How does neoliberalism hold us back from participating in civic life? In Disposable Futures, Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux analyze how today’s dominant economic system uses privatization, mass media and the spectacle of violence to neutralize and control the public. Click here to make a contribution to Truthout and order the book now!
In this interview with Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux, the public intellectuals discuss their forthcoming book, what they mean by “disposable futures” and “dystopian realism,” and how the spectacle of violence has contributed to a mistaken societal view that there is no future except a brutal one under neoliberal capitalism.
Note: The authors elected to provide their emailed responses collaboratively. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Victoria Harper: Let’s begin the discussion of your book, Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle, by asking, what do you mean by “disposable futures”?
Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux: Our start point for this book was to try and provide an incisive and timely critique of the state of global politics, especially the unequal distribution of power, wealth and opportunities most apparent in the world today. It is within this historical conjuncture and the current savagery of various regimes of neoliberal capitalism that we conceived the need to develop a paradigm that focused on the intensification of what we called the politics of disposability.
For us, this required taking our analysis beyond 20th century frames of analysis to look at the ways in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. In the book, we advance an older Gramscian notion regarding the concept of historical conjuncture. We argue that the morbid anxieties of the age do not simply represent a fusion of mass violence, politics and power, but signify a new historical conjunction, in which violence takes on a defining political moment and framing device, which points to a historical shift and a new historical configuration.
Further to this, as the subtitle suggests, for us, this politics of disposability demanded new conceptual vocabulary and more important still, it demanded a fundamental rethinking of the problem of violence. Mass violence, we maintained, was poorly understood as it continued to be referred to as casualties on battlefields or framed through conventional notions of warfare. We understood the alternative need to interrogate the multiple ways in which entire populations are rendered disposable on a daily basis. This seemed crucial if we were to take seriously both the recourse to justice, along with the meaning of global rights and citizenship in the 21st century.
“Violence is the principal recourse and default for those societies in which the social state is under attack.”
Violence in this instance operates not on the periphery of society, but at its center as an organizing idea that legitimates a culture of perpetual anxiety and surveillance, while serving as a primary form of mediation in addressing major social problems. Violence is the principal recourse and default for those societies in which the social state is under attack, while at the same time the traditional state becomes the corporate state. Under such circumstances an ever-wider range of behaviors are criminalized, everyday relations are militarized, knowledge is weaponized, and daily life now resembles what is akin to war by every means.
We are arguing in the book that the politics of disposability not only makes visible the expanding populations now relegated to both the status of the precariat and also subjected to new forms of violence. In addition, such a politics also highlights a form of global capitalism in which the financial elite live in an immune culture of self-regulation and personal enrichment, whether they are the corrupt hedge fund managers and bankers who caused the recent economic crisis, CIA operatives who tortured people and were not prosecuted, or the police in the US who have made a sport out of assaulting and killing Black men, and for the most part are acquitted of their crimes.
Such an enquiry is no doubt timely. For the past year or so we have began memorializing what was often termed the “century of violence,” which included the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the centenary of World War I, onto the 70th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the 40th anniversary of the “killing fields” in Cambodia, each of which should force us to confront the suffering of the past. The suffering, however, continues in novel and no less devastating ways. Indeed, while there is no doubt a need to collectively memorialize traumatic and horrifying world events, it is not sufficient to simply use this as an opportunity to claim that we now live in more secure and peaceful times.
“The most pernicious of systemic abuses continue to hide things in plain sight.”
Even in terms of conventional warfare, we still seemed incapable of connecting individual deaths with broader questions of mass violence and policies of systematic abuse. In the five years of the Obama drone policy, for instance, we are nearing comparable figures to the horrors of September 11, 2001. Even if we accept that a significant number of these are suspected militants, the policy of assassination denies us any recourse to verifiable modes of justice. And how many innocents are to die before this violence is explained in comparative terms? This says nothing to the broader questions of endemic gun crime or the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States that is numerically comparable to forced imprisonment witnessed during the global slave trade.
Neither does it speak to the socially engineered conditions of extreme poverty and inescapable despair so commonplace throughout the world. Not only has violence become more widespread, interconnected and extreme in its visibility, but it seems to have completely detached itself from any sense of social and ethical responsibility. Violence now inhabits not just the repressive apparatuses of law and order; it has become a form of public pedagogy parading as entertainment, immersing publics globally in a media-cultural saturation of celluloid violence, all of which points to the power of the spectacle to normalize the most vicious underside of neoliberalism.
