Book review: Making Whole What Has Been Smashed

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a review of Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics by John Torpey, published in the American Journal of Sociology 114(1):256-258, 2008.
Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2008. Review of Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, by John Torpey. American Journal of Sociology 114(1):256-258, 2008.

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed by John Torpey deals with the emergence and cross-national spread of reparations politics in various contexts. Written in the form of a extended essay, the book urges a rethinking of the process and outcomes of reparations politics in a select number of cases on the basis of a model that ponders the sociological conditions of reparations. As indicated by the book's subtitle, however, Torpey's study is not conceived as a formal test of a theory but instead seeks to provide sociologically informed reflections useful to the discourse on reparation politics.

Torpey situates the contemporary dimensions of reparations politics in the discussions surrounding the various ways of “coming to terms with the past” that have ignited or been revived since the collapse of communism and the gradual erosion of the nation-state. Seeking compensation for past injustices, demanding reparations, and urging for a formal apology and/or monetary redress, reparation politics has waned somewhat since the events of 9/11, but it has nonetheless remained on the political scene. The cases are varied, including, for example, the reconciliation efforts in postapartheid South Africa, the case of compensation for the Japanese internments in the United States and Canada, reparations for slavery in the United States, and, providing the master model, the claims raised by the survivors of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. In what is probably Torpey's most provocative argument, he maintains that reparations politics entails a distinct break with the progressive politics associated with the Enlightenment, inasmuch as reparations politics is not future oriented but, instead, tailored for an age of diminished expectations. Rather than formulating a forward-looking vision of human coexistence, reparations politics is focused on the past as it continues to influence the present and establish the preconditions of any future. Reparations politics is a prime manifestation of postutopian thinking.

Torpey first situates the idea of reparations politics in a selective history of philosophical thinking on the relevance of the past. The title of Torpey's book derives from Walter Benjamin's allegory on the working-up of the past as an effort at “making whole what has been smashed,” although progress inevitably moves us further and further into the future. In our age, the experience of Nazism has been the most formative episode, setting in motion an avalanche of history in many parts of the world. But history is not reworked in a vacuum. Instead, reparations politics also relies on “entrepreneurs of memory,” who include an array of actors, such as human rights activists, therapists dealing with trauma, historians, educators, legal professionals, and the activist injured.

Among the significant transformations of reparations politics in more recent times has been a shift from reparations involving states, typically arising immediately following a period of warfare (e.g., the obligations imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty), to cases involving both states and nonstate actors, who are usually subnational groups united by their common experience of a historical injustice. Reparations politics takes place within a field that involves at least four forms: transitional justice policies aimed at the development of mature democracies, compensation in symbolic and economic forms, admissions of regret and formal apologies, and deliberate efforts to keep the past alive in the form of exercises in memory, such as museums and memorials.

On the basis of this suggestive model, Torpey analyzes three specific cases. In the case of the internment of Japanese people in Canada and the United States during World War II, the story is one that points toward the possible, albeit slowly achieved, success of reparations politics. In the late 1980s, both the U.S. and Canadian governments enacted redress by law for the suffering inflicted on their respective Japanese citizens. In the case of reparations for African-Americans in the United States, the matter is much more complicated and uncertain. Originating in the radical black power movement in the 1960s, the campaign for reparations for slavery and segregation has been reinvigorated, while, simultaneously, affirmative action policies have fallen in disfavor. Focused primarily on monetary redress, the case for slave reparations in the United States not only has been vigorously opposed by some in the majority population but also remains a contested issue among the descendants of slaves. With respect to southern Africa, finally, Torpey analyzes the cases of the Herero reparations campaign in Namibia and the postapartheid reconciliation process in South Africa. The Herero demands, concerning reparations for the German atrocities that were committed against that group in the years before World War I, have been presented through lawsuits filed in U.S. courts, but without much success. In postpartheid South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been so significant on a number of fronts that it has now taken on the role of a model for other reparations movements. The South African case has been advanced on a broad front, seeking commemorative reparations, monetary redress, and efforts to promote African identity. As with similar movements, however, the outcomes have not always been clear.

It is both acceptable and wise for sociologists to occasionally write a book on rather than about something. Torpey has made a useful effort in this genre of writing, which sociologists, in part because of their trained incapacities, undertake too infrequently. Also, unlike the unfocused ramblings that some sociologists occasionally engage in when they suddenly—much to their own surprise—move away from technical academic writing into the world of publicly relevant discourse, Torpey has written on reparations politics in a manner that is both informed by scholarship and usefully oriented toward influencing relevant thinking. More problematic, perhaps, are his somewhat too-sweeping claims on the political rather than the economic conditions of reparations politics. Besides a juridification of politics, the monetarization of politics and law, as well as of culture, may be more relevant than Torpey recognizes. Be it symbolic or economic, reparations are about getting something. For example, irrespective of its singularity, the Holocaust is also used as hard cash by those who know how to deal. And what Marx once called the jealous god of Israel now has become the world's god. This pecuniary foundation is part of the drive behind the memory and reparations industry of today. In any case, Torpey has profitably unraveled some of the relevant dimensions and conditions that can make us think on reparations politics.

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