Thursday, March 04, 2021

Everyone is Disposable: On Ogilvie's L' Homme Jetable

Yesterday, two things happened, one I spent a better portion of the day preparing a lecture on James Boggs' The American Revolution ; Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook (You can listen to it here for what it is worth) and thinking about his description of automation and the creation of a surplus population. At the same time I was also thinking about the governor of Texas decisions to "open up" the state in the middle of a pandemic, ending all restrictions and social distancing measures. Together this made me think of Ogilvie's concept of a "disposable human being," (l'homme jetable), a concept, or rather mode of investigation that seems all the more important in an age in which much of the world is being treated as disposable. I was surprised to see that I had never directly blogged about this concept despite the fact that I had written about Ogilvie before. I did, however, have a reader's report I wrote on Ogilvie's book, arguing that it should be translated. It is a thorough review, but not the most engaging. I decided to repost it here in the spirit of generating interest in Ogilvie's work. 

Bertrand Ogilvie’s L’Homme Jetable is made up a series of essays all dealing with violence, its representation, and obsfucation in contemporary politics and philosophy. The book is introduced by a letter to Ogilvie by Etienne Balibar, this is fitting since the central concept of the collection, “l’homme jetable,” or, the disposable human being, is central to Balibar’s writing on violence. Much of Violence and Civility is a response to Ogilvie. Balibar’s introductory letter takes up what he sees as the central question of Ogilvie’s book, the relationship between violence and representation. Not just the representation of violence, how it is understood in relation to nature, economics, and politics, but the violence of representation itself. Not just the representation of others who are seen as “disposable,” but the subject’s own self-representation. Particularly important is the subject’s relation to its own conditions, social, economic, etc. Althusser argued that “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects” to which Balibar would seem to add that this interpellation is the precondition of a violent negation of one’s conditions. To be a subject is to think of oneself as without conditions, as being a kingdom within a kingdom. Thinking one’s conditions brushes up against the limits of representation, demanding a simultaneous thought of separation and a conjunction. The essays were written over a period that covers twenty years, from 1984 to 2004. 

The first essay, “Un Cauchemar de Spinoza” considers Spinoza’s relationship to colonial violence. As something of a response to Antonio Negri’s The Savage Anomaly, Ogilvie considers Spinoza’s politics. Spinoza’s politics are in many ways a philosopher’s politics, the increase in knowledge is the increase of peace, the pacification of conflict. From this perspective Spinoza’s dream of a “scabby Brazilian” recounted in a letter to Peter Balling is less a testament to the productive power of the imagination, as Negri reads it, then a kind of return of the repressed. It is the violence of colonialism that is at once the condition for Amsterdam and its particular anomaly and necessarily repressed in the philosophical apprehension of his system. Spinoza may be an anomaly with respect to the tendencies of western philosophy but the Amsterdam that produced him was not. Dealing with his philosophy is a matter of contending with both aspects. 

The second essay, “Le savoir et la violence de l’universel” considers the relation between “structural violence” and “eventual, or political violence.” The conceptual distinction between these two kinds of violence is tenuous, and intersects with other distinctions, economics and politics as well as collective identity and individual subjectivity. Structural violence is most often cited with economics, with the violence integral to the capitalist mode of production, but, as Ogilvie argues, it is also identified with the general violence of culture, the transformation of the singular human animal into a universal subject. This is why it is Hegel as much as Marx who has to be considered as the exemplary thinker of structural violence. The Philosophy of Right is the story of the structural creation and transformation of different social identities. 

Ultimately Ogilvie’s reflections on the two types of violence leads to the formulation of ultra-objective and ultra-subjective violence. These are two specifically modern forms of violence. The first is the violence of the market, of systems that treat the individual as well as his or her very conditions for existence as just another thing. This form of violence was perhaps first identified by Hegel’s conception of the rabble, as much as Hegel himself tried to conceal the radical dimension of this discovery, and has continued to be theorized under different names, Marx’s lumpenproletariat, Arendt’s concept of the rightless refugee, Boggs’ outsiders, etc., all theoretical names that have followed and traced a particularly modern phenomena of displacement and surplus existence. As Ogilvie writes, "In violence, the modern subject is confronted with not just his own destruction, but also with his impossibility; not only his individual death but the discovery that his life may have no value for anyone, and from that, quickly, to the negation of the very possibility of its structure."

It is precisely this form of violence that produces the “l’homme jetable,” the disposable human being. This ultra-objective form of violence in part gives rise to its double in the form of ultra-subjective violence. This is the violence of anti-immigrant or racist mobs, violence which is directly aimed at a particular group. Much of what is new and troubling about contemporary violence is in the intersection of these two forms, the place where ultra-objective violence, the violence of abandonment by states and exclusion by markets combines with ultra-subjective violence, the violence of hate and mobs. Ogilvie has no final word on the intersection of these two forms of violence, in part because such intersections are always conjunctural. 

The next essay, “Comparer l’incomparable” takes up, albeit somewhat obliquely the question of the conjunctural intersection of different forms of violence by examining the question of the Holocaust and its relation to other genocides (as well as modernity in general). Ogilvie wants to avoid what he calls a “monotheism of catastrophe” seeing either the holocaust as a unique event, or as an event which permeates all of western society. Instead its difference and identity must be seen in the way in which it actualized certain crisis tendencies of capital, particularly the connection between work and expendability. “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets one free”) was the slogan over the gate at Auschwitz at the same time as the very of the camps testified to the expendability of much of the population. It is this conjunction of work and expendability that defines the connection of the holocaust and the rest of society. 

A final essay, “Un Crime sans Adresse” was originally presented along with an exhibit of photographs by Lukas Einsele in Rotterdam. The photos depicted the effects of antipersonnel mines in Africa and Afghanistan. Ogilvie’s essay takes the occasion to reflect on the way in which antipersonnel mines take part in the naturalization of death and destruction. They make war into ultra-objective violence, transforming war into part of the landscape. Often they are deployed in parts of the world where war itself is naturalized, considered an unavoidable condition. Landmines are part of a material and discursive constitution of the disposable human being. Ogilvie’s book is an important reconsideration of the politics and vocabulary of violence. It is a welcome contribution to a field where there is much interest, but few references. How many more times can Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” be cited. Ogilvie’s book ais unique in that its attempt is not to come up with a general theory of violence, but an attempt to think the specificity of modern violence. 

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