Body Politics: Corporeal Suffering, Memes and Power/Resistance, with Special Reference to #Occupy, Tahrir Square, ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Rage Against The Machine

*some extremely disturbing images ahead* (and some humorous deployments of Impressionism and Leonardo DiCaprio).

Two weeks ago, Karin Fierke presented a paper at our theory workshop on self-immolation as speech act (part of a forthcoming book entitled The Warden’s Dilemma: Self-Sacrifice, Agency and Emotion in Global Politics with Cambridge University Press). She focused principally on Thich Quang Duc, the South Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself alight and burned to death, silent and still, in Saigon in June of 1963, and on Norman Morrison, an American Quaker who copied Duc’s example in November 1965 by combusting his own flesh outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara, then the United States Secretary of Defence implementing Operation Rolling Thunder, the rain of fire which infamously unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnams North and South than the total dispatched during the entirety of the Second World War.

This mimesis, an affinity not only of form but also of sacrificial politics, was cited as a mechanism for rupturing the symbolic order. Both Duc and Morrison engaged in a corporeal self-violence so forceful that it not only offended senses, but in fact extended a certain community. An act, substituting for speech, argument or manifesto, which forced itself on high politics and forged an international sensibility until that point lacking. One more contemporary dimension of that imitation and repetition is that many must have encountered the image the same way I did, which was via the front cover of Rage Against The Machine’s pugnacious, convulsively political eponymous debut in 1992. And not just the image, but a vague sense of the story imparted by sleeve notes (and lyrics today associated both with opposition to the media grip of Simon Cowell and with visions of the riotous encounter).

Self-immolation persists in a certain tradition of struggle, but the relevance of these themes – the body, sacrifice, the edifice of politics and protest, the circulation of images – has coalesced potently in the wake of recent events (on which more in a moment).

The self-sacrifice of burning, essentially irreversible and in that sense ‘suicidal’, is paralleled in the embodied suffering of the hunger strike, slower, more clearly tactical and limited in its ends, but not much less shocking for that. Bobby Sands, a reference both for Rage Against The Machine and for Steve McQueen in the blistering, unforgettable ‘Hunger’, stands as the paradigm for this politicised starvation. A clear resonance is with Gandhi, like Duc emblematic of disciplined physical torment contra colonialism, but the more compelling affinity is with the concentration camp survivors iterated at Bergen-Belsen and Trnopolje, whose image is somehow reincarnated and twisted in images of politically-chosen, if not quite voluntary, emaciation.

To do to oneself (or to appear to do to oneself) what others had forced upon them. To find and stretch the limits of endurance in a deliberately perverse silent howl at power (hunger as politics by other means). The force of these representations is in the way they trouble and traverse that border, demonstrating in their conscious destruction of self an assertion of being. As in the idea that suicide is something that only humans can do. These physical acts, seemingly universal in the feelings they elicit but not requiring language, are often overlaid with statements that seek to turn them into political programs and to make clear their meaning and intent. That in itself makes them more than just body politics.

Surveying the structure of torture (identified as: 1. the infliction of pain; 2. the objectification of the subjective attributes of pain; and 3. the translation of the objectified attributes of pain into the insignia of power) Elaine Scarry diagnosed the special strangeness of physical suffering and the mode of its political movement:

Only when a person throws his head back and swallows three times does he begin to apprehend what is involved in one hundred and three or three hundred and three swallows, what atrocities one’s own body, muscle, and bone structure can inflict on oneself. The political prisoner is, of course, reminded of this in every moment…

…[the denial of pain in torture] occurs…in the conversion of the enlarged map of human suffering into an emblem of the regime’s strength. This translation is made possible by, and occurs across, the phenomenon common to both power and pain: agency. The electric generator, the whips and canes, the torturer’s fists, the walls, the doors, the prisoner’s sexuality, the torturer’s questions, the institution of medicine, the prisoner’s screams, his wife and children, the telephone, the chair, a trial, a submarine, the prisoner’s ear drums – all these and many more, everything human or inhuman that is either physically or verbally, actually or allusively present, has become part of the gutted realm of weaponry, weaponry that can refer equally to pain or power.

Follow Scarry’s advice. Tilt your head back and fully swallow three times in quick succession. In many crucial respects, the spectacular encounter of protest cannot reach these depths. Its time is the brief span of hours or days, not the elongated trap of a confinement without limit. Its space is that of contingency and relative openness rather than the total prison of the police state. Even where the kettle is not immediately broken, dispersal comes soon enough. Its pain is light and fleeting by comparison, a tool of shock and awe, not of systematic, maliciously bastardised surgery. People miscarry in Seattle, and in Tahrir Square people die, but it is not the comprehensive unmaking of the torture chamber. [1]

What the contexts share, and share increasingly as situations escalate, is a certain relation between corporeal suffering and the politics of power/resistance. In the case of torture, it is the unmaking of inchoate physical agony which is re-made into the language of power, which is named (we may risk interpellated) by the generic regime Scarry identifies. The suffering is private and the naming is effective not because activists on the outside see the suffering of the chamber so much as apprehend it as a real possibility to be written on their bodies (and aren’t the best threats those that don’t manifest directly?).

