Max Silverman: I take the term dis­pos­able lives to mean not sim­ply the killing of peo­ple but the strip­ping away of every­thing that con­sti­tutes a per­son­’s human­i­ty. This of course is noth­ing new. Lives have always been dis­pos­able. Barbarous acts have always tak­en place. Innocent men, women, and chil­dren have always been slaugh­tered or con­signed to the dust heap of human life. 

But my approach to the ques­tion of dis­pos­able lives is this: In an age of late cap­i­tal­ism, advanced tech­nol­o­gy, and mass media, are lives eas­i­er to dis­pose of now than in the past? And my response is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, yes it is eas­i­er now. And this isn’t sim­ply because of the tech­nol­o­gy that is avail­able today that sim­ply was­n’t avail­able in the past. It’s also because we’ve become less and less aware of the changed envi­ron­ment in which dis­pos­ing of lives takes place, and the forms the dis­pos­abil­i­ty takes, so that we no longer rec­og­nize what is star­ing us in the face. 

In fact, I think that this is prob­a­bly the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing about dis­pos­abil­i­ty today. It does­n’t sim­ply hap­pen in dic­ta­tor­ships or under total­i­tar­i­an regimes. It’s not writ­ten clear­ly on the tin, Beware: evil mon­ster at work,” so that we know what to expect. Disposing of lives can be done, is being done, in the name of progress, democ­ra­cy, free­dom, choice, effi­cien­cy, and many oth­er admirable terms. It pig­gy­backs on what we take to be nor­mal­i­ty. This is per­haps what is tru­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, the fact that the forms of dis­pos­abil­i­ty have changed, but our aware­ness has not kept pace. So we’re more and more cut off from the real­i­ty of dis­pos­able lives. 

And just as ter­ri­fy­ing, it often seems that we don’t have the nec­es­sary tools to iden­ti­fy and resist the forms that dis­pos­abil­i­ty takes today. The tools that would expose what is hid­den, hid­den in plain sight, and reveal to us the Matrix-like cocoon in which we live, which inures us to the real­i­ty of dis­pos­able lives today. And if we don’t have the tools, if we don’t know how to read the signs of dis­pos­abil­i­ty today, then our human­i­ty is tru­ly at risk. The German polit­i­cal philoso­pher Hannah Arendt showed us that the strip­ping away of some­one’s human­i­ty is ulti­mate­ly a banal act. Evil can be banal, and hor­ror can mas­quer­ade as every­day life. We need to be able to see one in the other. 

My col­league at the University of Leeds, Griselda Pollock, and I have been run­ning a research project over the last few years called Concentration Memories and the Politics of Representation. This project starts from the premise that the new and rad­i­cal tech­niques for dis­pos­ing of lives intro­duced by the Nazis in the Second World War did not dis­ap­pear with the defeat of Germany in 1945 but per­sist today in dif­fer­ent forms and in dif­fer­ent places, if only we knew where to look and what to look for. We sug­gest that we do need new tools to detect what is there under our nose.

So we start­ed the project by look­ing at a film that we thought could pro­vide us with these tools. And this is the clas­sic French film about the con­cen­tra­tion camps by the French direc­tor Alain Resnais enti­tled Night and Fog. In 1955, when this film was made, the hor­rors of the camps were already being pushed to the back of con­scious­ness. But one of the major achieve­ments of the film is not sim­ply that it brings back what is slow­ly but sure­ly being for­got­ten, but that it makes us see through the shiny real­i­ty of post-war con­sumer soci­ety and sug­gests that this is a facade hid­ing a dif­fer­ent reality. 

The film ques­tions the truth of what we see by sug­gest­ing that the sur­face hides a more ter­ri­fy­ing real­i­ty. It makes us read the present as traces of a buried past. It gives us the deci­pher­ing tools that make the invis­i­ble vis­i­ble. And it sug­gests that if we do not learn to read the present as symp­to­matic of a changed land­scape, then the same hor­rors will go unchecked and unchallenged. 

This approach to read­ing and under­stand­ing the becalmed sur­face of post-war soci­ety in the West is derived large­ly from the crit­i­cal writ­ings of one of Resnais’ col­lab­o­ra­tors on the film, the sur­re­al­ist poet and for­mer inmate at Mauthausen con­cen­tra­tion camp, Jean Cayrol. Cayrol talks of the need of what he calls a con­cen­tra­tion­ary art,” whose pur­pose would be to show how nor­mal­ized every­day life of the post-war peri­od is haunt­ed by the hor­rors of a past which has not passed. 

A fuller descrip­tion of this project and the books that have come out of it can be found else­where on the Histories of Violence web site. But I men­tion it here because we feel that the need for a con­cen­tra­tion­ary art, and the Brechtian ideas of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion that inform it, has cer­tain­ly not gone away. In fact, it has become even more press­ing as the nor­mal­iza­tion of hor­ror and the dis­fig­ure­ment of lives have new elec­tron­ic means, new dis­cours­es, new forms at their dis­pos­al today to do their work. 

