Griselda Pollock: I’m going to approach the subject of disposable life from several points of view. I’m an art historian. I’m also someone who works in cultural studies. And at the intersection of the politics of art or literature or film and political theory, I’ve been thinking about disposable life through a number of lenses, particularly through work on the Holocaust and work that I’ve been doing with Max Silverman on a slightly different element of it called “concentrationary memory.”
So the other day I was asked to talk to some 15 year‐olds from a school nearby in the region of the university, because two days earlier on the 27th of of January we had observed, as the United Nations has mandated, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Memorial Day. The question I was putting to them is why should they, why should you, remember the Holocaust so many decades after it, so remote now in the middle of the 20th century? Even though it took till 2005 for the United Nations to make it an international obligation for education and schools, as well as nations and cultures, to take on the remembrance of the victims.
So the 27th of January marks the moment at which the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz, a complex of several camps, some of which were dedicated to mass murder, genocide; some of which involved prisoners being taken in as slave laborers. There’s a wonderful poem by a French political prisoner who was sent first to Auschwitz, about the whole process of arriving at Auschwitz. It’s called “Arrivals and Departures.” And Charlotte Delbo, the poet, describes the experience, the ordinary experience of travel: you go on a train; you arrive at a station; just as you arrive, other people are leaving. So there’s a sense of movement, arrival and departure. And she says there was a strange station just named Auschwitz, which is a station that leads you to Hell because there is no arriving, but also when you arrive you leave. Ultimately you will die in some form, or that was the plan.
And she speaks of the way that the people prepared themselves for the arrival. They prepared themselves for the worst and not the unthinkable. So the first issue is what is this unthinkable nature of mass murder or enslavement which led to attrition of people’s lives through starvation, through torture, through overwork, through emaciation, through being reduced to being what Primo Levi, an inmate of one of the Auschwitz camps, called a walking corpse, where the humanity is literally eaten away from within by the forms of extreme destitution to which the body is subjected. So the core of the process of the concentrationary is not mass murder, mass destruction, but a form of destruction of the human, within the human, while they are still living.
So, I asked the children to think a little bit about genocide, the mass murder, but also about this process of dehumanization. Because I wanted to make a leap for them between something so extreme, so unthinkable, as Charlotte Delbo presents it, so that the whole world is called upon to remember this crime against humanity. I wanted them to think about whether this had any impact in daily life. Were there forms of violence, or forms of this practice of making life—human life—disposable, diminished, reduced, that they took any part in? And I asked them about things like cyberbullying. I asked them about the current uses of Twitter or of social media, where one group feels better by ganging up on another individual who is made to feel as if they are different, apart, reduced. And to understand the implications of forms of bullying that don’t lead to mass industrial destruction such as the Holocaust, but may lead a young person to their own destruction—to suicide. Did they take any responsibility for this chain, in a sense, of relations between gross crimes against humanity that we mark by remembrance, and constant daily erosions of the rights to life, safety, and dignity of ordinary people around us?
And schools are obviously a place where we worry deeply about all sorts of aspects of this. And increasingly how that mentality which sets people to participate in a kind of passive or even sometimes active verbal violence, and we need to think, are these forms of violence that reduce life, that create a new kind of disposable life, even if the person themselves takes their own life, but they have in a sense been killed socially, effective, emotionally, and psychologically.
So from that I moved on to thinking about a different kind of violence that the philosopher Adriana Cavarero has developed and named as “horrorism.” Horrorism is different from terrorism. Horrorism is not what makes us draw up and try to run away from. It glues us to the spot. It makes the hair on our heads stand up from something so repugnant, so horrific, that we are forced to confront. And the crime of horrorism that she identifies as the form of contemporary violence is a crime against the vulnerable. It’s different from those who declare war on each other or even have a motivation for saying, “You are my enemy,” whether it is a formal war or an informal war such as we have in some sense under the rubric of contemporary terrorism.
