Rotten with Consensus: Toward a Dialectic Transformation of Genocide

Victoria Houser, Clemson University


In this article, I examine a terminology of violence rooted within political consensus. Taking the Rwandan genocide as a case study, the article argues that a Burkean dialectic transformation of terms offers a way to understand violent conflicts with an agonistic approach. Arguing against consensus, the article puts Burke into conversation with Chantal Mouffe to show where merger might be possible amongst antagonistic parties.

The magical decree is implicit in all language; for the mere act of naming an object or situation decrees that it is to be singled out as such-and-such rather than as something other.

—Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Throughout his extensive work, Kenneth Burke points us to the inextricable link between human action and the power of language. Burke’s oeuvre gives us a beautifully complicated study of the human animal who uses words to simultaneously define and create reality. The ability to name reality contains an explicit power; it is a power that creates social and cultural understanding. A study of terminology, then, is like looking at a map of the human condition. In this article, I examine a specific vocabulary of violence centered around the terms genocide and colonization and the social realities conjured by these terms. Drawing from Hannah Arendt’s delineation of power and violence, power provides the ability to name implementations of violence, while violence in a pure form most closely resembles events like massacre (43). For example, labeling the mass killings of April 1994 in Rwanda as a genocide points to the specific power inherent in naming the implementations of violence. This power reveals a certain sovereignty of the Western hegemonic state to define and create reality in that the term genocide emerged from the aftermath of the Holocaust. The sovereignty of naming violence becomes insidious as soon as a group loses power over linguistic transformation of social reality, for in the removal of one’s capacity to create meaning through language pure violence manifests in opposition to power.

To understand the particular implementation of violence in Rwanda it is necessary to examine the power of colonization that suffocated the parliamentary “wrangle” of democracy and would have stifled dissent had the dissent been found in the minority. Dissent coming from the Hutu majority (making up over eighty percent of the population) erupted in a “pure”,1 form of violence, resulting in over 800,000 Tutsi lives being taken in a matter of months. The mass killings of the Tutsi came about as an implementation of violence in response to power. That is to say, the power of colonization. In the specific case of Rwanda, the oppression rooted in the Belgian colonization directed the implementation of violence that led to the genocide in 1994. What went wrong? A people dispossessed of power and unable to participate in their rhetorical, social, and political reality grew weary of being trapped in a binary that disavowed their identity. In the wake of colonization pure violence appeared to be the only “way out” once the dialectic process of political agonism was no longer viable.

When the mass killings erupted in 1994, a response was required from the world. Naming the violence in Rwanda as genocide positioned the country of Rwanda within the homogeneity of Western power since genocide is a term created by the West to make sense of the reality of the Holocaust. This naming hides or negates the structural linkage of power and violence (perpetrated by the colonization) while also denying any possibility of dialectical transformation or agonistic negotiation. While those in power may be able to outlaw terms by substituting others, they can’t eliminate their function or the situations they name. Burke offers dialectic and Chantal Mouffe, agonism, as methods to reveal the systematic ways violence and power are wielded without consequences for the wielder, conjured instead as if by magic rather than a direct consequence of the tyranny of words. Because closely policed linguistic consensus creates a scenario in which violence continues to manifest in a form of conflict that seeks to remove enemies rather than engage with them, the tensions inherent in Burke’s dialectic transformation are necessary for us to dwell within as a way of moving toward understanding through both identification and difference. This article explores the roles of language, power, and agonism in the Rwandan genocide, arguing that the hegemonic power of consensus involved in naming the events as genocide strips away the rhetorical function of agonism and diverts the attention away from the crimes of colonization.

In what follows, I examine moments of potential linguistic transformation in Rwanda to illustrate how political consensus quickly turns treacherous in its demands for all citizens to be in agreement about specific ideological concepts of power. Following Mouffe, who opposes the very concept of consensus as creating a false impression of a peaceful post-conflict environment, I see Rwanda’s post-genocide power implementing many of the same strategies of consensus seen in the colonization preceding the massacre. As I will demonstrate in this scene, when consensus purifies the realm of post-conflict political action, it strips any person living on the fringes of the majority of their ability to act rhetorically. This purification contributes to the very scenes of violence which the consensus attempted to root-out. Consensus, in this case, reinforces violence. Following the genocide, those who took political power in Rwanda established a particular ideological narrative of the genocide and insisted that all citizens act and re-act in relationship with the terms of this narrative. A consensus was established regarding the political identities and activities of all citizens in relationship to the national conflict. Of course, this model fails because the narrative of the genocide unfolds and reveals itself with nuance and complexity, requiring many stories, perspectives, and rich variety of terms with which to read the details of the conflict. The reduction of the conflict to a single narrative, especially one issued from the ruling political powers, constructs grounds for continued, unproductive animosity among citizens.

