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Ritual as praxis : the responsibility of activists in the face of genocide; or, between ethics and politics Burton, Adi


The most urgent ethical task in the face of genocide is the demand to stop it. But how can the seeming moral clarity of opposition to genocide be reconciled with the failure of adequate political responses? I begin by problematizing the demand and response through the lens of the Save Darfur movement that mobilized millions of people against genocide in the 2000s, and which I suggest articulates the ethical and political challenges at the core of genocide research and its goal of prevention. Within current models of anti-genocide activism, the response remains problematically restricted to the execution of international legal principles and attempts to persuade politicians in powerful countries to “do the right thing” and intervene. In this dissertation, I argue that the ethical demand to stop genocide calls us to imagine anti-genocide activism otherwise. To this end, I retrace the activist call of “never again” to its roots in the Shoah (Holocaust) through theories of witnessing that disturb the positionality of activists in the face of total destruction. The position of the witness clarifies the initial ethical and political challenges of anti-genocide activism as problems of responsibility or the possibility of response. I then conceptualize the gap between the demand and the response as the fault-line of responsibility, which splits open along the faces of ethics and politics. The phenomenological approaches of Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt make sensible the ethical and political dimensions of responsibility in the full depth of the fault. The tension I stress in the faultline thus resists totalizing narratives of salvation on the one hand, and dehumanizing instrumentalization of restrictive concepts on the other. In the gap of the faultline, questions of judgement and justice open up as situated, contingent, and pluralistic. Attending to the irreducible gap maintains the possibility of response without yielding answers; instead, the separation of the ethical call to respond from political action opens the space and time for a ritualized, collective movement that can take us from thinking to action and back again: praxis. The task at hand is to prepare anti-genocide activists for the restlessness of the questions.

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