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. 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 website. 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 going 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 from 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, out 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.