Physical suffering in moments of protest and in the encounter between resistance and regime turn this dynamic. The public and circulated vision of a human acted on by the forces of state power also takes a nameless pain and tries to translate it. The empathetic reaction elicited so broadly (although not quite universally) in response to the clear and uncomplicated exercise of repression is generalised. A kind of bodily commons surfaces in the the visceral recognition of eyes and mouths and flesh like ours in pain. Call this the Orwell reaction: “When I see a policeman with a club beating a man on the ground, I don’t have to ask whose side I’m on”.

In the conjunction of Tahrir Square and #occupy, the shared objects that act on and contain bodies evoke a common struggle. Riot shields, tents and tear gas as the new universal grammar of politics. An association in many ways too easy, but one which nevertheless attempts in its own way to convert suffering into counter-power. A public sphere, however truncated, in which images circulate and repeat reverses the direction established by the torturer’s chamber, using the corporeal commons to enlarge, rather than restrict the space of possibilities. As when only passingly political art critics begin to discuss the tear gassing of Dorli Rainey in terms of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ.

Certainly, the question of pepper spray and paramilitaries appears to have taken off majorly state-side. By now you will doubtless recognise immediately the snatched image which served as trigger, the weirdly calm parallel to Thich Quang Duc’s immolation portrait, today captured not by the analog precision of a tipped-off photographer but in the 360˚ coliseum of digital cameras, smart phones and iPads. Lt. John Pike (the name itself now close to the status of byword for police brutality) casually manifesting unaccountable power, authority beyond reason, and so providing the substratum of identification which itself seems to establish, without argument, the righteousness of the protest (the video is very difficult to watch, but ends well).

It’s clearly premature to grant these images the status attained by Duc. And it’s hard to imagine the sheer force of a burning man becoming subject to repetition, modification and ever-more free-floating and surreal interpretation the way Pike already has. This gap requires some discussion of compassion fatigue and protest art in the age of virtual reproduction. But not too much. These images have a different quality and move in a different way: jovial and sardonic in the face of callousness, but also now repeated for their own sake.

Megan Gaber identifies the meme-ification of Pepper Spray Cop as the moment #occupy might really take off, moving “beyond its concern with economic justice to espouse, simply, justice”. Since the protests have thus far been about ‘spikey’ moments of spectacle rather than a ‘sticky’ focus on the movement, Gaber sees in the spread of these images a raising of the threshold of popular investment in #occupy. Both emotionally and in terms of putting their own bodies on the line, Lt. Pike’s unintended audience are now more committed. As Linda Katehi has recently discovered.

This is plausible, but the discussion above demands a certain caution. Why? Because the act of translation is a fraught one, and the sense of justice that is brought forth is thin, even negative. Negative solidarity is still solidarity, to be sure, but its limits are real. This is necessarily so, since it is the unnamed, visceral identification with physical pain and with powerlessness before a bully which allows the images to have their effect in the first place. As soon as we introduce a thicker sense of justice, or of politics, the identification begins to recede in scale and scope. Questions arise as to the tactical choices of #occupy, about unity and diversity, about brutality as individualised or systematic, about moving from resistance to program (and what the difference is), and so on.

The speech act of self-suffering, consciously chosen successively in different ways by Duc, Sands, the Tahrir Square occupiers and the students at UC Davis, is a cry, perhaps a scream. It asserts the subject. But its capacity to galvanise and direct larger projects is more complicated. After all, Duc’s protest against US support for its South Vietnamese proxy apparently did move Washington decision-makers to change their policy, but in the direction of military escalation. Bodies carry the political, and rupture it in moments of crisis, and stand as the most basic level at which we recognise and react to oppression, but they remain separated, and in some senses still strangely alien, from it.

[1] Interestingly, I am not yet aware of a single image that captures the Egyptian struggle the way Pepper Spray Cop encapsulates the para-militarised ‘civil’ order of protest in the West. Tahrir Square is live, and it is unfolding on Twitter, and it already has its pantheon of martyrs and heroes, but the frozen image that will serve to symbolise it doesn’t yet seem to exist.

10 thoughts on “Body Politics: Corporeal Suffering, Memes and Power/Resistance, with Special Reference to #Occupy, Tahrir Square, ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Rage Against The Machine

  1. ‘Like’ is understatement. I ‘Love’ this post. My question would be, how ‘thin’ is this solidarity, actually? Either on its own terms, or compared to other forms of solidarity? I respect the care with which the argument is put, although my feeling is that actually there is a much more potent force within this…


    • Cheers M.,

      That, as they say, is an empirical question. 🙂 My sense is that the solidarity is quite thick in the negative sense, by which I mean I think you can mobilise many people, and perhaps permanently alter their political consciousness, if the movement becomes about ending certain practices. So I expect that the UC Davis affair and #Occupy generally will change policing, university culture and such-like (or at least lead to major campaigns and pressure on that issue).

