Review: Knowing About Genocide

Savelsberg, Joachim J. Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles. Oakland: University of California Press, 2021. 264pp. $34.95 Paperback.

“A Meaning Which Overflows the Object’s Use”: Joachim J. Savelsberg’s Knowing About Genocide

In Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles, Joachim J. Savelsberg (2021) explicates what contemporary Turkish media has derogatorily identified as a “recognition virus” vis-à-vis the Armenian genocide enacted in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century (101). To do so, he assumes the role of facilitator, assembling a much-needed dialogue between the sociology of knowledge and the historiography of collective memory and trauma in genocidal contexts. Savelsberg positions the act (or refusal) of genocide recognition as central to his study; he is specifically concerned with the internal and collective processes through which recognition of the Armenian genocide is performed by Armenians, Turks, and diasporic actors at the micro and macro levels. Using the Armenian genocide as a tool, Savelsberg prods the joints of this interdisciplinary discourse. Prioritizing group conflict over unity, the instability of collective knowledge, and epistemic power imbalances, Savelsberg exposes new perspectives on traditional sociological concepts (3). His own positionality as a German born in the post-WWII generation affords him sensitivity in navigating the mnemonic complexities of genocide knowledge and substantiates his reliance on analogical bridging central to his rhetorical approach.

Savelsberg’s agenda is multi-faceted and hard to summarize. In his view, the sociology of genocide knowledge is inherently linked to the construction of ethnic and national identity. Savelsberg explores how Armenian consciousness has metamorphosed from denial to acknowledgement while Turkish cultural memory has followed the inverted path. He claims that temporal distance, cultural processing, and independence from the Soviet Union has allowed Armenians to caulk intergenerational knowledge gaps and transcend their victim identity through recognition. Savelsberg then unpacks how the Turks, hoping to both cleanse their historical narrative of incriminating evidence and reconcile their own traumas (successive losses in the Ottoman-Russian and Balkan Wars followed by a fight for independence) seek national legitimacy through genocide denial. The Armenian-Turkish split is subsequently extended to the diaspora. This, in turn, demonstrates how international context and power dynamics necessarily color national epistemologies, particularly in the contemporary age of “human rights hegemony” (186).

Throughout the book, Savelsberg sidesteps notions of objective truth and evidence so fetishized by historical research. In plaiting analyses of sources like memoirs, media representations, interviews, ethnographic studies, and diary entries taken from myriad sociocultural positionalities and time periods, Savelsberg progressively decouples the Armenian genocide from temporal, spatial, and cultural fixity. Offering sweeping interpretations by synthesizing disparate studies, Savelsberg effectively exemplifies one of his main theses: while collective memory is constructed and sedimented into knowledge repertoires, such sedimentation remains vulnerable to coeval turbulence (208) necessarily stirred by what Maurice Halbwachs terms “presentism” (55).

As a sociologist, Savelsberg demonstrates how the simultaneity of multiple epistemic realities challenges positivist understandings of knowledge formation. In doing so, he situates knowledge about the Armenian genocide and its application by Armenians, Turks, and their diasporic communities as always “in the process of becoming,” (McKemmish 1994, 202), constantly shifting through time and space. Repeatedly evoking instances of what he identifies as “analogical bridging,” specifically the processes through which both the Armenians and Turks conflate Armenian genocide memory with that of the Holocaust, Savelsberg underscores this “process of becoming.” A particularly astonishing example serves as an emblem of this motif: Savelsberg introduces the Turkish word soykirim as applying to “both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, suggesting an equalization of both events” (215) in the collective conscience of contemporary Turkish denialists who attempt to dilute Turkish wrongdoing by upholding asynchronous European culpability. 

