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« Forensic Footprints of Urbicide | Main | Modernity and the Metaphysical Trap »

Reply to Innes: Methodological Impasse?

Thanks to Mike for his robust addition to the discussion. I’ll try and respond with only a couple of barbs (skip to the end if you want to read contentious stuff!). In my last post I noted that we may be at something of a methodological impasse regarding intent. For my part I am willing to accept that we may be, and in so doing recognise that: a) there exist at least two valid methods for pursuing questions of political violence; and b) that it would be hard, if not impossible, to decide which has ‘truth’ on its side.

With regard to genocide studies I presme that we can accept that the status of 'intent' is by no means settled despite its being enshrined in the Genocide Convention and despite convincing arguments on both sides. Against this backdrop I would say the following:

  • With regard to maximalist definitions, it seems to me that intent is even more dangerous here. We all know activists who want to accuse a party of genocide not because of the facts of the case but because they believe that it is the intent of the offending party to commit genocide. This is a maximalism based on intent (which is not to say all intent-based accounts of genocide succumb to this maximalism, just as not all accounts of genocide that eschew intent succumb to the maximalism Mike described).
  • With regard to the law, establishing that a crime has been committed is always more important than the interior mental life of the criminal (though this may play a contributing role). It is still possible to determine whether a group of individuals were treated as if they constituted a group and were thus targeted as a way of annihilating that group without asking about the mental life of those who targeted them.

In spite of this, I do recognise that enquiring about why individuals kill (or participate more widely) in genocide is a very important question. But again this is more than a question of intent. In Leave None to Tell the Story there is an interesting comment to the effect that some ‘Hutus’ only became identified as such through the act of killing. It was not the case that these killers had a prior existing identity which gave rise to a cognitively identifiable intention to carry out an act of violence. Rather act and identity had a more complex relationship. This I think is also the force of Allen Feldman’s excellent Formations of Violence. Of course, it is still very useful to know how identities get formed and how they lead to violence. And mental states may play a part in understanding this. But this does not mean we can reduce the crime to a question of intent.

It also does not mean that other examinations of different forms of violence are not equally valid. Let me make an important point that I perhaps have not made in this forum, but is discussed at length in the book. I do not claim that urbicide must replace other forms of violence. Indeed, it can coexist with other forms of violence. It is possible for genocide and urbicide to co-exist (as they did in Bosnia). In such a case examining the logics of each would take place according to the different conceptual frames each requires. But this is not a zero-sum problem: we do not have to decide whether we analyse genocide (according, if you want, to questions of intent) or urbicide (according to questions of the material constitution of conditions of heterogeneity). The analyses of both may be required. But this is also to reject Mike’s final proposal of finding a bridge from genocide to the urban. Consideration of violence against the urban must be done on the basis of the latter being a distinct form of violence not an add-on to genocide.

If you’ll permit a light barb: I seem to have addressed the issue of intent very directly on three occasions over the last three days. I think that I know where the mark (if not the point) is, I just want to aim at something else!

To end on a positive note I would agree wholeheartedly that the question of criminality needs to be brought into the discussion. As I note in the preface to the book, there is no point outlining grand theories of political violence unless one hopes to contest such violence. My hope is that crimes against the built environment could be seen as crimes against humanity (though, of course, not on a level with genocide). The question would then be – to return to Bryan’s excellent list – would we treat all these crimes similarly, or would we want to draw distinctions between different classes of crime against the urban environment? If the latter, how would we draw the distinction?

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