At the Edges of Command: A Conversation with Neferti X.M. Tadiar

Neferti X. M. Tadiar

Neferti X. M. Tadiar is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization (2009); Fantasy-Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order (2004); Life-Times of Becoming Human (2022); and most recently, Remaindered Life (2022). She is founding director of the Alfredo F. Tadiar Library, an independent library, cultural space, and publisher in San Fernando, La Union, Philippines.


My conversation with Neferti Tadiar began as a concern about the value of life in a changing global political economy of labor. As scholars working in two seemingly distinct, hybrid capitalist economies of the global south, we have found connections between the Philippines and the Middle East through movements of labor and value extraction. Since the late 1980s, women in the Philippines have been recruited to Lebanese households and establishments as domestic servants. In Lebanon, this labor connection registers a hierarchy between the sending country and the receiving country, articulated as a capitalist distinction between employee and employer, and a racialized distinction between foreigner and citizen. Yet, this imaginary of racial and class difference belies a shared postcolonial condition between the Philippines and Lebanon, a condition of becoming non-sovereign zones of human resource extraction and ecological destruction through alliances between imperial and national elite interests. 
Working with migrant workers and with politically marginalized artists in Beirut and Manila, we have observed how people who exist at the margins of capitalist extraction still become subsumed by demands for productivity. Tadiar proposes “life-times” as a concept that indexes the dissolution between labor-time and social reproduction for many around the globe who must make their bodies available for hire at all times, as they are deprived of the guarantee of selling their labor-power in quantifiable time. Rather than clocking in and out, as people did in the factory and in the firm in previous renditions of labor capitalism, people whose labor is casualized and itinerant are always working and being at the same time.
And yet, people manage to live on, reproduce themselves and organize collectively under conditions of extraction, incarceration, and withholding. Their capacity to exist confronts us with a challenge: Is there life after labor, and what would it look like? 
I pin this question around Tadiar’s new book Remaindered Life (Duke University Press, 2022), which takes account of the transregional-imperial economies of extraction and war that feed off the lifeworlds and ecologies of the global south and renders them zones of “remaindered life” – what Tadiar defines as the “social reproduction of expendable and disposable life.” Tadiar provides a challenge to these capitalist modes of destructive accumulation by showing how people survive and live through and despite them, making kin and organizing collectives. Her work reveals our tendency to pin human action around the subject, rather than the collective. By showing how people navigate between being servants of labor capitalism, while at the same time caring for their own, she provides space for circularity and mutuality – forms of living that push past familiar, progress-driven narratives of the individual’s fight against the system. Our conversation is motivated by a search for a different methodology and knowledge production, one that is rooted in feminist and collective forms of thinking and organizing. 

Pampanga | By Emmanuel Tolentino Santos.
Original B&W photograph shot in 2014 Colours hand-painted in 2019 - 2020 Type C print, hand coloured photo. © Emmanuel Tolentino Santos, courtesy Art Porters Gallery
Pampanga | By Emmanuel Tolentino Santos. Original B&W photograph shot in 2014 Colours hand-painted in 2019 - 2020 Type C print, hand coloured photo. © Emmanuel Tolentino Santos, courtesy Art Porters Gallery

I. Abolition

AR: Let’s begin with value. The Indian queer-trans activist Vqueeram said to a friend, who was filming them for a documentary, “I want to give more value to sadness and joy, and much less value to rage. I want to give more value to friendship, and less value to love.” This resonated with me as a new economy of feeling.[1]Does Your House Have Lions. 2021. Directed by Vishal Jugdeo and Vqueeram. I was reminded of Vqueeram’s words when reading your new book, Remaindered Life, in which value is a key concept. In this book, you present a theory of the hierarchical value of life in capitalism, categorized as: one, capitalizable (people-as-labor), two, serviceable (people-as-infrastructure), and three, expendable (people-as-waste). You describe people and ecologies whose living and laboring have been devalued by this hierarchy, rendering their lives, their habitat and livelihood into zones of waste “without value,” from the perspective of the state. You show how these people are, at the same time, making a life out of what is left behind, living in what is “remaindered” from capitalist absorption and extraction. You show, furthermore, how people forced to move in search of labor – people who rent out their time and body for other people’s sustenance and consumption, and people whose modes of kin-making and intimacy do not follow the prescribed order of nuclear conjugal, cis-straight love – are making life valuable to themselves in ways not fully subsumed by the market, even if their modes of subsistence and reproduction can and do become appropriated by market forces. 

