Gil Anidjar: Because I’m trained as a literary critic, one of the first things that of course I had to do was to to go to the OED and check on the etymology, usage, of the word “disposable.” Now, as is completely obvious, to dispose is to pose/dispose, that particular combination: posing, reposing, etc., it goes back all the way to Latin. There’s a famous proverb, “Man proposes, or purposes, and God disposes.” So that the term in itself is obviously quite old and it has a history that is found in all the Latin languages.
But in usages of dispose, disposition, disposing, there is always a question of putting in order, and putting things in their place. Which also means of course having the power to do so. There is one minor— I’m not going to go into the details of the OED entry, but anyone can look at that. There is a moment where disposing does mean to get rid of. But this is not by any means one of the main usages. And the adjective “disposable…” The adjective disposable is actually dated by the OED to 1943.
And I thought there was a certain irony given the context of what we’re talking about, namely disposable lives, there was a certain irony to the fact that Raphael Lemkin came up with the term “genocide” in 1943; it was published in 1944. And the first usage that the OED lists is I believe “disposable diapers,” something which has an interesting kind of proximity between the living thing and the non-living thing, yes? Diapers. They immediately evoke care, right.
So the thing about the disposable, though, is that it seems, as in the expression “disposable lives…” As I was thinking about what I was going to talk about when you asked me to participate, my first impulse was to go bibliographic. And to think about ways in which the emphasis on lives… I mean, it’s one thing to ask why disposable? But then the second thing is why lives? How about objects? I’ll get to this in a moment, but my first bibliographic impulse was to actually wonder about the people who have been talking to us about the means, the kind of instruments—whether they are political instruments; legal instruments; technological instruments; economic instruments, obviously—that have made it possible to speak of disposability. And for now, staying with the question of disposable lives.
And so the people I thought about was the journalist Nick Turse, who actually writes about drones—we were talking earlier about drones. Who writes about what he calls “The Complex,” and the multiplicity of ways in which American culture (if the term is appropriate) is suffused with military economic…not thinking, but actually…activity, right. So one of the striking examples is that the movie Iron Man has a budget that is covered by something like 50% by the US Air Force. It’s really something quite extraordinary, yes, that the— Or Starbucks. Starbucks (we’ll talk about Starbucks in a little while) has three, not one, but three little shops on Guantanamo Bay. So that you can order a vanilla soy latte with or without sweetener at any corner, apparently, of the base.
So, Turse talks about that. Mary Kaldor tells us about the “new wars,” and I think that’s something that we need to take into account. Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils explains in fact very much how disposable lives are produced by way of technology, of calculation, that makes it possible to dismiss a certain number of death. I love the part where he talks about this guy who was working for the Pentagon and then ends up working for Human Rights Watch and was in charge of planning the bombing operations that were meant to kill Saddam Hussein. And apparently the number that they had come up with as far as civilian casualty for every attempt to kill Saddam Hussein was twenty-nine. Don’t know why twenty-nine but that was the number.
If I remember correctly there were seven attempts to actually bomb Saddam Hussein himself, and apparently every time they killed just around twenty-nine people. So by the time this guy was working for Human Rights Watch, he goes and actually assesses the damage and realizes that every carefully-planned operation whereby a certain number of casualty is permissible of course gets proliferated by virtue of political decisions. And then you have seven times twenty-nine people who died, and Saddam Hussein escaped with no problem.
The other bibliographic reference—again, I’m not sure this is the most interesting way of getting to the topic although these are interesting books that I’m trying to mention, is Joseph Masco on The Nuclear Borderlands, who mentions something which again by way of kind of interesting trivia…and terrifying trivia, is the fact that the United States is actually the most nuclear-bombed-out country in the world. There were 940, I believe, bombs that were exploded on the continental United States, by way of testing. But as you know, when an atomic bomb explodes the test is not so much a test, it’s already the whole thing.
And so the question of how much radiation was produced, how much damage was done, how many people were hurt, how much environment was damaged, all this is part of disposability. Which just to reiterate is one of the ways in which I would want to interrogate the emphasis on lives, right. Because disposability is something that actually implicates, by way of a kind of network of destruction, implicates something more.
