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.