The book as such is less about the “exceptional moments in history,” but speaks instead to those contemporary forms of disposability that have become so normalized, where the burden of guilt is placed on the shoulders of the victims, while the most pernicious of systemic abuses continue to hide things in plain sight. In doing so, we hope that it offers and enables a critical angle of vision that goes well beyond the mere authentication of lives as simply born vulnerable to question the systemic design for oppression and exploitation that produces humans as some expendable category.
The subtitle of the book evidently is inspired by Guy Debord and other authors who look to the importance of the media in shaping our notions about social relations. In the section of the book focused on George Orwell, you propose that these authors should be approached in a different way if they are to have any critical value today. How is that?
Part of the problem with a lot of critical scholarship today is the tendency to appropriate 20th century concepts and apply them to the 21st century terrain as if the structures of power were still the same. We live in an entirely different political moment to the likes of Debord, Orwell and the many other critical voices that reverberate throughout our text.
Take Debord, for example. He couldn’t have possibly envisaged the types of digital broadcasting we are both continually and immanently subjected to with devices that quite literally put a mediated world into our hands. Neither could Orwell have understood the breadth and depth of the contemporary surveillance state, and the subtle yet pernicious way it works precisely by getting its users to willfully give over information about all aspects of their lives. Nor could he have imagined that in addition to repressive surveillance techniques, new regimes of terror could emerge that supplemented the regime of Big Brother.
“Violence has become so normalized today that it is reaching the point of the banal.”
Repression is now matched by modes of dystopian governance in which the production of subjectivity, consciousness, identity and agency become the stuff of continued oppression, depoliticized through cultural apparatuses that render people civically illiterate, reduce agency to an act of consumption and parade freedom as the exclusive domain of self-interest. Still, for us, what’s going on here is much more than a question of technology; it is the way technological change is a mere enabler to broader power dynamics, which in the name of advancement both depoliticizes and renders more and more populations disposable.
Contemporary liberal societies are undoubtedly, as Debord started to appreciate, saturated by images and representations of violence. From 24-hour news coverage and the extreme torture of Hollywood blockbusters to increasingly brutal gaming formats, the realities of violence have arguably never been so embedded in our cultural, economic and social fabric. Some might even argue that violence has become so normalized today that it is reaching the point of the banal, as its entertainment value supersedes any considered political and ethical questioning.
Our aim has been to take this realization and open some discussion by specifically dealing with the question of violence in the age of the global spectacle. Broached this way, it is possible to critique the spectacle as a means by which we can understand some of the defining features of modern liberal societies. For example, from terror to extreme weather and everything in between, what contemporary spectacles of violence evidenced to us are the following:
1. We live in an age of radical interconnectivity that has collapsed all notions of space and time. As a result, the realms of inside and outside, along with past, present and future are rather meaningless for us.
2. This has had a profound impact upon notions of threat, as the very idea of endangerment parades under the rubric of a universal law, and encompasses all of life on a global scale. There is as such no sanctuary anymore. There are no sites of refuge. Everywhere is a site of potential hostility and violence.
3. The outcome of this has been the collapse of all modern demarcations as notions of friends and enemies, times of war and times of peace, and citizens and soldiers enter into what Giorgio Agamben might call a “zone of indistinction.”
4. With security (not least social security) all but abandoned, vulnerability assumes a scale of magnification that transforms individual fear, the fundamental principle underwriting modes of governance today. One consequence is the normalization of the idea that all things are fundamentally insecure by design. The doctrine of resilience is the most purposeful expression of this as we are all encouraged to partake in a world that is deemed to be catastrophically fated.
5. Power operates upon this terrain by foregrounding the politics of catastrophe as the inescapable fact of the human condition. Life as such appears everywhere endangered and subject to forces outside of politics and change.
“Our politics is best described as a state of dystopian realism.”
6. Within this terrain, all forms of catastrophe now appear part of a complex and networked topography of danger that reaffirms at every turn the insecure sediment of existence. Threat as such has become ubiquitous and part of the everyday fabric of our societies. Such threats redefine fear as an individual register concerned with attacks on the body and on one’s comforts, and are defined solely within the register of personal fears. Lost here are those modes of insecurity and fear that point to the suffering that comes from a lack of social provisions, poverty, a culture of cruelty and a society in which politics becomes an extension of war.
