Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 321–341 | Cite as

‘The return of things as they were’: New humanitarianism, restitutive desire and the politics of unrectifiable loss



The current proliferation of restitutive claims in response to expropriation in armed conflicts occurs at the interstices of humanitarianism and transitional justice. Restitution indicates the expansion of the humanitarian mandate from providing immediate relief to those who have suffered loss, to engaging in remedial, redressive and restorative practices. That intersection between the humanitarian goals and post-conflict justice is one of the signs of ‘new’ forms and ethos of humanitarianism. This article offers a critical reading of the ‘restitutive desire’ underpinning the humanitarian restitutive politics, which it relates to political fantasies of reversibility and undoing. It locates the genealogy of restitution in Émile Durkheim’s work on the division of labour, individualization and the distinction between repressive and restitutive law. It argues that in the Durkheimian socio-legal tradition restitution figures as a return of ‘matters to their former status’ and of ‘disturbed relationships to their normal form’. It then turns to Sigmund Freud’s essay on Daniel Schreber, which defines restitution not as procedure of undoing, but as a reparative practice that nevertheless affirms the subject’s ‘catastrophic loss of the world’. The Freudian perspective uncouples restitution and undoing and asks about the possibility of restitutive politics haunted by unrectifiable loss.


restitution undoing new humanitarianism unrectifiable loss Émile Durkheim Sigmund Freud 


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Social JusticeAustralian Catholic UniversityNorth SydneyAustralia

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