And then I was thinking of course of Sven Lindqvist on the history of bombing and the kind of legal instruments that were produced in order to make it possible to really annihilate all kinds of populations, like the invention of air bombing as a practice that gets regulated by international law but of course never forbidden. And the limitation of course is always a kind of ludicrous ploy that makes it possible for those who have the technology to of course use it and abuse it, if the distinction even make sense in this context.
And of course, Zygmunt Bauman’s work on wasted lives, on modernity and the Holocaust, is something that I kept thinking about.
But for some reason this morning a friend of mine reminded me of Hannah Arendt on worldlessness. And I thought that I would just read a few sentences. Because she actually, when she describes worldlessness in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she points to something that is very interesting. The basic point is that people have to be made superfluous in order for them to be then vulnerable to elimination.
But the way in which they are made superfluous she says, is not necessarily new. So she talks about the loss of home. The loss of the entire social texture into which they are born. The loss of a distinct place in the world. But the loss of home, she says, is not unprecedented. She says it’s far from unprecedented in the long memory of history, where forced migration of individuals, whole groups of people were everyday occurrences. She says what is unprecedented—and I’m reading verbatim, “What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one.”
So it’s not so much the loss of a world. It’s the fact that the loss of a world is absolute, right. So worldlessness is not simply the destruction of your world, it’s the destruction of the world. The world is no longer habitable. That is what worldlessness means, and that is what Arendt insists is actually new.
She also says that the new refugees—again, refugee being in fact a new term for an old phenomenon. “New refugees were persecuted not because of what they had done or thought, but because of what they unchangeably were…” And here all of us think about race, but she actually makes a point of saying this is not just about race. “…because of what they unchangeably were born into. The wrong kind of race, or the wrong kind of class, or the wrong kind of government.”
Now, with the current state of the world, I think it is clear that based on where you grew up and where the government of the state you happen to be in is based on its role in the geopolitical game, then clearly you are doomed to a worldlessness that is particularly acute. And I think that we don’t want to flatten— You and I were talking earlier about this flattening. I think that one of the ways not to flatten worldlessness, or disposability, is to recognize the different ways in which although one may suffer, one is not necessarily sort of completely robbed and deprived of any world, right. One can think of somewhere else to go. As we know, even the people who manage to escape say, Afghanistan, are not exactly going to the land of milk and honey, if I may be forgiven that particular reference.
And then, and this is where I think—is an Arendtian moment where I think I would want to part with the issue of disposable lives. I mean, while maintaining it as a perspective. This is what he says: “The more the number…” I forgot to mention that the whole conversation here is in the context of human rights, of course, right. Which is precisely what human rights produce. People who are in fact completely abandoned, yes, in Agamben’s term. “The more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting governments than to the status of the persecuted.”
And I think this is really the danger in which we find ourselves. I mean, we’ve heard zillions of times that we are in a period of victimology, right. That victimology is the dominant discourse. I think it takes many many forms. And I think that we have to remember that one of the ways again, not to flatten the situation, is not to think simply of the ways in which people are made vulnerable. Not the ways in which all of our lives are by now disposable—and again I’ll say a word about the role of the economy here in this. But I do think that there are different means that are deployed in different places, and that leave a different set of options, or rather no option at all. And these demands—and I think that’s what Arendt is telling us here—these demands that we actually pay attention to the governments, right, to sovereignty, or to whatever has replaced it, of failed to replace it, but nonetheless is still able to exercise a fundamentally asymmetric form of population management—disposability of course already being implied in that very phrase.
So, one of the things I wanted to put Arendt in contact with, and in the context of human rights I don’t think it’s a stretch, and obviously other people have done this before me, is of course Marx on the commodity. The fact that the commodity appears precisely as wordless. It’s precisely because we don’t have access, or we seem not to have access, or we are locked in relation to the commodity, that we forget that it is in a relation to us already. A relation that goes beyond by far the particular purchase that we have made, or the particular role that we may have played in the circuit.
So, if we think of the role of the commodity, which of course is the first technically disposable thing, yes? It was the diaper and then it moves on to pretty much anything. And if we connect the disposability of the commodity with commodity fetishism, namely with the invisibility of social relations that are in the commodity, then we may think of disposability as a general situation which, as Arendt describes, requires that we pay attention to those whose world has been completely annihilated. And not only that, but to those who have the power to completely deprive someone and something of world. The point being that it’s the possibility for no world to be available that is new.