7. We live in an age that is fixated by spectacles of violence, which continue to harvest our attention. Hence for those of us who live in liberal zones, we have all become global witnesses to events that are presented to us as beyond all measures of control.
8. Not only does this normalize the violence of the present. It ties logics of rule to the inevitability of catastrophe and the promise of violence to come. The prospect of a violent death as such has already taken life itself hostage without fortune.
9. As a result, our politics is best described as a state of dystopian realism. The very idea alone that we might be able to transform the world for the better is denied us. The best we can hope for is to bounce back and be more prepared for the next catastrophe on the horizon.
Integral to this state of what we have elected to term in the text “dystopian realism” are highly mediated aesthetic regimes of suffering, which serve to authenticate the meaning of lives by rendering certain forms of violence tolerable for public consumption, while delegitimizing others through various forms of public censorship, along with the aesthetic overload of particular messages. The spectacle has produced a carnival of violence produced through the ideological and affective spaces of neoliberalism in which violence is evoked as a source of pleasure and entertainment, reinforcing what can be called violence with a fascist edge. Violence not only became normalized as the face of gratuitous pleasure; it also contains what Rustom Bharacuha has called “an echo of the pornographic.” This has led us to put forward the following definition, which worth repeating here, we believe captures the contemporary logic of spectacles of violence:
The spectacle of violence represents more than the public enactment and witnessing of human violation. It points to a highly mediated regime of suffering and misery, which brings together the discursive and the aesthetic such that the performative nature of the imagery functions in a politically contrived way. In the process of occluding and depoliticizing complex narratives of any given situation, it assaults our senses in order to hide things in plain sight. The spectacle works by turning human suffering into a spectacle, framing and editing the realities of violence, and in doing so renders some lives meaningful while dismissing others as disposable. It operates through a hidden structure of politics that colonizes the imagination, denies critical engagement, and preemptively represses alternative narratives. The spectacle harvests and sells our attention, while denying us the ability for properly engaged political reflection. It engages agency as a pedagogical practice in order to destroy its capacity for self-determination, autonomy, and self-reflection. It works precisely at the level of subjectivity by manipulating our desires such that we become cultured to consume and enjoy productions of violence, becoming entertained by the ways in which it is packaged, which divorce domination and suffering from ethical considerations, historical understanding and political contextualization. The spectacle immerses us, encouraging us to experience violence as pleasure such that we become positively invested in its occurrence, while attempting to render us incapable of either challenging the actual atrocities being perpetrated by the same system or steering our collective future in a different direction.
You seem to be saying in your book that we need to rethink the history of the present through the spectacle? What does that mean for the role of the public intellectual?
Our concern with the spectacle of violence is also explicitly concerned with intellectual violence. They cannot be separated. Both bring us directly to the closing down of historical memory and public spaces as the multiple experiences of political events are subsumed within the allegedly one “true” narrative. Take the events of September 11, 2001, for instance. What this showed was how imposing a uniform if not master truth to the spectacular event resulted in a profound failure of political vision and the death of what might be called the radical imagination.
Indeed one of the greatest casualties of the war that followed was intellectual, namely the idea that it is still possible to transform the world for the better while relying on an alleged impeachable truth rooted in the discourse of certainty. The spectacle thus works precisely by closing down critique and dissent while erasing any vestige of thoughtfulness and any mode of inquiry that matters. It demands and celebrates a violent response as the recourse to violence translates into business as usual.
“Dystopian politics has become mainstream politics as the practice of disposability has intensified.”
If the first order of politics in the age of the spectacle is to colonize the imaginary, then it is our task to expose more fully how the merging of the spectacle, extreme violence and politics represents a form of violence to thought. A theatrical politics of the visceral has replaced the more measured and thoughtful commentary on human suffering bequeathed by a post-World War II generation of intellectuals, artists and others. Representations of fear, panic, vulnerability and pain increasingly override narratives of justice such that the spectacle shapes and legitimates social relations. In these circumstances, violence is no longer viewed or experienced merely as a side effect of warfare and criminal exclusion; it has become a deliberate mediating strategy of representation, marked by the careful policing of violence, in which the spectacle is central to a species of political rebirth that puts life back into a social order where only an economy of violent relations reigns supreme.