Savelsberg’s incorporation of contemporary developments in the sociology of Armenian genocide knowledge also injects “presentism” into the past and swells the Armenian genocide’s semantic radius. Just as the French Constitutional Council’s decision in 2012 not to criminalize genocide denial was believed by many prominent French Armenians to be indicative of broader political, economic, and international interests (159), the United States’ Griswold v. Driscoll defendants were primarily interested in “free speech issues, not in a statement about the Armenian genocide,” (176). By demonstrating how particular historical events are inevitably refracted into matters of universal and tangential importance, Savelsberg molds the Armenian genocide from a century old artifact into a cultural signifier. Ultimately, he discusses the sociology of Armenian genocide knowledge as a case study through which he examines how “the applicability of [the sociology of knowledge] to the social and cultural processing of mass violence” contributes to and is influenced by shifting trends in human rights epistemology on a broader scale (6).

In a contemporary sociopolitical climate that breeds essentialism, often reflected in academic scholarship, Savelsberg’s application of the sociology of knowledge approach is particularly refreshing in that it adamantly refuses to reify (the Armenian) genocide. As Roland Barthes argues in The Semiotic Challenge (1988), “there is always a meaning which overflows the object’s use,” (182). Indeed, when handled by Savelsberg, the Armenian genocide overflows its isolated importance, becoming a metaphysical record of the ever-changing international consciousness. 

To help tether the reader to the confines of the book, Savelsberg presents the “epistemic circle” (5). This successful mnemonic device makes visible the intermixing of everyday interactions among the masses and epistemic manipulation by “knowledge entrepreneurs” that constitutes knowledge formation. However, while Savelsberg effectively addresses the epistemic power of “knowledge entrepreneurs,” such as heads of government or organizations, at the macro level, he often gets carried away by this broad scope and fails to illuminate the day-to-day interactions, inner reflections, and stratified experiences of the ordinary people affected most by the Armenian Genocide. Savelsberg chooses to analyze sources that center the perspectives of government elites, intellectuals, and privileged Westerners, ignoring how knowledge is often mediated by factors such as gender, age, class, and rural-versus-urban. When outlining the role of rituals in constructing genocide knowledge, for example, he dedicates ten pages to a nationwide Armenian festival cycle attended by George Clooney and David Ignatius while spending only one paragraph discussing the “local rituals that supplement[ed] grand national events,” (128). The absence of intersectionality and bottom-up historiography in the book sometimes renders Savelsberg’s analysis biased.  

Despite this oversight, Knowing About Genocide impressively manages to pin down the sociology of Armenian genocide knowledge while simultaneously overflowing its specificity. To an unpracticed reader, the cadence of this discourse is rapid: a map of terminology begging for a legend. The book is best suited for students or scholars in the fields of memory studies, sociology, genocide studies, anthropology, and history who seek to contextualize the ways in which memory of the past is processed and honed in service of contemporary ethnic and national interests. The book will also interest readers of the general public who hope to better understand how issues of “fake news” and conflicting epistemic narratives develop and undermine contemporary mutual understanding. By establishing how knowledge repertoires are socioculturally constructed, Saveslberg persuasively contextualizes what Karl Mannheim (1954), founder of the sociology of knowledge, calls “talking past each other”: for members of different social groups, argues Mannheim, a concrete issue has “a more or less different meaning because it grows out of the whole of their respective frames of reference,” (251). It is only by recognizing these frames of reference, as Savelsberg encourages his readers to do, that challenges to contemporary genocide denial can be imagined.   

Emily Benoff

University of California, Los Angeles

Emily Benoff is a Candidate for the Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. She specializes in archival studies, with research interests in critical archival theory, community archives, and the relationship(s) between archives and place. 


Barthes, Roland. The Semiotic Challenge. New York: Hill & Wang, 1988.

Mannheim, K(1954). Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Harcourt, Brace, & Co., Inc.

McKemmish, Sue. “Are Records Ever Actual?” In The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, edited by Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggot, 187-203. Clayton: Ancora Press, 1994.

Savelsberg, Joachim J. Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles. Oakland: University of California Press. 2021.