Agonism and the Dialectic

Although Mouffe argues that consensus derives from dialectical processes, her understanding does not derive from Kenneth Burke’s particular reading of the dialectic as a contribution of terms participating in a development of irony. In this context, agonism and dialectical process work toward the same goal, not to purify the conditions of violence, but to open up the possibilities of difference. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke warns that “the very ‘global’ conditions which call for the greater identification of all [people] with one another have at the same time increased the range of human conflict, the incentives to division” (34). These incentives to division contain the possibility of removing the characteristic nature of rhetoric which, at its heart, requires agonism—a wrangling of distinct human motives in which beings can be neither purely identified with each other nor purely divided from each other. Agonism’s counterpart, total unification, disallows terms to work upon each other dialectically, but requires all terms and identities to be summarized underneath a single generating principle. Consensus, then, creates a system in which members must be either purely identified or purely divided underneath the summarizing terms. When the summarizing terms, or the generating principles, represent scenes of violence, political consensus becomes particularly dangerous for many because those who do not or cannot share the summarizing terms (which could be either material or ideological) that have been established by the ruling power are quickly excised through force.

Agonism allows for conflict with the enemy without the need to destroy the enemy. It offers the option for a “wrangling” of ideas, for rhetoric to work and play within scenes of conflict as actors continuously, dialectically negotiate terms.

Burke’s dialectic and the development of terms takes a central role in the process of understanding and circumventing the derivation of consensus that disallows the heterogeneity of voices. In her discussion of Burke’s dialectic, Elizabeth Weiser writes, “Dialectic, the conversation that argues the various perspectives on any situation, produces conclusions that are ironic rather than pure” (“Burke and War” 299). The significance of moving away from “purity” for Burke suggests that the idea of arriving at a conclusion, a consensus, would necessarily remove the ambiguities of difference. Beyond removing difference, it also purifies the forms of power and violence, making them appear as the same. As Weiser points out, Burke’s dialectic does not aim at purifying or “making whole,” but rather at an engagement with identification and division as ambiguous perspectives contributing to the parliamentary wrangle of human deliberation. Consensus forms itself around the kind of purity that would situate violence as a distinct form, one unto itself, one that could be eradicated by subsuming violent acts under a single term, such as the term genocide.

 Political consensus, when held to be entirely right, not only fails to perform a dialectic development but involuntarily contributes to the conditions of pure violence that result in massacre. Arendt situates consensus as such saying, “A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same” (42). Bringing this back to Burke’s dialectic, the ambiguities of power and violence could be found most noticeably in an “interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms” (GM 512). The dialectical development of agonism, for Burke, then becomes realized in the actual terms, in the language itself. The terms chosen to discuss the powers, the actions, the truths, the scenes, the players are in themselves the dialectic. In line with this, agonism emerges in the babel of the parliamentary exchanges of political powers and participatory citizens engaged in the project of democracy. This form of engagement, opposed to Arendt’s description of the unrestricted majority rule, most closely resembles the kind of agonism that would treat adversaries not as enemies to be destroyed, but as participants in a dialectical development of political thought and action.

In his keynote address delivered at the 2017 Kenneth Burke conference, James Klumpp works through the Burkean dialectic while unpacking the meaning of conflict and the importance of tension to human understanding. Referring to the etymology of the term conflict Klumpp explains that the word initially meant to strike together, and in order for a “striking together” to be possible two elements must be present: “(1) difference and (2) a vector that hurls the aspects of that difference into each other: to strike together” (emphasis in original, par 9). As Klumpp points out, the dialectic work of language within conflict is the work of difference moving toward merger; and for merger and understanding to be possible, tension and difference must be allowed to work through communities as well. Division and difference appear most markedly in the symbolic action of the terms working together to create meaning. While words do work to reveal the differences and agonism inherent in political and social hierarchies, terms do not ever do this simply or completely. “Words do not define through their platonic ideal,” says Klumpp, “but through their relationship with other terms. These dialectics mark tensions, and they make the case for the centrality of tension” (par 12). Terms, working together, create meaning and perform change.