Violence has become a fundamental pedagogy and politics for assigning identities, modes of agency and thought itself. Thoughtlessness has moved from what Hannah Arendt once called the center of totalitarianism and banality of evil to an all-embracing attack on the very notion of critical agency, the care for others and democracy itself. The contemporary dystopian imaginary takes this to its logical conclusion as militaristic values colonize visions of the world, thereby authenticating subjects willing to serve the corporate and financial elite who benefit from depoliticizing and the violent wreckage produced by the spectacle. At the same time, political and economic power are willing to serve the spectacle itself, bypassing even the minimalist democratic gesture of gaining consent from the subjects whose interests are supposed to be served by power.
Nevertheless, the course of history is far from certain. Unfolding senses of trauma and loss can actually bring people together in a fragile blend of grief, shared responsibility, compassion and a newfound respect for the power of common purpose and commitment. The translation of such events into acts of public memory, mourning and memorializing are ambivalent and deeply unsettling. They offer no certainty. But we must recall that they do not only bring about states of emergency and the suspension of civil norms and order: They can, and often will, give birth to enormous political, ethical and social possibilities. Currently, we see instances of such possibilities in the outpouring of rage and protest against police brutality and violence against Black men in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Baltimore, Maryland.
Hence part of our task is to develop upon the violence of organized forgetting and how this relates to the spectacle of violence in terms of both debilitating and yet reigniting thought. Memory here can be an instigator of both despair and hope, often in ways in which the division between desperation and hope becomes blurred. Such uncomfortable moments of consciousness provide the basis for a form of witnessing that refuses the warmongering, human rights violations, xenophobia and violations of civil liberties that take shape under the banner of injury and vengeance.
One of the most challenging political ideas you address in the book is the concept of “dystopian realism.” Could you explain what you mean by this, and why this is important in terms of rethinking politics in the 21st century?
Dystopian politics as such has become mainstream politics as the practice of disposability has intensified and more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess, consigned to “zones of abandonment,” surveillance and incarceration. The widespread destruction and violence produced by the politics of disposability can be seen in the ever-growing armies of those individuals and groups whose existing and future prospects remain bleak. This includes those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the reckless imprisonment of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the widespread destruction of the middle class by new forms of debt servitude. Terminal exclusion, disappearance, proliferating forms of social death and the use of the prison as a default solution serves to both address the major social problems of the day and to contain, depoliticize and remove from the polity poor minorities of class and color. Citizens, as Gilles Deleuze foresaw, are now reduced to data, consumers and commodities and, as such, inhabit identities in which they increasingly become unknowables, with no human rights and with no one accountable for their condition.
There is something, however, more at stake here than the contemporary plight of those millions forced to live in intolerable conditions. What makes the contemporary forms of disposability so abhorrent is precisely the way it shapes disposable futures. The future now appears to us as a terrain of endemic catastrophe and disorder from which there is no viable escape except to draw upon the logics of those predatory formations that put us there in the first place. Devoid of any alternative image of the world, we are merely requested to see the world as predestined and catastrophically fated.
“Political violence is not carried out by irrational monsters.”
Frederic Jameson’s claim then that it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism” is more than a reflection on the poverty of contemporary imaginations. It is revealing of the nihilism of our times that forces us to accept that the only world conceivable is the one we are currently forced to endure: a world that is brutally reproduced and forces us all to become witnesses to its spectacles of violence that demand we accept that all things are ultimately insecure by design. The notion that one has to think otherwise in order to act otherwise has become a form of dangerous thinking, subject to censorship at best and prison in the worst-case scenario, as in the case of protesting students and whistleblowers. The unbridled concentration of power in neoliberal societies relies not merely on the repressive state apparatuses, but also on symbolic and intellectual forms of violence to kill the radical imagination, hope and any vestige of the politics of possibility.
Neoliberalism wages violence against civic agency and any notion of the political that makes visible the conditions necessary for deepening and expanding a substantive democracy. Critical theorists are of course well aware of the intellectual stakes here. Dogmatic advocates of “political science” and “analytical philosophy” often accuse critical thinkers concerned more with the irreducible qualities of the human condition as being too abstract or esoteric. This has led to the notable marginalization, subjugation and outright discrimination of those who argue that the forces of creativity, imagination and love for their fellow citizens are an emancipatory pedagogical force. And yet as Arendt understood all too well, for the most part, political violence is not carried out by irrational monsters. It is reasoned, rationalized, calculated and premised upon all too scientific and analytical claims that some lives are worth killing for the greater good.