That to me is the crux of complexity you are presenting us with what you define – and critique – as the “new political economy of life.” Life for many in cities everywhere has been rendered unlivable and reduced of value, yet as “wasted life,” value and profit can still be extracted from them – through war, destruction of life, property, and environments. You describe it as a “bulimic relation,” how governments eat away at the life-value of people, then spit them out, which calls to mind how capitalism consumes devalued labor power – I think, for example, of care workers whose care is both in demand and devalued, to the point of not having time to reproduce themselves. 

On the one hand, people’s creative ways of surviving are always at risk of becoming appropriated and extracted by capital, while on the other hand not everything can be commodified; you argue that something remains that is not subsumed by capital and that therefore can give life to something else. For example, you describe the talahib, a weed that grows in the Philippines, as a metaphor of that which is categorized as waste but is vital to itself and its ecology, and which lives in a seasonal relationship with fire. People burn down the plant to allow for more profitable growth and land use, but the plant grows again after every fire. I think of these remaindered life forms as posing a critique to capital by its ability to be something else. Without falling into the old traps of agency and resistance, can we think of remaindered life as a form of abolition critique of capitalism? 

NT: I do think this is very much an abolitionist book. It’s interesting that you end up with the talahib as a site for this, and that’s correct – abolition is not limited to the prison and military industrial complex; the emphasis of abolitionists is on building new institutions of life. In thinking about how war is an enterprise – how the creation of expendability takes place within the production of capital, and is not an accessory to it – abolition informs our awareness of how we participate in value, in politics, and even in our daily practices. 

The citation which you start out with resonated with me – although I do not develop an economy of feeling in any explicit way, in the book I do mobilize a lot of feeling. I talk about sadness and joy as sites of what is remaindered politically in the instrumentalization of rage and horror, and these other feelings that we summon in the face of atrocity. Sadness and joy are often diminished in favor of freedom or future or rage. These other feelings help us to attend to the moments that don’t get easily absorbed in the valorization of life-making: the process of redeeming life and the “human” as worth saving. In this mobilization of value, other categories are naturalized as not worth redeeming, and are rendered disposable. Remaindered life is urging us to attend differently to the living of life from the side of disposable life. Sometimes there’s a confusion between what is remaindered and what is disposable. I continue to insist that remaindered life is not simply disposable life, but the excess in the reproduction of what would be deemed disposable.

What I call the “new political economy” of life pertains to this notion that all life can be productive, and I’m also critiquing that. My critique is to say, hang on, not all life is productive, and these gradations of life are in fact what drives the productivity of life in its reproduction. Now, what does it mean to be abolitionist in respect to this? It means understanding that these principles of parsing out life-times of value from life-times of waste operate on many scales that cannot be reduced to certain populations, people, or forms of being. My concept of “life-times” operates on many scales, and it is qualitative; it allows for the experiential aspect of time. This is a long way of saying that the economy of feeling participates in this economy of value and waste. 

But I’d like to hear what you think is abolitionist about it. 

AR: I think the abolitionist part is the very capacity to exist despite being declared disposable, and to produce in excess of what is marketable, or can be rechanneled into capitalist forms of value. So for example the talahib’s capacity to grow again despite being burned – that could be thought of as an abolitionist life form. 

But at the same time – as this is the problem you are presenting us with – people who are “remaindered” are always trying to get back in; they are forced to stretch themselves in order to get by, and to take risks against becoming surplus. People at-risk are forced to be risk-takers. You are showing us how abolition is always in a dialectic struggle with capitalism. It isn’t fully outside, and perhaps there isn’t an outside. Labor still has its hold on us; capitalism is still doing its thing. So I’m not asking you to sketch an emancipatory program out of capitalism for us. 

