Disposability is an integral part of modern capitalist societies, but it’s not limited to the cups, plates, and napkins we can throw away after one use. Human lives might have not been created to be disposable entities, but very often circumstances are created for this to happen systemically. Whether they were designed to be disposable, or they become disposable depends on their history, race, class, and gender, and on social politics of different times in history.
The concept of disposable life is a product of post-colonial societies, enhanced by global capitalism, and new forms of slavery and exploitation. We live in societies that increasingly endanger people at the weakest fringes. In invisibility and anonymity, lives can be made disposable via extreme violence, or repeated, daily aggressions. This trend seems to have a toxic evolutionary quality, according to which, the weakest will eventually succumb. Except that we have the knowledge and resources to stop our systems from creating disposable beings.
We fill calendars and social media with remembrance days and ‘Never Again’ slogans and hashtags. We pride ourselves for the level of progress that we’ve achieved, but can we say that we’re trying to get rid of the burden of the past? Tragedies and genocides have taken and continue to take place in Palestine, Kosovo, Bosnia and so on, even after important lessons of history have theoretically been learnt. But what happens when systemic violence is perpetuated by the very institution that is supposed to protect and guarantee human rights?
Institutional forms of brutality still shape our society in ways that are disguised as rational, mainly via legislation: the ultimate symbol of human reason. It is in this scenario that the concept of disposable lives and violence meet in Ava DuVernay’s incredible and passionate account of slavery, racism, and mass incarceration, with a focus on how people of colour are particularly affected in the United States today. According to the documentary, the American criminal justice system's aim is to target and eventually eradicate a specific part of society. It’s a battle framed in a way where the existence of one group is believed to threaten the existence of another. In this scenario, black lives, embodying non-normative social realities, become disposable, as they are a threat to white lives.
We are culturally and traditionally taught to respect institutions, especially when they are meant to protect and ensure our freedom and safety. Nevertheless, it’s in the very language of a modern democracy that we find a loophole for modern slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” – The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
With one simple clause, people can be legally condemned to forms of slavery in a nation that presents itself as the leader of the free world. What was supposed to be the correction and rectification of a wrong became the permissive cause for more violence to take place hidden under the rationality and moral correctness of the law. DuVernay's 13th challenges all this, and calls for a redefining of what Judith Butler calls “grievable” lives: lives that are, regardless of race, class, or gender, deemed worthy of protection, and whose loss should be noticed and mourned.
Words: Claudia Manca
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu