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.

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