NT: Thank you! Yes, I wouldn’t use political emancipation in the terms we currently understand, which is a limited horizon. I don’t think anyone at this point is exempt from the pressures that capitalism exerts on all of us to create life under these rules. Contract workers take risks, migrate, they put themselves into the market, accept the terms of their serviceability, and are expended, and then the next person in the family goes through the same cycle. But we can’t see the connectivity and exchangeability of persons in these networks in terms of individual lives. Even if the individual seems to be expended when capitalism spits them out, they are still participating in the social reproduction of their kin, and subsidized through remittances. I want to show this whole fabric of relations that continues to reproduce the lives of people, which capitalism doesn’t pay for. Capitalism relies on this engine of survival, but does not fully command the survival of people. It exists at the edges of its command. What is remaindered are those other conditions that capital does not pay attention to. 

And I do think there are moments of abundance and flourishing that point towards living without that relationship to value. You are right to point out that the talahib, this weed, does exceed the command of capitalism and its cycles of valorization and expenditure. It exists outside of what Marx called real subsumption. For example, in the prison-industrial complex, many lives exist as sheer disposability and expenditure, and not as labor, or use value. Yet even in this ruin, there are life-times of living that emerge and produce qualities that in their fleeting presence are still important but cannot be measured as value. They exceed our understanding of valuable life, and can therefore be the basis of another mode of life. I think that’s where you see the abolitionist potential. Abolitionists remind us that we cannot just destroy without building another way of living. And we, many of us, are living these moments now, not just in the future. It’s a matter of pulling these lifeforms away from capital subsumption.


II. Subject and Servitude

AR: You are inviting us to think about abolition outside of a liberal emancipatory, subject-driven framework, by showing how people survive through connectivity and what you call “vital infrastructures.” This brings us to your critique of the subject, which is central in the book, and central of course to Black feminist critiques of the human in its hierarchized form. The South African scholar Lyn Ossome says that, “those denied full subjectivity are condemned to the collective.” Your writing made me want to reverse the logic behind this phrase: Can being “condemned to the collective” also release us from the captivity of the subject? You write that being human is “the life-form of value,” and you refer to the human as the “trope of value.” You confront the liberal notions tied to the subject, and to the human, as being agentic, propertied, and/or self-owning, which undergirds a hierarchy between the “already-human” and the “becoming-human,” who is always in an aspirational, yet unfulfilled, relationship to freedom. So perhaps being “condemned to the collective” can reverse this hierarchy of the subject.

NT: Is the collective a way out? Yes, I think political emancipation, in the ways that we understand it, always implies an inclusion of those who are marginalized into the categories of worth. Many who work in a decolonial critique of the Anthropocene, in this ecological, planetary crisis we live in, have shown that this lifeform of the human above all other life continues to structure our relations to the world. But the category of the collective still implies the individual as its polar opposite; I would rather think of social beings as human and non-human components of vital networks, who are dividual in the sense that they do not exist as autonomous units. If we think of what the opposite of the subject would be, we would have to stretch our imagination beyond this binary of the individual and collective, towards a much more porous set of relations, using other adjectives and languages that allow for a different ontology than the simply human-subject. 

AR: In thinking of the political stakes of this “mutual beingness” that you convey, I immediately think of the risks or consequences if that becomes a form of political governance at the scale of the state, if we move away from the subject as the primary locus of political action.You argue that political claims are still made through the framework of the subject as a political entity, but you also note a shift in governmentality, from the citizen-worker as a rights-bearing subject, towards populations and data as governed in aggregate form.

NT: Yes, the way out of the subject is not necessarily liberatory. The state is no longer trying to govern citizens, it’s trying to govern people as captive populations, as an investor in, rather than as a biopolitical manager of, populations. That’s the dystopian aspect of getting rid of the subject; people become monetized data and assets for the state.

