Civilization Deconstructed: A Figurational Theory of Genocide

Just published:

Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide. (Montréal, Ithaca, and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011) 368 pp. ISBN: 9780773538566.

Why have the largest mass murders in human history taken place in the past hundred years? And why have European colonizers, bearers of Enlightenment ideals of universal humanity, so often denied the humanity of the people they have colonized?  Building on Elias’s work,  Barbaric Civilization traces the connections between state formation and habitus in the civilizing process to advance a radical thesis: that civilization produces genocides.

From its beginnings in the early 12th century CE, the Western civilizing process has involved two interconnected transformations: the monopolization of military force by sovereign states, and the cultivation in individuals of habits and dispositions of the kind that we call ‘civilized’. The combined forward movement of these two processes channels violent struggles for social dominance into symbolic performances of distinction.  But even as the civilizing process frees its privileged subjects from the threat of direct physical force, violence accumulates behind the scenes and at the margins of the social order, kept there by a deeply habituated performance of dominance and subordination called deferentiation. When deferentiation fails, interdependency becomes impunity, difference becomes dangerous, and genocide becomes possible.

Using a deconstructed reading of Elias’s account of the civilizing process, and discussing examples ranging from 13th century Languedoc to 1994 Rwanda, Barbaric Civilization offers a wholly original framework for analyzing, comparing, and discussing different genocides as variable outcomes of a common underlying figuration.  This analysis raises unsettling questions about the contradictions of Western civilization and the possibility of a world without genocide.

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