In this way, the dialectic transformation that Klumpp gestures toward in his keynote becomes essential for understanding agonism as operating within the tensions between power and violence. This particular tension arises with the highest of stakes in situations where political consensus silences the dialectic counterparts to power; that is, the oppressed. When those experiencing oppression are unable to voice their dissent because the power of unrestricted consensus denies them access, violence in its pure form takes over what we would have in the merger of agonistic politics. When a consensus is drawn up over a word that is charged with inherently violent meaning, the powers dictating (literally) that term, channel the attention away from a dialectic agonism (a Burkean dialectic) that would lead toward merger and into a kind of consensus that cuts away difference, resulting in violence in its pure form.

While some form of consensus is always necessary to find the ground from which to engage in political deliberation, Mouffe argues that dissent must always accompany it. Without the possibility of dissent, consensus has the potential to induce violence and annihilation of an enemy through the reification of the rhetorical, ideological constructions of difference. From Burke’s critical rhetorical perspective, these differences and identifications take root in language, the terministic screen, channeling our attention into some places and deflecting other possibilities. This would lead us to consider how the act of naming, in itself, influences and shapes the experiences of the symbol using animal (LSA 45). Reification of these terministic screens occurs when the ideological is made to look material, making identifications and divisions appear as the natural and only possible form of any given group consciousness (Lukács, “Reification”). In this thread, Burke stipulates that ideology is, of course, “but a kind of rhetoric” since the ideas carry “inducements to some social and political choices rather than others” (88). Where consensus is at play, in the way that Mouffe outlines as the complete elimination of divisions, it constructs an ideology of identification that removes the potential for dialectic transformation and rhetorical engagement. Mouffe openly states that this elimination or ignorance of divisions removes the potential to engage in the political: “It is only when division and antagonism are recognized as being ineradicable that it is possible to think in a properly political way” (15). Division then becomes the necessary ground for agonism, or genuine political action.

In Burkean terms, the symbolic constructs and determines the conditions for agonism; it is the very nature of the symbolic that the political constructions take life and exercise power. In “The Symbolic Inference,” Fredric Jameson explicates Burke’s treatment of the nature of the symbolic as an ideological method: “The symbolic act therefore begins by producing its own context in the same moment of emergence in which it steps back over against it, measuring it with an eye to its own active project” (512). Terms not only select, reflect, and deflect realities, they constitute the world itself at the moment of their emergence. So, when the terms of consensus emerge, the construction of a scene for dissent also emerges. It is the denial of this scene, the removal of the terms for dissent or rejection of the hegemonic which eliminates the possibility for rhetorical, political action. With this removal of the necessary rhetorical dissent and divisions, consensus only operates in favor of the existing hegemonic power and always silences those who are being oppressed by this power. James Kastely writes, “For Burke, human aggression runs deep, and any effort to address its current manifestations has to contend with aggression as an essential part of symbolicity, one that is often motivating disputes about property and fueling antagonisms and misunderstandings within hierarchies” (“Love and Strife” 173). Kastely points us to the same central need that Klumpp points to in the dwelling with Burke’s dialectic as it wrestles with the tensions of symbolic moments. Consensus removes the tension, and the removal of the tension subsequently removes the possibility of understanding.

After a genocide there is of course a temptation to remove all tension by creating and serving an ideology of pure identification without difference. One of the most significant elements of the Rwandan reconstruction was the drive to articulate a complete consensus over the labeling of whole people groups as either “killers” or “victims” within the genocide. Here we see the breakdown of the dialectic development as the consensus attempts to remove all ambiguity surrounding the material events of the genocide. This kind of reductive political model is the very one instituted by the Belgian colonizing power in Rwanda in the early 1960s. During that time, the colonizing power stripped individuals of their identity and instituted a system in which ethnicity remained the only possible screen for viewing one another. The harm caused by this removal of ambiguity, the attempt at removing the grounds for agonism—or the ability to wrangle various identifications and divisions with one another—removed the capacity of parliamentary exchange and eventually led to the act of the genocide itself. Stripping people of their ability to act rhetorically leaves them with little else beyond the naked act of brutal force.