AR: How do we move beyond this binary between captivity and freedom/subjectivity, as contained in the subject? In Lebanon, I have noted how migrant workers often make political demands as rights-bearing citizens in their home countries, and I have argued that this is a way to make their demands legible to a state that would otherwise not hear them – even as their demands remain aspirational, since the recognition of those rights often does not materialize.

NT: Yes, and I’m not condemning the claims-making by migrants who need to survive and who seek protection from immediate harm. There’s a pragmatics to addressing immediate violence and deprivations that people face, and it is important to recognize that. As you mentioned, migrants participate in the very economies that consume them, and at the same time they engage in life practices that I see as bearing the elements of another mode of life. It’s not an either/or; it is not asking you to choose between saving your life now and saving everybody later. It’s asking us to take care of life now, but also asking what are the ways to do so that do not feed back to capitalist ways of living, and how can we nurture that and further that form of living.

Mutual being also means mutual governance. Kinship, for example, is a mechanism for governing; there are rules, hierarchies, as well as relations of self-governance. But it’s a very different structure of governance than representational democracy, where you elect a foreign entity to represent you, and which is in keeping with capitalism, as the modern political form that we have to rely on.

AR: And you describe the multiple scales at which kinship is deployed as an institution of governance. The Philippines operates as a paternalist “labor-brokerage state,” who “protects” the rights of expat-citizens, in order to legitimize its existence, the effect of which is to keep the overseas worker tethered to the state in a paternalistic grip. 

In my own work, in Lebanon, I describe how kinship is instrumentalized as a mode of governance and manipulation by employers in relation to their servants, who are told that they are “like kin,” which gives them a sense of being significant and irreplaceable, but also serves to disguise the structural relationship of servitude, in which servants are exactly not “subjects of labor,” but rather labor-machines, as you argue; they are fungible, replaceable, exchangeable, applicable at all times, and as such reduced.

NT: Absolutely. Family is not a universal logic. One of the things I describe is how the Philippines, especially under Duterte, has been governed like a clan that transcends all other forms of local clans, such that constituencies who would have otherwise been regionally and ethnically divided become conscripted into this bigger, national clan, and come to see themselves as part of that. This is one of the complexities of how kinship transforms in a postcolonial capitalist logic. In western culture, family has been a crucial technology for capitalism and the transmission of property. In slavery, white slave owners ruled what was familial; slaves were denied kinship and yet absorbed into this symbolic kinship of the family, which was, as you say, a disguise: they were kin until the owner said that they were not. Through these processes, other logics of kinship have become illegible. 

We need more description of social reproduction and kinship in its different forms, so that we can learn to distinguish kinship that has become part of a predatory mechanism under state governance from kinship that is mutually enabling. I don’t want to idealize kinship, or the family; I want us to pay greater attention to the ways people live and mobilize these relations that might point us to more sustainable forms of social being than what is always in front of us, but not exhausted by it. 

Migrant workers participate in capitalism, but even so they are mobilizing logics that are not fully driven by a financial profit-seeking logic. I use the concept of “fate-playing” to understand how migrant workers risk themselves, but the risk is not only financial and entrepreneurial, it is also a cosmic gamble. 

AR: Yes; “fate-playing” has been important for me to think about how migrant workers speculate on their lives in ways that are not fully coded by finance capitalism, directed by profit, but are about securing a “collective future” for the kin, as you call it. But what happens also is that migrants’ futures are invested through the displacement of the family, quite literally across borders. Migrant kinship is both displaced and produced under capitalism, in that way. Migrants invest in their future by starving the present, starving their reproductive time, their time at home. But as people move from one family, they also make new ones elsewhere; life is not only postponed in migration.

