Étienne Balibar: It’s not the case of course that any contemporary philosopher or professor of philosophy has been particularly dealing with questions of political theory. I never thought about violence. But I want to recall the moment in which I specifically started to systematically work on that. And this was in the mid-90s, if you like.
So for our listeners or our audience to get an idea, this was after the Rwanda genocide. This was when the ethnic cleansing and the wars in Yugoslavia were in their full fury, and when people in Europe discovered with anxiety and almost terror that eliminations of whole groups or populations could take place in Europe even after years or decades after the end of World War II, contradicting such slogans as “Never Again,” similar to what was taking place in other continents.
And in my case there was something which also was particularly important. I had very direct and close links with people and places in Latin America, and especially in the “Southern Cone” as they call it, the Cono Sur of Latin America, which is Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. And so this was when the tragedy of the dictatorial regimes, and the killings of militants, and the terror regimes was barely finished. I mean, it was finished, officially, but people started to deal with the aftereffects of all that, and I was discussing that with Latin American friends.
And so a category that was used at the time by some people in Latin America was brought to my attention through a friend with whom I collaborated on this, Bertrand Ogilvie. And in Spanish that would be “poblacion chatarra.” So we looked for an equivalent of that. And we found something like “disposable population,” a population that can be eliminated. And so the connection with the problem of superfluous people in Arendt, which other contemporary philosophers like Agamben and others established on their own grounds, I personally started to discuss and reflect on and elaborate on the basis of that play on words, if you like, or that similarity: the superfluous people that Arendt had been mentioning and discussing, and the poblacion chatarra, the disposable people, from Latin America on the other side.
Right from the beginning, this appeared as— Well, it was of course a very offensive category, which raises the question on which I tried to work for years now of not only violence, the function of violence in history and politics, and the many manifestations of violence which surround us; but the question of extreme violence. And so when I am asked about that, and I’m sure we’ll return on that of course, the initial reaction of people is always, “What do you mean ‘extreme violence?’ Does that just mean that violence has reached a very high level? And how do you measure? I mean, the grades of violence and the difference between something like normal violence, or inevitable violence, and extreme violence?”
And of course I answer this is not a question that you can answer with a measurable criterion. It’s a qualitative notion, but it has something to do with the fact that both Arendt and the Latin American people I was telling you [about] were trying to address, namely the fact that a threshold has been crossed whereso I will use moral, almost metaphysical terms. I mean, we’re no longer within the human, or we have reached a point where the inhuman in a sense penetrates or invades the human itself. So what does that mean? What do we mean by that? Is it just that we feel helpless, or that we don’t know longer how to theorize and how to react? That’s a big question.
But then the second issue that was linked with that (and I keep thinking about it and find it at the same time important and problematic or difficult), is the kind of violences that we may want to label extreme (I sometimes use cruelty, etc.), that is, crossing that kind of threshold and therefore making every sort of moral or political reaction extremely uncertain and perhaps ambivalent, is taking place in different forms—very heterogeneous forms. It has different roots, so to speak. The very language of causes and roots is also at stake here.
But to put it very brutally, in the world in which we live we seem to observe that this threshold is crossed on the one side when certain groups or institutions (states, nations, parties, religious forces), proposedly, so to speak, try to eliminate others as such. Or reduce them to an infrahuman status, like the Nazis did for the Jews, but there are other examples of course at different scale.
So this seems to be purposeful, because there is a rationale, because there is a whole discourse. The Jews are threatening the German identity. They’re threatening the Christian or modern or European civilization from the inside. They are extremely malicious, malignant, and and dangerous. And racism in general seems to work like that, etc.
And on the other hand you have, and of course the Latin American dictatorships were doing that, labeling their victims communists and so on. And the communists did it, labeling, in some cases labeling the—
But then there’s another type of extreme violence which the name or the category “disposable life” or disposable…yes, “dispose” seems to invoke, which is anonymous. Of course, you can in a second degree, in a second order discourse, you can build a rationale. You can say for example, capitalism, or imperialism, or neoliberalism is an extremely violent system which measures the value of lives according to a single criterion of profit, profitability, etc. And so the world today for example, is full of people who are unnecessary for that purpose.
And therefore, one way or another, the system eliminates them. So, never directly. You will never find an organization which says, “Let’s suppress 10% of the African population today because they’re unnecessary.” But you will have a combination of anonymous processes where contagious diseases, starving and extreme poverty, and different forms of miserable conditions of life lead in fact to processes of elimination. So that creates— And of course the idea of disposable life is an ambiguous notion that oscillates, I would say, between these two extremes.
Violence reaches extremities both inasmuch as it remains invisible. Or is pushed back so to speak into invisibility. Or it is staged and rendered I wouldn’t say too visible but extremely visible. But the first point is very important. I mean the invisibility. Because… Well, I’m sorry if this sounds like very commonplace. I hope it doesn’t sound demagogic. But an important part of the extreme forms of violence in our world, some of which trace back to immemorial times: domestic violence against women and children, generally speaking, vulnerable people. Or handicapped, etc. Some of which is more directly produced by the contemporary kind of economy. I mean the destruction of the environment and therefore the resources in Africa or other places. A huge part of that is totally invisible. And its invisibility is certainly one of the conditions which makes it possible to cross the threshold, I would say.
So you might be, depending on who you are of course, sometimes irritated when a militant feminist writes something like, “Wait a minute. You’re telling us about the victims of this or that regime etc. You’re ignoring the fact that both in the south and the north, women are killed on a daily basis, always by their husbands or their ex-husbands, etc. And this is not only taking place in Pakistan, it’s also taking place in America and France and Britain. And the figures are huge.”
And that’s a form of extreme violence, exactly in the sense that I was suggesting. Because one of the criteria that I proposed in my lectures at Irvine in ’96, which is qualitative criterion, is not measurable. It’s violence which actually, or almost (you never know), makes resistance impossible, before which victims, if you like, are in fact defenseless. Especially because resisting violence is almost never fully possible as an individual process. You resist with others. And if you manage to entirely isolate the victim of a violent process of and harming and injuring and all that, you practically suppress the possibility for resis— So that’s not the elimination of the Jews. It’s a totally diff— Let’s not put everything in the same basket. But it’s again a situation in which resistance proves in fact impossible or almost impossible. And you have to be very careful and examine the situation. And the invisibility of the process is a massive condition for that.
We need a category that makes it possible for us to account for that generalized circulation of different forms of violence. So, we don’t want to just have a classification, you know. On one side, dangerous terrorists and counter-terrorists who are almost as dangerous or perhaps even more. And on the other side we have the effects of global warming, which in the near future will eliminate, like it or not, important populations. So we need a category that asks the question about the connections.
And we also need—I’m convinced of that, so that’s perhaps the difference with some other contemporary philosophers. We need to differentiate. I mean, we need to distinguish. We need to take into account, I would say, that heterogeneity. And to take into account the heterogeneity of the processes, if you like, is also necessary because it prevents us—so I’m taking a position here. It prevents us from assessing a single, absolute, and inevitably in the end metaphysical cause, you know. Which, even if it’s not called like that is more or less a synonym for the traditional category of evil. So that’s either intolerance, or it’s capitalism. But in the end it’s that evil, single thing that produces violence in our lives, and for that reason we should try and eliminate. So eliminating the eliminators.