Consensus in Rwanda: The Unrestricted Power of Colonization

To get any sense of the scene in Rwanda, we must look at some of the structural violence built into the condition of the genocide. Most people in the scope of the West are aware that some atrocious massacre happened in Rwanda in 1994, and many may even be familiar with the details of the political struggle between the ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Still, the conditions of the socio-symbolic, rhetorical violence extending back even before the Belgian colonization in the 1930s remain rather untouched. A scholar once told me that investigating the Rwandan genocide forced him into an encounter with his unexamined and unconscious racism, because it brought to light his ideological assumption that the genocide was just a brutal display of violence committed by uncivilized people. It surprised him to learn of the political nuance and systemic oppression attached to the strife—nuance being something he would not have assumed about a “Third World” country. This same view is seen buried throughout the Western world as an inability to engage with conditions of violence that are a direct result of power intertwined with ignorance of its implementations.

Now, this brings me to one of the main staging grounds for the genocide, that is, the political wrangle over the linguistic, rhetorical, and material conditions of the genocide. The terms genocide and colonization desperately need to be placed within a dialectic transformation. Rwanda’s conflict provides a particularly poignant ground for this kind of linguistic transformation as a nation that experienced a genocide tangled up in the roots of a colonization. Genocide of course directs us to the 1940s. On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations held the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in which the connotative constructs of that term were soundly decided. Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the convention created a powerful terministic screen, one that would be almost impenetrable once applied. The opening statement of the Convention’s document reads: “Genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world” (emphasis added, 278). What of those other worlds then? Those nations outside the hegemonic power of the Western worlds are not only denied the possibility of deliberation and intervention when mass violence occurs, but they are also denied the power of the linguistic transformation of the term itself. If it is a term co-incidental with the civilized world, then only within the “civilized world” can it be employed, engaged, and agonized.

Arthur Klinghoffer argues that one of the major weakness of the Genocide Convention is that it did very little to protect people in violent situations against mass killings (121). Perhaps a bit obvious, Klinghoffer rebukes the Convention’s work because the most that the statement against genocide can possibly achieve is prosecution of perpetrators in the aftermath of the crime. Extending this view in a dialectic fashion, this also sets up a terministic screen for genocide as a possible form of pure violence. In the case of Rwanda, the United Nations refused to label the violence as genocide, annihilating the potential process of intervention even while hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in their homes. In his essay, “Reading the Rwandan Genocide,” Peter Uvin writes, “The numbers [of killings] beg two crucial questions: What brought this country to that point? What has been the role of the international community in all of this?” (75). Of course, there cannot be simple answers to two questions of this size. The issues of consensus and enforcement of ideological identification situate these questions in a larger schema of political powers of colonization. While Uvin focuses on the international scene as a function of intervention in the slaughter, I want us to think about how the roots of the genocide extend into the international scene of colonization and the implementation of power that led to the genocide.

Near the beginning of the colonization, the Belgians conducted a kind of census in which they issued ethnicity cards to every Rwandan citizen, forcing them to carry the linguistic marker of either Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. The consensus of identification in Rwanda begins with the colonizers situating all Rwandans within the linguistic labels of their ethnicities, a move that could even be viewed as a potential “symbolic means of inducing cooperation” through fostering identity within the groups (Burke, RM 47). However, cooperation completely disintegrates as soon as one looks at the ways in which these rhetorical identifications and divisions manifested in material reality. The Hutu constituted about eight-five percent of the population, while the Tutsi consisted of approximately fourteen percent and the Twa one percent. Philip Gourevitch points to this administration maneuver to label and confine as a form of apartheid rooted and established in the myth of Tutsi superiority. Whatever the Tutsi might or might not have believed about their superiority washes into the Belgian identification of the Tutsi ethnicity as superior. Within this structured census, the Hutu were barred from administrative and political positions. They were stripped of any positions in which they would have power over Tutsi. Gourevitch writes, “Nothing so vividly defined the divide as the Belgian regime of forced labor, which required armies of Hutus to toil en masse as plantation chattel, on road construction, and in forestry crews, and placed Tutsi over them as taskmasters” (57). The colonizing power reified the symbolic construction of ethnicity, and an institutionalized racism seeped into the ground of Rwanda. So, this first form of a political consensus (carried out by the colonizers) demonstrates the early signs of the insidiousness of a consensus built upon exclusion and demarcation of the other as “less than.”

