John Docker, The Origins of Violence.
Events in the 1990s such as the breakdown of former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan Genocide oversaw a sharp rise in scholarly interests centred upon ethnic conflict, genocide and minority rights. In International Relations, extensive debates focused on the claims to self-determination based on ethnic belonging and group identity held by non-sovereign 'nations'. Within this context, genocide and massacre have often been positioned as outcomes of politically motivated sets of interests.
John Docker's The Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide contributes to understandings of what drives genocide and acts of inter-group violence. Docker traces genocide throughout historical texts, detailing acts of violence embedded in a diverse and eclectic range of literature including Thucydides, Cicero, Shakespeare and Arendt. He convincingly demonstrates that violence has been a constitutive feature of Western literary and cultural traditions.
The contemporary global political environment is defined more by intra-state civil wars of ethnic and national character than traditional inter-state wars. By contributing a disturbing historical and cultural examination to a complex array of issues, Docker provides a timely reminder that inter-group affiliations and the paradoxical social/ anti-social dialectic of group identity formation can pose significant problems.
Docker's central thesis is that inter-group violence and genocide are 'constitutive of the human condition down the ages' (p. 1). The desire to explain human nature (or at least a facet of it) appears to be in tension with a study that is also focused upon identity, ethnicity, nationality and culture. Using genocide as a lens tends to suggest a particular vision of collective identity formation and group psychology--one which obscures the modern intricacies of multiple and overlapping collective identities. By using the term 'nation-state', for example, Docker unwittingly perpetuates the mythology associated with nineteenth century nation building and unproblematic group identities.
Docker seeks to support his argument(s) by employing 'genocide studies on the one hand, and literary, cultural and intellectual history on the other, and so bring out new dimensions to the historical study of genocide and violence' (p. 5). The use of multiple methodologies is disorienting, as the two analytical methods remained distinct. The shifts from one to the other disrupted the flow of the book.
A 'diagrammatic outline' is used by Docker as a framework for identifying cases of genocide based on work by Raphael Lemkin, without casting a critical eye over Lemkin's taxonomy. Each of the eight classifications outlined conditions to assist in identifying genocide, for example 'massacre and mutilation', 'starvation' and 'slavery' (pp. 63-64). This system did not provide an indication of the scale of genocide--to what extent do these indicators need to be present for a set of actions to be defined as genocide? Nor did it address the relationships between the conditions. Does 'desecration and destruction of cultural symbols' alone constitute genocide, or do other indicators need to be present?
These are important questions, considering Docker uses this diagrammatic framework to assess the existence of genocides throughout history. The notion of genocide became too vague and unwieldy, and there was little discrimination between genocide from massacre, wars of conquest and so forth. Definitions are important, considering responses to modern genocides can violate sovereign authority and undermine constitutive norms of order.
There appeared to be confusion over whether 'genocide' is a motive, a process or an outcome. These distinctions are significant for discussing the constitution of human nature. Actions do not necessarily correlate with desires: it matters more for Docker's argument that actors seek to be genocidal and act in a way to facilitate this desire, than genocide being a consequence of actions motivated by a different set of priorities (such as desire for self-determination). Docker cursorily addresses this by challenging Andrew Fitzmaurice's advice that we must take care 'not to argue from consequences' (p. 167). This issue of epistemology, however, needed careful consideration.
Although Docker provides rich literary reviews, the gap between genocide as a feature of literature and genocide as a constitutive feature of human nature seemed too broad. Perhaps this is demonstrating the bias of a reviewer trained in politics, but the literary reviews did not convince me that genocidal tendencies are deeply rooted in human nature. Also of concern were the randomly interspersed and rather controversial opinions about Palestine and Israel that were not substantiated with evidence.
By employing a fractured narrative, Docker largely leaves the burden of threading together the myriad tangential themes to the reader. Large chunks of textual analysis became disparate 'episodes' that were not wedded into cohesive chapters. The early warning that the book would have irreconcilable parts that were 'episodic, fragmentary, unfinished' failed to justify the lack of sufficient guidance through the argument and ideas (p. 11). This text really needed a strong conclusion to tie together the myriad themes and texts, however the two-page conclusion was entirely inadequate and made the book feel unfinished. Here, the examination of Ghandi's philosophy as a way of bringing 'an end to the violence' was so brief and superficial that it read like an afterthought (pp. 217-18).
I am sure that many readers will find The Origins of Violence interesting and insightful. The study was certainly unique, and it is endearing the way Docker obviously cares about his subject. Many scholars who write about genocide, massacre and war do so with a detached objectivity that is ostensibly consistent with a social 'science' approach. Although the subject matter is highly disturbing and the argument bleak and unforgiving, Docker's book is ultimately idealistic: the more we know, the more we understand, and the better equipped we are to create change for the better.
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|Publication:||Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2009|
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