Representations of human suffering should not then be abstracted from a broader neoliberal regime in which the machinery of consumption endlessly trades in the production of sensationalist images designed to excite, stimulate and offer the lure of intense sensations. This is especially true for spectacles of violence that are now not only stylistically extraordinary and grotesque, but also grotesque depictions of the culture that produces them. Spectacles of violence provide an important element in shaping a market-driven culture of cruelty that gives new meaning to the merging of an economy of pleasure with images of violence, mutilation and human suffering.
This is not to suggest that the only images available in contemporary liberal societies are those saturated with violence and pain, but to emphasize that the formative culture that produces images that are at odds with, contest or provide alternatives to such violence seems to be disappearing. Nor are we suggesting that images of violence can only produce an affective economy of sadistic pleasure or be reduced deterministically to one reading and point of view. Our argument is that under a neoliberal regime we are immersed in a media-saturated culture that inordinately invests in and legitimizes a grim pleasure in the pain of others, especially those considered marginal and disposable.
Some would say that you look to the future with a real sense of pessimism. How do you avoid being thought of as just another political critic of our times? How do we break down the distinction between spectacles of violence and political passivity so we have the possibility of transforming the world for the better?
We began writing this book with a remarkable sense of faith and optimism for our collective futures. We take heart from the fact that people will resist what they find patently intolerable. We also understand that no regime for power can be totalizing. Human beings have this remarkable capacity to reimagine the world and show remarkable love for their fellow citizens, despite the catastrophes and horrors of the times. We must keep hold of that all too human sensibility – or else the battle is truly lost. What nihilism is after all is a willingness to succumb to the idea that the world can no longer be politically and ethically transformed for the better.
Central to our notion of resistance and educated hope is the belief that agency is a product of education and that at the heart of any viable notion of politics is the recognition that politics begins with attempts to change the way people think, act, feel and identify themselves and their relations to others. There is more to agency than the neoliberal emphasis on the “empire of the self” with its unbridled narcissism and unchecked belief in the virtues of a form of self-interest that despises the bonds of sociality, solidarity and community. Truth erupts in the pedagogical awakening, the moment when the rules are broken, taking risks becomes a necessity, self-reflection narrates its capacity for critically engaged agency and thinking the impossible is not an option but a necessity.
“None of us can anticipate or indeed measure the true quantity and scale of a creative political moment.”
Dystopian realism, the spectacle of violence and the normalizing of catastrophe can only be addressed through a politics that is educative, one that is willing to use the tools of belief, persuasion and pedagogy as a way of changing how people view the world. It is precisely by making the political more pedagogical that pressing the claims for economic and social justice can be made possible, movements for change can be developed and educated hope can be made a register for developing a language of critique and possibility.
In terms of the spectacle, many theorists, such as Jacques Rancière, have been critical of the presumption that horrifying images alone are sufficient enough to mobilize us into political action. And he is right. We have added to this by showing how many of the images witnessed today are policed by a highly mediated regime of suffering which overtly politicize the captured moment, leading to the suffocation of alternative political meanings. However, just as we recognize no separation between political action and poetic intervention, maintaining that aesthetics are integral to the art of political transformation, we also refuse to condemn artistic interventions on account of the fact that they don’t evidence some quantifiable measurement for “impact assessment.”
Not only are such measures integral to the logic of the spectacle as reason is translated into certain modes of proofing to already confirm preconceived ideas of the world. None of us can anticipate or indeed measure the true quantity and scale of a creative political moment, whether it is witnessing Rosa Parks sitting on a forbidden seat or the works of Isaac Cordal and Gottfried Helnwein whose remarkably potent and politically charged aesthetics disrupt, unsettle and transform our image of the world. Both are important “events” in the memory of our imagination as they seize hold of the best of our desires, holding the possibility that passivity might be turned into affirmative witnessing of a history that is now being steered in a different and more liberating direction.
As Deleuze would write: “In every modernity and every novelty, you find conformity and creativity; an insipid conformity, but also ‘a little new music’; something in conformity with the time, but also something untimely – separating the one from the other is the task of those who know how to love, the real destroyers and creators of our day.”