Addressing the issues inherent in these ideological identifications, Catherine Newbery explains that the colonizers wished to preserve what was left of the “traditional” roles in the old hierarchy, placing the Tutsi as rulers over the Hutu “peasants” (7). Newbury writes, “particularly onerous demands of the colonial state and its chiefs fell most heavily—if not exclusively—on rural cultivators classified as Hutu” (8). This kind of political consensus resulted in the genocide. The identification and division being “pure” in form left no possible option for the Hutu to resist the ideological form of their oppression. Under these conditions of power in its pure form (that of the colonization), the Hutu’s ideological oppression was made to look material as it took on the form of the Hutu’s identification as peasant to the Tutsi’s ruling class. When the Tutsi claimed independence from Belgium in 1962, the real work of the genocide began. “Under the guise of social justice,” writes Joseph Sebarenzi, “the Belgian government systematically took away power from the Tutsi and gave it to Hutu” (13). Now both the oppressor and the oppressed shared a common enemy in the Tutsi, and when consensus shifted to favor the Hutu there was no possibility for rhetorical engagement. The system of political consensus as a binary that continuously marks “us/them” does not allow for the ambiguities and tensions of a dialectical engagement towards agonism and merger. Here we have the conditions for genocide inherent in the initial political consensus. All that was needed to tip the scales was the shift of the hegemonic power to favor the unrestricted majority, and that unrestricted majority desired slaughter.

Perhaps more interesting than these movements toward the genocide, is what came next. Throughout the bloodshed of the mass killings, the UN opted out of naming the violence as genocide for reasons already mentioned. This linguistic decision presents a rhetorical movement toward purity of the term genocide. It cannot be used except under the most severe circumstances and only under circumstances that align with Western ideological constitutions of the “civilized world.” Part of this stems from a certain purity of the condition of genocide as it is attached to the events of the Holocaust, and this leaves little room for ambiguity within the term. Burke would have us move away from the use of pure terms and toward the dialectic transformation that allows for the possibility of many meanings. The movement away from purity or “correctness,” as Burke would have it, is a movement towards the ambiguity of language. This means that we must necessarily allow for the understanding or the examination of “incorrect” ways of co-operation. When we allow for only one totalizing and correct terministic screen, then we set up a condition in which the “incorrect” screen becomes the problem which must be excised. This is where Burke’s dialectic as terms working together in a contributory fashion—rather than as counterparts of each other—situates a response to genocide which might allow for ambiguities. In this frame, the most tragically ironic (dialectic) of divisions is that one which builds on a collection of “cooperative acts” (or a collection of identifications) for one catastrophic conflict: “We refer to that ultimate disease of cooperation: war. (You will understand war much better if you think of it, not simply as strife come to a head, but rather as a disease, or perversion of communion)” (RM 22). This is precisely what occurs within the UN’s refusal to engage with Rwanda’s massacre as genocide—a collection of identifications and co-operative acts which divided the West from Rwanda and resulted in one catastrophic perversion of communion.

Much has been said about this “opting out” of confronting the genocide (Gregory Stanton, “Rwandan Genocide”), but more important here is the deflection of reality through the terms employed by the West. This deflection positions the material violence of the genocide within a larger narrative of hegemonic forces. In this case, Mouffe’s “competition amongst the elites” shifts from the competing voices amongst the elites in Rwanda over the reified (or ossified) positions of power—those provided through colonization—into the competition among the hegemonic voices of the West. Sebarenzi describes this competition best in his articulation of the colonizing powers. Sebarenzi illustrates the scene in which Western powers sit down and draw lines throughout Africa, thereby divvying up human bodies and resources. It was there that the colonization of Rwanda began: in a competition among elites for power. In many ways, the failure to label the mass killings in Rwanda as a genocide exposes the very condition of the West’s complicity. Through the labeling of the Rwandan violence as genocide, we see a violence strictly confined to the nation’s problems. The issue with this screening lies in the understanding that Rwanda’s implementations of power were generated and imposed by Western forces. While the screen of genocide would have provided a particular way of “seeing” the mass violence (a screen which may or may not have led to intervention) it always already masks the problems of the West’s complicity in the genocide. The term genocide, in this case, is the pharmakon. It is both the poison and the cure—the catch is that the cure exists for the West as a solution for intervention in a problem it created. Only in labeling the genocide as genocide is the West now absolved of its crimes. Under that screen it is a Rwandan problem, and any intervention on the West’s part would be from a position of great “humanitarian effort.” So, perhaps a better scenario would be one in which we do not call the violence in Rwanda a genocide but a colonization. This does not quite solve the problem of pure violence, though. What occurred in Rwanda was a response to the implementations of power through the colonization, which is why an agonistic, dialectic transformation becomes essential to wrestling with the post-conflict scene.

