12 November 2008

Political Etymology as Branding: "Genocide"

I typically find efforts to "brand" politics or politicians a dubious enterprise, an invitation to bullshit. Recently, however, I discovered an interesting passage from Samantha Powers, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Harper Collins, 2002) that caused me to reconsider my blanket view. Powers opens her historical account by describing the efforts of a handful of individuals who, in the wake of Turkish slaughter of Armenians and the face of Nazi holocaust, began to agitate against the as yet unnamed crime of genocide. Among these, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew trained as a linguist and lawyer, had been struck by a BBC broadcast in 1941 in which Churchill had observed of Nazi atrocities, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name." He took it upon himself to rectify that state of affairs, not just by speaking out against the crime, but by labeling it.
Lemkin read widely in linguistic and semantic theory modeling his own process on that of individuals responsible for coinages he admired. Of particular interest to Lemkin were the reflections of George Eastman, who said he had settled upon “Kodak” as the name for a new camera because: “First, It is short. Second. It is not capable of mispronunciation. Third. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything in the art except the Kodak.”

Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as ‘barbarity’ and ‘vandalism’ could). He self-consciously sought one that could bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and poignantly as possible.”

But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation. On an otherwise undecipherable page of one of his surviving notebooks Lemkin scribbled and circled ‘THE WORD’ and drew a line connecting the circle to the phrase, penned firmly, ‘MORAL JUDGMENT.’ His word would do it all. It would be the rare term that carried in it society’s revulsion and indignation. It would be what he called an “index of civilization.”

The word Lemkin settled upon was a hybrid that combined the Greek derivative
geno, meaning “race” or “tribe,” with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” “Genocide” was short, it was novel, and it was not likely to be mispronounced. Because of the word’s lasting association with Hitler’s horrors, it would also send shudders down the spines of those who heard it.
So, perhaps George Eastman, indirectly and unintentionally, played a role in not just bringing photographic technology to the masses, but to the development of political language. Mere words, of course are insufficient, they need to be embedded in practices and institutions. But they are a start insofar as they afford us with the tools to identify and discuss, indeed even think about, aspects of the world - just as well as unjust, inspiring and hopeful as well as cruel, terrifying, oppressive. That, as Powers makes clear, was the nearly insurmountable task that faced Lemkin and the "virtual community" of others who had begun to speak out about genocide in the years before they could actually name it.

All this brought to mind work, some of which I've discussed before, by photographers like Alfredo Jaar, Robert Lyons, Susan Meiselas, and Simon Norfolk. In particular, the importance of Lemkin's neologism reminded me of this collection, the title to which Norfolk takes from the conclusion to Edward R. Murrow's report in 1944 from Buchenwald.

P.S.: I do not know much about Eastman (despite the fact that I live in 'his' town). But this passage from Powers brought to mind a colloquy between Eastman, Walt Whitman and Paul Virilio that David Levi Strauss imagined. See his "A Ferocious Philosophy: The Image of Democracy and the Democracy of Images," in Between the eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics (Aperture, 2003).

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