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.