The uniformity of consensus in post-genocide Rwanda operates as a narrative which maintains permutations of violence through the process of silencing dissent, or at least disallowing dissent. The narrative in Rwanda works like this: the political powers set in place after the genocide brand one ethnicity with a single term (killer or victim), a consensus forms around the “reality” that Hutu are perpetrators, genocidaires, and killers. The counterpart to this identification is that the Tutsi are victims, oppressed, and slain. This particular narrative of consensus removes the ability to allow for a great variety of terms to work as contributory to the development of forming a peaceful communion in the country. The consensus removes Burke’s dialectic function which would allow for co-operation of identifications and divisions. Yet the peace established by President Paul Kagame was a peace completely predicated on the consensus of division between the Hutu and Tutsi, a consensus which stripped the human agents of their ability to act rhetorically.

Susan Thomson explains that the government policy of national unity posits these identities of all Rwandans in a victim/killer dialectic, saying, “this means that survivors (read former Tutsi) and genocidaire (read former Hutu) have been cast into the essentialist categories of victim and killer, and as such have become the protagonists of the fiction of national unity” (444). Similar to the kind of reification of identity during the Belgian colonization, a consensus was enacted by the political powers to maintain an antagonistic divide between groups of people. This enactment of a consensus about the ideology of the genocide still works to mask the “competition amongst the elites.” While, as Thomson says, the political powers in Rwanda work to construct a form of national unity, the crimes of the West go largely unchecked. What then occurs within the consensus is the replacement of one violent power with another, and antagonism presides in place of a true agonistic political situation. Thomson argues that Rwanda is an army with a nation rather than a nation with an army—this idea certainly maintains the notion of complete antagonism in which, as Mouffe argues, one would need to eradicate the enemy rather than work alongside them. Here we see the need for a Burkean approach to the agonism Mouffe argues for in the political realm.

Agonism Towards Merger

Burke’s understanding of the dialectic of identification and division gives us an approach to antagonistic forces and invites a willing agonism, a wrangling of human identity, as a way to avoid the kind of “efficiency” of eradication. What Rwanda sees now is not a complete division but an obsessive over-identification with the events of the genocide. This dictates much of the meaning surrounding all political engagement, and it is this form of consensus that Mouffe strongly opposes. In this form of antagonistic consensus lies the exact ideological structure that led to the implementations of violence in its pure form of massacre. The consensus works to evade what Klumpp discussed as the “tensions of the moment,” but at what cost? Evading these tensions, insisting on pure identification, and enforcing an ideological paradigm that removes ambiguities eventually thrusts enemies together in a way that situates violence as the only possible form of evasion. Merger and understanding are not to be found in the realm of consensus.

Agreeing with Mouffe’s call toward agonism, that political engagement that allows one to meet with an adversary without needing to eradicate difference, Burke’s dialectic transformation of terms provides another way of thinking through conflict. In that rhetorical sphere, it becomes possible to do as Klumpp suggests and “strike together” rather than against in conflict. Togetherness is the base of the dialectic and the fulcrum of agonism. It does not mean that differences are eradicated or that in striking together one group must strike against another group. Instead, the dialectic work of difference and strife leads us to consider the possibilities of merger within the union of agonism. Striking out together towards understanding through tension. The agonism that Mouffe calls for must root itself in Burke’s dialectic effort. There we will be able to see and grapple with the tensions between a great many linguistic meanings, from colonization to genocide and what comes after.


1. Burke’s “Paradox of Purity” gives another way to think about the distinction between violence without power (massacre) and the violence emerging from power. He explains that a “pure” personality would be non-personality. Gesturing to Hegel Burke says, “Pure Being would be the same as Not-Being” (GM 35). In this sense, “pure” violence could be seen as the equivalent of “not-power.” It is a type of motion that occurs when people are disposed of the power of language, that is, in a construction of consensus that disallows dissent.

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