader destructive processes that are shaping presently unknowable future genocides. Finally, Chapter Seven concludes with a view towards the future and, given its uncertainty, advocates for “a porous, inventive politics of genocide [as] … more efficacious and valuable than a stale apolitical or, worse, antipolitical version of the term” (p. 266).

Through its sheer volume of applied theoretical frameworks, Annihilation is a complex, and at times overwhelming, text. However, by presenting the hegemonic understanding as an exceedingly vast phenomenon, Meiches makes a compelling point, however implicitly, that a correspondingly vast critique is warranted. Thus, while Annihilation offers many insights for those who want to think critically about atrocity and humanitarianism, it should be especially useful to ethnographers working with communities whose identities have been shaped by destructive processes that have been labelled genocide, whether by those inside the community or outside experts. With this book, such scholars can gain insights into how the hegemonic understanding, typically invisible by virtue of its ubiquity, can easily distort representations of lived experience. Yet, like many critiques of this magnitude, Annihilation also raises questions about how to refocus on the events and practices of concern, following its devastating critique of deeply-held prior assumptions.

To continue the critical discourse on “genocide” that Annihilation calls for, an especially welcome consideration is “legal fetishism”: broadly understood as the depiction of lawful authority as disconnected from its material processes of formation. This frame is especially relevant in light of Meiches’ observation that invoking genocide is often perceived to “possess special, almost magical, effects to induce political changes” (p. 31). This perception can, at least partially, be explained by the way genocide derives force through the widespread understanding that its status in international law removes it from the domain of ordinary political contestation. Critically assessing this presumption as legal fetishism, we may shift attention from the portrayal of genocide as the greatest criminal wrong to the deeper juridical architecture that upholds this presumption.

This line of analysis furthers Meiches’ point that concepts must be understood as operating across multiple levels. This is particularly important given that legal systems in locations associated with genocide are often portrayed as violent, corrupt, or inept, especially when contrasted against fetishized international legal mechanisms that are believed to provide universal and extraordinary forms of accountability. This jurisdictional fetishism neglects the complex goals and intentions of domestic legal actors, both at the core and margins of state power, which interact with international interventions seeking to prevent or rectify acts of genocide. Becoming attuned to legal fetishism in these contexts, and beyond, does much to ratify Annihilation’s overarching claim that even well-intended efforts to confront mass violence can be dangerous, if pursued in ignorance of the often-hidden conceptual and legal architecture undergirding the notion of genocide, and thus neglecting the concept’s far-reaching political consequences.

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