Horrorism is violence against the unarmed. And it is a violence she calls an ontological crime. That’s to say a crime against the being of another. Not just the being of another as a group but the being of another in their human singularity, which is particularly inscribed in some sense in the face. And this is why she draws our attention to the horrors, in a sense, of suicide bombing, of this whole process of simply placing an incredibly violent device that can shred bodies in places where people are going about their daily life, are simply seeking to have a life, and find themselves destroyed in ways that are horrific. Because when a bomb goes off, it literally renders the flesh of another body a pulp. But interestingly it believes the heads intact. And so we find this horrific image of the medusa, of the face which has been made a sort of image of horror in our culture remain in a sense as the sight of this singular crime against the ontological right to be of another.
And I want to put Adriana Cavarero’s indictment of this new kind of crime, this extension of what Hannah Arendt defined when she studied the totalitarianism of the period of fascism in the middle of the 20th century, this ontological crime against humanity but against the humanity of the single individual, in relation to what we could imagine is an antidote. And I draw from certain kinds of feminist studies the possibility of asking us to think, how do we resist this creeping effect of violence against and production of disposable life against individuals, from children, to peoples, to shoppers, to people going about their lives, to even the ordinary people struggling for instance in contemporary Syria? And how do we think about our responsibility to resist that?
So I draw into the conversation an Israeli artist who is also a psychoanalyst, and a sort of philosopher of her own through art and psychoanalysis, called Bracha Ettinger, who has written a beautiful series of studies about the notion of compassion. Because when we mobilize against violence, most of our theories suggest that human beings are formed in some sense by an act of violence—the resistance of the baby when it first separates itself from the mother by an act of violence; biting the nipple or rejecting the other.
And Bracha Ettinger wants to say we’ll never resource a means of resisting the violence that is along this long long chain, from extreme violence to daily incidental, diminishing—diminution of the human dignity, the ontological essence of another person—their singularity. We’ll never resist that til we mobilize some other kinds of psychological resources. And this is what she proposes as a primary compassion. She hypothesizes that human subjectivity is created in a different kind of relationship to another, which actually wills the other to live beside me. Now, there’s a very deep feminist psychoanalytical argument—I’m going to lay it out. But the central point that she makes is that compassion is the primary condition for peace. But peace is not simply the cessation of violence. It’s a much deeper act of daily creation which requires us not to let perpetrators—those who do violence to us—to deprive us of the resources with which we will resist the kind of model of human action that perpetration represents.
So I want to just read one brief statement from her about this, just to offer it up as a means of thinking through this concept of violence or of compassion in seeing it as a resource that we have to propose. She writes, “Compassion is not only a basis for responsibility. It is also the originary event of peace. And peace is a fragile encounter-event[ing]. Something that we ever have to recreate but cocreate. From the point of view of compassion peace is not in dialogue with war. I do not have to feel empathy for my perpetrators, nor do I have to understand them, but this does not mean that I will hand to them the mandate to destroy my own compassion, which is one of the channels for accessing a relation to someone who is not me but with whom I wish to share this planet.”
So it seems to me that there’s a range of people who are seeking to reconfigure not merely the analysis of all the sites of violence from these gross acts that we associate with genocides or with the concentrationary totalitarian assault on human life that was sustained in the camps, and not just the incidental acts that we neglect by neglecting the need of the other. In our search to counter violence we need to create from somewhere the resources to mobilize the concept of peace. And peace is concerned with how to live beside and with an other whose life we wish to continue. This idea of coinhabiting the planet with others, not merely in a kind of act of tolerance but actually profoundly encompassing their right to life, their right to singularity as part and parcel of what would make me human.
So when we struggle with this question, is violence the moment in which we produce the most fundamental crime against humanity, which is to dehumanize an other, it’s not just the treatment of the other, it’s the position in which we hold someone who is not me in relation to their humanity, which is ultimately the absolute condition of my being able to say that I too am human.