15 December, 2006Issue 6.1HistoryPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Genocide Is Not a Fact

Nanor Kebranian

Marc Nichanian
La Perversion Historiographique: une réflexion arménienne
Editions Lignes et Manifestes, 2006
211 pages
ISBN 2849380466

In 1994, the making of a historical event hinged on a single word, charged with such unease that the great states of the international community could simply not utter it. Rwanda was bathing in its own blood, but ‘genocide’ proved too ugly and too unprofitable to cross then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright’ slips until the massacre was well underway. Nineteen ninety-four was also the year that renowned American Ottomanist Bernard Lewis faced a French civil tribunal for stating in a Le Monde interview, ‘No serious proof exists of the ottoman government’s decision and plan aimed at exterminating the Armenian nation.’ Lewis similarly refused to use the term ‘genocide.’

If history repeats itself, it might be thanks to the inadequacy of language, since approximately ten years following these events, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell hesitated in wording the Janjaweed persecutions as genocide until over a million had met a similar fate. ‘Genocide,’ it seems, is inherently predisposed to denial.

Untangling the entrapments of this word, which has left both political leaders and historians tongue-tied in recent decades, has preoccupied Armenologist and philosopher Marc Nichanian for a lifetime. Nichanian’s approach has been primarily literary, considering the event in terms of his general concern about the relationship between national catastrophe and literature. Writers of Disaster, Vol. 1 is emblematic of this extensive work, which has consistently led him to privilege literature over other disciplines for its treatment of le catastrophe. But his new book, La Perversion Historiographique: une réflexion arménienne, takes the baton from the literary and leads Nichanian into a critique of genocide historiography with a collection of four previously published essays. Their impetus lies in the public denial of certain historians, including Bernard Lewis, of the 1915 Armenian Catastrophe.

Catastrophe, not genocide, according to Nichanian, and with a capital C. He borrows the name from Armenian writer Hagop Oshagan who in 1931 initiated the term Aghed—Armenian for Catastrophe—to refer to the events of 1915. Nichanian has used it consistently as an alternative to ‘genocide,’ and his critique of historiography extends from this semantic choice. As Nichanian articulates in Writers of Disaster, ‘It is a question of liberating the Catastrophe of everything that transforms it into an object, an instance, or a fact, that gives a delusory meaning to it.’ ‘Genocide,’ by contrast, attempts to define, to lend meaning to the indefinable, transforming it into a criminal object in order to proceed with its due prosecution.

‘Genocide’ infiltrated modern consciousness as a twentieth century phenomenon, with the Second World War delineating a pre- and post-genocide Western self-conception. The Holocaust had brought the shame of annihilation to Europe, and it was with the Geneva Convention in 1948 that genocide was defined as murder ‘committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ The Western nations codified it as a punishable crime with a judicial system ready to prosecute it.

Instead of bringing this moment in history closer to a resolution, the term has further problematised the Armenian question and the treatment of genocide in general over the past few decades. Genocide’s criminality has in no way deterred its plan and execution worldwide, and the global exposure to its heinous images have aroused no more than a contained outrage eliciting some demonstrations and limited humanitarian interventions. There is a tendency to attribute this mass apathy to a media-induced desensitisation. But the failure points to a more palpable and identifiable factor which is the politicization of ‘genocide.’ Several states in both East and West, with the obvious exception of Turkey, have officially recognized the 1915 ‘genocide.’

How much recognition is enough recognition? The intense lobbying of Armenian advocacy groups in US political circles suggests a significant and unexamined nuance in the recognition game. The lobbyists consider it absolutely necessary for the greatest world power to recognize the event or the fact in order for it to be a fact. It is true that the US is a close ally to Turkey and that it’s assessment of the event can significantly influence Turkish policy. But since there is no proposal to pursue further actions such as reparations or a criminal tribunal, the implication is that the demand for recognition is made for its own sake. There is something gravely disconcerting in this approach, which aligns political power with the validity of a fact, where the greater the power, the more definitive the fact becomes. Politics is unfortunately tremendously well versed in the manipulation of facts and is in fact, at least from a philosophical standpoint, its seasoned nemesis. In some circles, it was, after all, a purported fact that Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein were staunch allies.

La Perversion Historiographique takes us further toward the root of the fact/recognition game, where the work of historians becomes the premise for the political recognition mentioned above. According to the Geneva Convention, the intention or in Nichanian’s terms the ‘genocidal will’ is what differentiates genocide from other forms of inter-ethnic strife. Proving its occurrence is analogous to a murder prosecution: it is not enough to substantiate the death of one man at the hand of another, one must expose the intent to eliminate. ‘Genocide’ is therefore inextricable from blame, which in turn precipitates the alleged perpetrator’s denial. In this tragic detective story, someone must assemble the pieces that reveal genocidal intent. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that historians have assumed this task, since 1915 is almost a century behind us. What is unreasonable is their method, not their initiative.

The beginning of Writers of Disaster introduces us to the complexity at stake, while La Perversion Historiographique carries the historiographic component to fruition. Proceeding from historians’ own conclusions that the Committee of Union and Progress responsible for 1915 had destroyed their archives in 1919, Nichanian writes that ‘No Turkish government has ever considered opening the archives of the Deportation… The true “fact” here is the destruction of the archive… History can take care of known facts; it can study their origin and consequences… But the event, here, is not a fact. It cannot in any way be the object of a historical approach. How could historians account for a world founded on the destruction of that which defines their discipline, of that which defines their own essence?’ Clambering for historical truth through eddies of archives in pursuit of historicizing genocide suggests a blind submission to the genocidal will, whose intent is precisely to dehistoricise, to eliminate from memory. A historian who prefers to forego this fundamental premise—that a genocidal regime sacrifices history itself on the crime path—implicates himself as an accessory to this perversion of history.