This isn’t a ques­tion of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry mania. It is a ques­tion, though, of being atten­tive to the rus­es employed today, by which peo­ple can be objec­ti­fied and stripped of their human­i­ty. You don’t have to put them in camps to achieve this, although of course camps still exist. The Italian philoso­pher Giorgio Agamben has taught us to view the camp in a far broad­er way than this. You can reclas­si­fy peo­ple as use­less, accord­ing to the mar­ket dis­course of effi­cien­cy and effec­tiv­i­ty. You can strip peo­ple of their rights by con­vert­ing refugees into unde­sir­able eco­nom­ic migrants. You can dis­miss the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of mil­i­tary action as col­lat­er­al dam­age. And you can nor­mal­ize extreme vio­lence by con­vert­ing it into entertainment. 

Could these be some of the banal ways in which dis­pos­abil­i­ty func­tions today? Through the lan­guage of euphemism, through the dis­course of the mar­ket, through the spec­tac­u­lar­iza­tion of the image. So should we be read­ing these forms not for what they say, not for what they show, but rather for what they don’t say, and for what is invis­i­ble but is nev­er­the­less very much present? 

I want to men­tion a con­tem­po­rary film­mak­er who I think gives us a way of read­ing the bland and nor­mal­ized present in this crit­i­cal way. And this is the Austrian film­mak­er Michael Haneke. In a num­ber of films Haneke strips away the veneer of Western bour­geois soci­ety to reveal its vio­lent under­side which is hid­den beneath. The film Hidden, made in France in 2005 is a good example. 

Another is Funny Games, released first in 1997 in a German ver­sion and then remade in Hollywood in English in 2007, in which a bour­geois cou­ple, Anna and George, and their son, arrive at their lake­side hol­i­day home and are then sub­ject­ed to a series of sadis­tic games by two young men, Peter and Paul. Paul plays the game Hot and Cold to lead Anna to the fam­i­ly’s dog, which Paul has blud­geoned to death. The game Kitten in the Bag con­sists of plac­ing a cush­ion cov­er over the son’s head whilst his moth­er is forced to strip. Hide and Seek is the struc­ture under­pin­ning the son’s attempt to escape from cap­tiv­i­ty, and Paul’s search for him in the neigh­bor’s house. Eenie Meeny Miny Moe will decide who of Anna and George will die first. And the pro­ceed­ings in gen­er­al are reg­u­lat­ed by a bet pro­posed by Paul that the fam­i­ly will be dead in twelve hours. So, sim­ply put, bour­geois domes­tic space in this film and the banal for­mat of the game, or real­i­ty show, is trans­formed into the sadis­tic space of the tor­ture cham­ber or con­cen­tra­tion camp, in which nor­mal social rules and ethics have been waived.

Haneke demon­strates that the struc­tures of human­i­ty, a world with­out law and ethics, do not inhab­it a sep­a­rate world but are deeply embed­ded in the struc­tures of con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture, and with­in the legal and eth­i­cal frame­work of mod­ern demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties. But what is per­haps tru­ly shock­ing here is the way in which we do not rec­og­nize the links between every­day life and the vio­lent dis­pos­ing of lives. The way in which we are blind to the true nature of this polit­i­cal real­i­ty. The fam­i­ly’s inabil­i­ty to under­stand the log­ic at play here is due to their blind attach­ment, and our own, to nor­mal con­ven­tions, which fail imag­i­na­tive­ly to per­ceive the pres­ence of a camp log­ic with­in the log­ic of bour­geois law and pop­u­lar cul­ture. At one stage, for exam­ple, George shouts, You want our mon­ey? Help your­selves and get out.” As if Peter and Paul’s games could be neat­ly fit­ted into the legal cat­e­gories of break­ing and enter­ing and theft. 

Haneke not only forces us to wit­ness the real vio­lence that is hid­den by con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture. We’re also made to con­front the pos­si­bil­i­ty that that cul­ture, our cul­ture, is late cap­i­tal­is­m’s ver­sion of camp life. And what is more, that is plea­sur­able, as we con­sume it avid­ly on a dai­ly basis. 

In Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, con­cen­tra­tion camps are shown to come in all sorts of com­mon­place archi­tec­tur­al styles. Torture is car­ried out in what appear to be hos­pi­tals. Gas cham­bers mas­quer­ade as show­ers. The entrance to the infer­no at Auschwitz pro­claims Work makes you free.” The nar­ra­tor says at one point, We can but show you the shell, the sur­face, the decor.” But we must know how to see beyond the decor. To under­stand today, sev­en­ty years lat­er, how evil can take on the most banal of forms, and how human life can be dis­posed of, sim­ply and effi­cient­ly, in the name of some­thing else.