Book Review: Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Agonism, Restitution & Repair


Reviewed by VINCENT DRULIOLLE, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

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’. For this reason, the book contends that the theoretical and normative foundations of reconciliation need to be rethought. More precisely, the reconceptualization 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’. 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]’.
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.

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