The question with which historians have preoccupied themselves is askew. Instead of fixating on whether or not a genocide took place, the more compelling questions would pursue the workings of an empire grappling with its heterogeneity. An alternative might be to adopt a Foucauldian interpretation of legislative and judicial underpinnings, systems and styles of violence, and other interdisciplinary approaches that could integrate not only information gleaned from archives, but could interpret the very existence or non-existence of the documents. This approach is coextensive with Nichanian’s emphatic declaration, ‘Genocide is not a fact. It is not a fact because it is the destruction even of fact, of the notion of fact, of the factuality of fact.’ The source of an alleged criminal’s criminality cannot come from the criminal himself. A tertiary perspective—the historian’s own with Nichanian’s observation in mind—guarantees a much more sophisticated and holistic revelation of the Armenian Catastrophe.

Nichanian does not stand alone in his observation of the archive as deficient in this kind of research. In a lecture at Harvard University in 2001, renowned Armenian historian Vahakn Dadrian stated:

[T]he denial of the Armenian Genocide [by the Turkish state] requires special attention as it terribly encumbers the problem of documentation. Deniers are wont to withhold evidence; deniers are wont to destroy evidence. Therefore, a scholar of the Armenian Genocide has to be by necessity not only a scholar but also a detective.

Armenian historians have been more sensitive to this detail, because ‘genocide’ has not determined their conviction about the factuality of the event. Their diaspora existence is proof enough. Innumerable testimonies are proof enough. Here, Nichanian offers a revolutionary perspective. In the second half of La Perversion Historiographique, he draws out the intricacies of testimony and its relationship to historiography at large, but most of all, in its relationship to the Armenian question. Testimony is not proof. It should never be proof. That is not the meaning of testimony, because testimony, especially of the genocidal will, is an account of the meaningless.

There is a moment in Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s book, Testimony, in which the latter describes an account given by a Holocaust survivor about the Auschwitz uprising. The survivor recalls the wrong number of chimneys as she tells the story in the presence of psychiatrist Dr. Laub and a few historians. After the interview, the historians eagerly dispute the ‘facts’ that the survivor recalls, and Laub responds by distancing the historians from the account. He privileges the description itself as indicative of the impact of Auschwitz and the uprising on its prisoners. The singularity of the story testifies to the singularity of the moment and of the individual, whose preservation assures the failure or reverses the near success of the genocidal will. Genocide is after all an affront against subjectivity, a submission of the individual to a disposable mass. When a historian adopts a collectivizing perspective that seeks to integrate or reconstruct the individual testimony, the individual memory to substantiate a collective story, he similarly subverts subjectivity.

Nichanian delivers an authoritative reflection on this impediment when he offers post-Catastrophe Armenian literature as an example of historical objectification. Some of the most talented Armenian writers who survived 1915 found themselves incapable of writing anything but the devastation that they had endured. Those texts alongside the countless videotaped and tape-recorded testimonies have only been treated or referenced by historians in the context of proving the genocide. Nichanian considers this an archivisation of testimony, which ultimately poses a moral hurdle. Each attempt at using testimony to prove the genocide duplicates the survivor’s objectification instead of investigating the perpetrator’s crimes. ‘For 90 years,’ Nichanian writes, ‘in proving, in using testimony as proof, I have responded to the executioner’s injunction. Since this is what the executioner wants, from the onset, isn’t it? To kill, to eliminate, to exterminate? Of course, he wants this as well. But especially, he wants for me to prove and for me to prove again.’

And the more I attempt to prove, the more the factuality of the event assumes a contestable nature. Nichanian’s critique leads us to a consideration of language and literature in the making of a history that values subjectivity. He is, after all, equally a literary critic, who has always favored literature as the most telling and unadulterated conduit of truth. Considering testimony via literature in opposition to historiography’s tendency toward archivisation liberates testimony from the manacles of proof and the logic of the perpetrator: to prove one’s own destruction.

Still, to what extent can the survivor’s repossession of his subjectivity from historians, politicians, and perpetrators alike prevent the further mutilation of his memory or his history? Ultimately the transformation of genocide historiography is an internal affair that requires the conversion of denialist historians. It is insufficient to assume that the denial of historians is precipitated by their mistreatment of archives. There is something more intricate at play in their reluctance to adjust their perspectives. Some degree of hesitation may derive from certain political or ideological leanings, suggesting a privileging of some genocidal catastrophes – such as the Holocaust – as more real or more significant than others – such as the Catastrophe. It may not be unsuitable conjecture, though, to consider denialism as the fear of historiography to reevaluate its tradition of research and interpretation.

If the twentieth century precipitated the most destructive mass violence, it did so in part out of its modernity and scientific proclivity. Nichanian’s unyielding confrontation with the field in La Perversion Historiographique warns that history has taken the same self-destructive tendency, considering itself a scientific rather than a textual discipline. In engaging more closely with politics than philosophy, historiography delivers the most catastrophic blow to collective memory.

Nanor Kebranian is a DPhil student in oriental studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, and executive editor of The Oxonian Review of Books. Her research deals with the work of Western Armenian writer Hagop Oshagan.