NT: People’s life-giving relations are destroyed, but they are also reinvented. Kinship is not static. There’s a kind of know-how that has been passed on and that exceeds the risk-taking, speculative know-how that capitalism teaches us. So what I’m pointing us to is this other kind of know-how, which is important for abolitionism. It doesn’t always take the same form as it used to, precisely because it is also being destroyed – that is the paradox of an imperial relation. Things are preserved at the same time as they are destroyed. This requires a lot of remaking on the part of the colonized. There is sadness in this. And if we bypass the sadness, we miss something; if we’re being utopic about people’s ability to reinvent themselves in zones of depredation, we miss the history of violence. It’s important to stay with the sadness, and the joy, that direct us away from the political instrumentalization of emotion that rushes us towards a solution.

AR: Giving more value to sadness and joy…

NT: Not value, but staying with it, abiding with things, rather than converting them into new value, whether they are political values or rallying cries. Staying with it gives us more time for a different kind of care. We are in an industry that goes through people’s lives and creates arguments and values around it. What I’m asking for is an attention to and a tenderness toward these lives, which is different from extracting whatever lessons we can get from them. 


III. Another Way Out

AR: Speaking of the know-how that emerges from remaindered lives, I also think of the know-how of Remaindered Life – how it might serve as a different model for critical knowledge production and sharing. You write in the opening that your intention with this book is not to produce new information, but instead to rethink what already is; and you do that by taking us through many empirical cases, from Palestine to Philippines to US imperial wars, towards “what might be called the waste products and blind spots that have escaped the dialectic.”[2] Quote from Adorno, Minima Moralia (2005), Verso Books, cited by Tadiar (p.301).  Are you motivating the remainder as a model for a different kind of epistemology and pedagogy even?

NT: Yes, I do understand Remaindered Life as a heuristic and a methodology for attending. It provides a kind of instruction for how to read and interpret; for how we ourselves create claims that are not separate from the claims we see in the world; and to not make the work of others into fodder for our own work. There is a way of producing knowledge that is very capitalist, making lives into raw material for your own work. And I’m not saying that I completely escape that. The aspiration is for a different methodology, and the economy of emotions is important for me in this work, to summon feelings, including by mixing genres and tonalities. If Remaindered Life is a heuristic for seeing, then it is urging a different relationship to what we write about, to what we write for, and to how we write.

AR: I think that relates back to your critique of the subject. You propose knowledge-sharing that is not geared towards furthering the individual subject position, or contributing to the constant newness of knowledge. That’s why I’m thinking of this as a pedagogy.

NT: Yes, and as a pedagogy, it is a critique of the subject and of the author. I am the author of this book in many obvious ways. But I don’t think it’s only about authorial self-production and putting new information on the market place. I also think of this as my attempt to participate in a gift economy. In the book, for example, I describe the work of artists who are resisting extrajudicial killings [in the Philippines], and the way that art enables other kinds of sociality. I try to highlight the connections between the colonized, connections that are sometimes buried. I see these connections as gifts. And this relates back to your idea about the collective as a way out. We can find another way of being for each other. This can be liberating.

Anna Simone Reumert

Anna Simone Reumert is an anthropologist and a feminist writer. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility. Her work has appeared in Cultural Anthropology, mashriq&mahjar, merip, Kohl journal for Body and Gender Research, jadaliyya, among other journals. She is currently working on two book projects: “Future Returns”, which follows Sudanese migrant workers in Lebanon during crisis and revolution, and “Sex and Mobility in Wartime Beirut”, which examines how sex was used as a weapon of extraction and control in the Lebanese civil war.


1 Does Your House Have Lions. 2021. Directed by Vishal Jugdeo and Vqueeram.
2  Quote from Adorno, Minima Moralia (2005), Verso Books, cited by Tadiar (p.301).
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Anna Simone Reumert is an anthropologist and a feminist writer. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility. Her work has appeared in <em>Cultural Anthropology</em>, <em>mashriq&mahjar</em>, <em>merip</em>, <em>Kohl journal for Body and Gender Research</em>, <em>jadaliyya</em>, among other journals. She is currently working on two book projects: “Future Returns”, which follows Sudanese migrant workers in Lebanon during crisis and revolution, and “Sex and Mobility in Wartime Beirut”, which examines how sex was used as a weapon of extraction and control in the Lebanese civil war.

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