Book Review: Theorising Reconciliation, Agonism, Restitution & Repair.(eds). Alexander Hirsch

Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation, Agonism, Restitution & Repair, UK and New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. 224, US$130.00/£80.00 cloth
Edited by Alexander Hirsch
Reviewed by Vincent Druliole

The ways in which post-conflict societies deal with their violent past raise several critical issues for democratic theory. The book claims that the theory and practice of transitional justice generally understand reconciliation as ‘an injunction to “move on”’, or (the restoration of) ‘communitarian social harmony’ (1). For this reason, the book contends that the theoretical and normative foundations of reconciliation need to be rethought. More precisely, the conceptualization of the challenges facing post-conflict societies requires a theoretical approach that takes the constitutive and often irresolvable nature of disagreement seriously, namely agonistic democracy. Hirsch (82) quotes Mouffe, one of its main representatives, for whom ‘instead of trying to erase the traces of power and exclusion, democratic politics requires us to bring them to the fore, to make them visible so that they can enter the terrain of contestation’.

The book is a challenging collection of texts by political theorists, some of which draw on various case studies. They are new essays based on the authors’ previous work, with the exception of Hirsch’s chapter that is a revised version of an article published in Contemporary Political Theory. An important part of the book concentrates on alternative theorizations of reconciliation. Doxtader outlines a rhetorical theory of reconciliation that starts form the critique of the law and other institutional mechanisms that, by offering a ready-made language to manage processes of transitions, negate their fundamental openness. Instead, reconciliation is a ‘rhetorical potential’ that ‘begins with(in) a call to language at the apparent limit of expression’ (52). In another chapter, Verdeja draws on the agonistic critique of deliberative democracy to outline a normative theory of reconciliation articulated around the idea of ‘mutual respect’, or the ‘reciprocal recognition of the moral worth and dignity of [former enemies]’ (166). Finally, engaging Améry and Wolin in an exchange about resentment, Hirsch argues that, through the memory of the victims of violence, resentment has the potential to generate moments of rupture that characterize, rather than destabilize, democracy, and keep questioning the present.

Other chapters of the book explore various concepts underlying discourses of transitional justice. Hirsch’s chapter is based on a discussion of resentment to which the challenging essay by Brudholm and Rosoux is devoted. Pointing out that forgiving has been turned into an injunction for both perpetrators and victims, they draw on the writings of Jean Améry and Esther Mujawayo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, to resist equating refusing to forgive with hatred and a desire for revenge, if not moral or psychological deficiency. While the duty to forgive makes the concept of forgiveness meaningless and may assume too quickly that it serves reconciliation, the authors invite us to see the resistance to forgive as a legitimate reaction instead of discarding it as an irrational threat to transitional justice and democracy. The extent to which we may forgive episodes of violence is explored by Martel in the work of Benjamin, Derrida and Arendt. Finally, Honig analyses various texts and suggests that burying the victims of mass violence challenges the opposition between mourning and justice and may require ‘a different kind of mourning-work, not a working through but rather a loving letting go [that] draws the living to the dead’ and reveals our vulnerability (162). Two chapters of the book perfectly illustrate how agonistic democracy allows us to rethink the politics of reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Chakravarti argues that victim testimonies and the expression of anger or resentment, while they are seen as unacceptable because they threaten to undermine rational deliberation, are agonistic moments par excellence. The author agrees with Mouffe on the importance of emotions in politics and argues that although discomforting, ‘difficult emotions’ unsettle both existing subjectivities and the norms regulating the relationship between citizens and the state, which is precisely what post-conflict societies require. Thus, agonistic democracy highlights how testimony is much more than ‘a way to gather facts or allow for some type of collective catharsis’ (24), that it is truly political. In the last chapter of the book, Muldoon and Schaap discuss claims for recognition of their suffering by Aborigines in Australia. They argue that by focusing on the victims of misrecognition, we tend to overlook its origins, and more precisely the role of the state that, ironically, grants recognition. Focusing on Prime Minister Rudd’s apology in 2008 and the (failed) bids for Aboriginal sovereignty, they highlight how these claims for recognition subtly force the state to challenge its own identity and acknowledge that it is an actor in struggles for recognition, not an arbiter. Although challenging, the chapters illustrate some of the limits of theories of agonistic democracy. They define themselves in opposition to deliberative democracy, but as Hirsch (81) points out, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the agonistic idea of transforming political ‘enemies’ into ‘adversaries’ from the concept of mutual respect of deliberative democracy that supposedly depoliticizes reconciliation. This is particularly evident in Verdeja’s chapter. On the other hand, although Chakravarti (22) warns against the celebration of dissensus and contestation for its own sake, some chapters ignore her advice. The risk is that some claims might seem somewhat uncritical and incantatory. Finally, the book probably overstates its claim that reconciliation is generally understood as ‘communitarian social harmony’, and thus depoliticizing. The literature on transitional justice is very diverse, while a range of empirical works show that the meanings of reconciliation and transitional justice remain contested, and above all are re-appropriated and redefined by societies as policies are implemented. Despite these shortcomings, Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation illustrates the significant contribution that agonistic democracy can make to the study of reconciliation and transitional justice.

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

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