Neferti X. M. Tadiar

Remaindered Life

Duke University Press, 2022

456 pages


Reviewed by Iana W. Robitaille

What would it mean to render an account of globalization—of contemporary imperial capitalism—from the side of the surplus, the peripheral, the dispossessed? What life-making practices lie outside of and disrupt the supposedly homogenous time of transnational capital? These questions are at the core of Neferti X. M. Tadiar’s Remaindered Life, a sweeping analysis of the discrepant life-times and orders of the human that emerge from, and in turn reproduce, a state of perpetual imperial war.

Tadiar, who is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, is also the author of Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization (2009) and Fantasy-Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order (2004), as well as co-editor, with Angela Y. Davis, of Beyond the Frame: Women of Color and Visual Representation (2005). Remaindered Life marks an important expansion of this previous work, offering a transnational framing of the colonial codes of race and “sex-gender” that continue to organize the unequal distribution of life and value between global north and south, center and periphery, the already- and the not-yet human. Unearthing vital political lineages among subaltern social groups in the Philippines, China, Mexico, Palestine, the United States, and elsewhere, Remaindered Life gives a Marxist-feminist account of the reproduction of contemporary global capital and tells the story of the “social reproduction of surplus life” that subtends global inequity.

Remaindered Life revises accounts of neoliberalism and biopolitics focused predominantly on labor and capital, inflecting these analyses through a temporal lens. Under the new imperial capitalism that defines our present moment, according to Tadiar, it is the very time of life—the ‘life-time’—that has become the material for calculating and extracting value. Within this reality, the social and life-sustaining capacities once thought external to capitalist production are now subsumed within its global system of extraction, disposal, and accumulation. Even this subsumption leaves a remainder, however, an “activity and sociality of living that is not exhausted in the expenditure of the life-times of others—leftover practices and forms of living that remain superfluous to the production of valued, and even of disposable life.” This vital surplus is ‘remaindered life,’ which Tadiar defines as the actual modes of life-making that exceed capital; an “aesthetic problem and intellectual preoccupation” on the part of global south artists; and a mode of attention and interpretive orientation, or heuristic, attuned to such remaindered life-times. 

In method and form, Tadiar’s book thus identifies and materializes the out-of-time movement of remaindered life. The book is organized into five larger parts, themselves comprised of several chapters and interrupted by three aptly-titled asides: Interregnum, Excursus, Thresholds. While the first part is framed as a theoretical-critical guide for the subsequent sections, there is a recursive quality to the text that invites nonlinear reading; across twelve chapters, ideas and phrases return and repeat. In Part I, “In a Time of War,” Tadiar stages the fundamental political condition of our contemporary postcolonial moment as a struggle between “a war to be human” and “becoming-human in a time of war.” Drawing notably on the work of Sylvia Wynter, Tadiar redraws the category of ‘human’ according to its potential life-times of value or of waste/disposability. Glossing examples in the US prison-industrial system; Philippine war on drugs; poisoned water of Flint, Michigan; dispossession of Indigenous peoples from ancestral lands across North America and the Philippines; detention and policing of migrants at the US-Mexico border; and transnational circuits of feminized domestic and care work from global south to north, Tadiar shows how the disposability of racialized, gendered life-times has become the means of profit for those already deemed human.

The second part, “Life-Times,” elaborates on the ‘global life-times’ that now define imperial capitalism. In addition to life-times of value—that is, life as an object of consumption via labor—there are now entire life-times of waste, or those “with the capacity to yield value as disposable existence.” These are lives meant to be used up and spent, whose very waste becomes the stuff of whole industries of management and reuse. This temporal logic of expendability sustains a global “detention-industrial complex,” operating at state borders and within prisons, that profits not only from incarcerated labor but from the perpetual management and social segregation of “warehoused” lives. Against life-times of value and life-times of waste, Tadiar turns to the risky ‘fate-playing’ of Filipino and Filipina transnational domestic workers and slum dwellers as instantiations of remaindered life. 

In “Globopolis,” Tadiar shifts her analysis to the role of uber-urbanization in a global economy increasingly defined by technologized labor. ‘City everywhere’ is both the aspiration and material reality of capitalist urban development; it is a “fractal enterprise” of channels and platforms meant to facilitate the unrestrained mobility, connection, and serviceability of global metropolitan subjects. Offering Metro Manila as a case in point, Tadiar shows how the life-times of disposable populations are liquid reserves upon which such unfettered movement rests—the ‘vital infrastructure’ and ‘vital platforms’ through which “humans function as media for other humans.” 

“Dead Exchanges” outlines a critique of the discursive operation of the war to be human. Focusing on two constitutive ‘code-scripts’ of this global capitalist project, Tadiar demonstrates how ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ underwrite violent postcolonial and settler colonial processes of dispossession, waste, and accumulation. This is elaborated most fully in an analysis of Rodrigo Duterte’s “just war” on drugs and of the oppositional work of Philippine artist collective RESBAK. Most compelling here, however, is the political solidarity Tadiar draws between her native Philippines and occupied Palestine—a shared experience of dispossession and disposability that nevertheless yields “unexpected gratuitous abundance, or splendor . . . in the everyday arts of survival.” 

In “By the Wayside,” Tadiar turns finally to aesthetic representations of surplus and survival that emerge as responses to the global war to be human. Here, Tadiar offers some of the book’s most satisfying and grounded analysis: through careful readings of film and painting by Philippine artist Lyra Garcellano, as well as of works by several global south artists, Tadiar uncovers a political-aesthetic mode of attention to “the art of making life as a matter of timing, of biding and making time.” These are the unassimilable practices of “striving and strife,” of “getting by and surviving,” shared among the wretched of the earth. 

We may be tempted to romanticize remaindered life—to assign a radical transnational politics to its life-making practices—but Tadiar is careful to caution us otherwise: “This is not resistance by any existing political measure. Nor is it a potential to be tapped, mobilized, and organized.” What is remaindered cannot be instrumentalized; its value or utility cannot be measured. Such modes of life-making and survival are rather “small excesses, which cannot amount to anything” but that nevertheless may sustain the vital work of organized coexistence.

Remaindered Life is a challenging book. By turns lyrical and blunt, hopeful and outraged, densely theoretical and simply descriptive, it is a text that requires a mode of careful and generous attention. In this sense, it refuses the kind of instrumentalist reading that remaindered life itself resists. It marks an important contribution for scholars and students of critical race studies, feminist social theory, transnational American studies, and cultural studies—as well as a necessary reminder to us all that “when we carefully tend to our shared being and living, we find more, and then some.”