One of the issues of course in disposability is planned obsolescence. It’s also the fact that we are able to relate by law, yes, by law, to that which we consume as something entirely different than what it is. Let me begin with this. This is a bottle that… Well, the line here says very clearly “helping children get clean water.” You buy a bottle of water. That in itself helps children get clean water. This is a humanitarian bottle. Žižek of course has spoken at length about this humanitarian consumerism. But I do think that what’s important is the way in which it effaces the colonization of springs by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola and whatever other companies.
But I would want to also take into account this wonderful, again, piece of information I learned when I watched Super Size Me back a few years ago, that McDonald’s doesn’t sell food, right. McDonald’s doesn’t claim to sell food. There is no nutritional value that is in fact part of the social contract that McDonald’s has with its customers. That is an extraordinary thing. That is the disposability of whatever is in the McDonald’s [product]. But also—and we could talk about genetically engineered potatoes, etc. But also the fact that what is called “food” is not food. What we call and consume as food is not food. That is one of the ways in which we are made worldless.
Of course, the McBurger, or whatever it’s called, is in itself worldless as well. But we are surrounded, in other words, by disposability. We ourselves have become worldless as a result of something that I think is not just a commodity, not just capitalism, but really extends to a general way of thinking.
So Joseph Masco, who actually writes on the bomb, also wrote about the importance of the notion of side-effect when thinking about medication. The fact that you can be prescribed a pure piece of poison, yes. It’s poison. But that which is poison is called a side-effect. Because it may also have a beneficial moment, right. Just, by the way, as this water is perfectly refreshing and hydrating at the very same moment as it is enveloped in the plastic that will not disappear for God knows how many hundreds of years.
So the very fact of this presumed ambivalence, “Yes, but look, the technology is also giving us good things,” is part of the side-effect logic. The fact that there’s a good thing. There are hospitals for the bombs that have maimed you. There are hospitals for the mines that we have planted in your territory. Of course, as Eyal Weizman explains, collateral damage is part of this logic whereby again, disposability is related to a logic whereby the good thing, right— You can now carry your bottle of water, you can get hydrated no matter where you are. The advantage becomes the means of making invisible that which is fundamentally destructive of world, and makes that world the only world.
And this is where I think it’s important. Whether or not we have access to water as a health expansion, right. We are now more conscious of our health, and therefore we have water in bottles, and therefore we are less likely to die of dehydration. But of course the damage that is done is that there is no other world to which we can go. So it’s technically worldlessness as Arendt means it. Namely there is no other world to go. So that which we have achieved by hydrating ourselves is not worth the price because it destroys any possibility of a world where we could run away to.
What I want to end on, though, is that the emphasis on lives in “disposable lives” runs the risk of one, continuing, in however sophisticated a way, on the current victimology. And on failing in the way Arendt tells us. Namely that we have to recognize that there are those, and they may or may not be nameable as such, but I believe if we actually adopt as a definition for sovereignty, those who have the ability to make world disappear, then we are not done with sovereignty. And we must look at it as something that is otherwise than vanishing. As something that continues to in fact make the world disappear, in such a way that is not comparable to what used to happen when extermination, which apparently is a favorite human practice, just like murder is a favorite human practice except it so happens that not everybody is actually a murderer, yes? Not everybody is a genocidal maniac. As you know in Europe, not everybody is even a genocidal nation. Only the Germans and the Serbs, for some reason, are. The others, apparently, are not.
So aside from the distribution of genocidal responsibility, I think there’s also a distribution of genocidal agency. Those who have, and have exercised the power, to eradicate the old, to eradicate the world for others. Sometimes for themselves but I’m sorry if I don’t feel as much compassion in this particular case. Those who are able to destroy world, these are the ones we need to pay attention to. Not those whose world has disappeared, and is disappearing.
I’m not saying, of course, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with subjectivities of the oppressed. But we have to recognize the way in which a kind of sovereignty of world annihilation is very much at work, is very much surrounding us. And one of the ways in which it operates is precisely by making the world disappear. Which means also making itself invisible.