      My uncertainty is more about the relationship between the cause that originally set the stage for the body politics and the kind of movement that follows a ‘successful’ episode of self-sacrifice (does somebody want to theorise this in terms of the Event?). So, in the case Duc, it seems the motivating factor was opposition to the regime of Diem in South Vietnam. But the symbolism of it became, and I would say still is, about a forceful opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, which was actually at minuscule levels in 1963 relative to what it would become. Was that the solidarity Duc was after? I’m not sure.

      Similarly, I would think that Bobby Sands’ hunger strike was crucial in calling attention to the face-off between London and the Republican movement. What I doubt is whether the kind of solidarity generated by seeing Sands or Duc or the UC Davis students in pain can be translated into a commonality of cause (in favour of Republicanism, against Catholic regimes or for economic reform, respectively). If the power of the images is in their immediacy and the way they escape formulated ethical arguments, it would seem that they can’t be connected intrinsically to those thicker arguments, and that the deciding factor in their success won’t be the raw injustice captured on film, but how that is made permanent in the process of political argument.

      I think an exception to that would be the ‘use’ of such self-sacrificial strategies in anti-colonial and anti-racists struggles. Again, I’m speaking without having seriously looked at the cases, but it makes sense to me that displays of conscious personhood by subaltern others would have a more lasting effect, and one more closely related to the original cause. If deliberate self-harm in some sense proves your humanity, then I think the effects are more drastic than is likely to be the case for #occupy, where the issue is not whether these people are human, but whether they are right, what to do about policies, etc.


      • Great post indeed, Paul.

        I share your cautiousness as to the wider political effects of such instances of self-harm or gratuitous violence. Empathy with suffering and visceral reactions to perceived abuses of power are fairly widespread responses and can broadly unite people in common sentiments of outrage (although you can still find some arguing that Abu Ghraib was merely the equivalent of fraternity hazing or that the use of pepper spray is just a food product: But beyond that, it is much more difficult to agree on what such incidents mean or how they relate to much broader political agendas. As I’ve tried to argue previously here, violence per se is essentially mute and as such a blank canvas upon which a gamut of interpretations can be projected.

        The Tunisian revolution was notably ignited by the self-immolation of a young man in difficult personal circumstances, seemingly to protest his mistreatment by police and local officials. His full motives will probably only ever be known to him but it doesn’t seem that he intended his actions to be part of a protest against the regime as a whole, let alone as a revolutionary action. Yet the indignation felt by many people and the echo of his story to existing feelings of humiliation and discontent among the population came to be channeled into the movement that we saw in January 2011. As it turns that act of self-immolation was a pivotal moment but only contingently in the context of propitious circumstances and interpreted and acted upon in ways that much exceeded the designs of its author.

        On your last point on the subaltern, I would add a qualification. Such strategies can only conceivably work in contexts in which there are minimum conditions of receptivity. A hunger strike in a concentration camp or in the Gulag is unlikely to move the powers that be. In those settings as perhaps in others, there has to already be a minimal acknowledgement of common humanity and/or right to basic dignity.


      • Thanks Antoine,

        I’d concur with that. My failure to include Mohamed Bouazizi as an example of self-immolation is a huge oversight (not least as it was one of the things explicitly discussed in the seminar). I should have linked to you too. And the ‘audience’ I had in mind for the anti-colonial example was a more amorphous ‘world public opinion’/’colonial domestic public’ entity rather than the camp guards or imperial overlords themselves who, as you say, are unlikely to be touched by the suffering of those they rule.


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  3. Hi Pablo. Great post. I was wondering if you could extend this analysis to suicide bombing? It’s a symbolic act of anger, rebellion and protest (most youth who engage in suicide bombing aren’t looking at it from a cost-benefit basis–that’s why organizations employ them, but that’s not why people are motivated to become suicide bombers.) It essentially turns the body into a violent political symbol, and most (failed) participants will mentioned desperation and the oppressor leaving them no other choice…but it’s also divisive. The reaction isn’t Orwellian. When people see suicide bombers, they’re not going to necessarily take one side. But “human bombs” are constructed as martyrs, as people willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. These bombers perceive themselves to be victims.

    Is there are difference here? Does this only apply to people willing to be run over by armed vehicles and who refuse to fight back (if that’s the case, then why were people sympathetic to those in Tahrir, who did, at some points, use violence?) Or does this just say more about how certain forms of violence and suffering are legitimized?


    • Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, suicide bombing is in some ways a cognate form (and is one of the examples Karin Fierke is looking at, as far as recall). The discussion over this point in the seminar focused on the difference between sacrificial acts which involve a suffering locating almost wholly on the self (immolation, starvation, and in my example, making oneself the easy target of militarised ‘public order’) and those which combine a degree of self-sacrifice with extensive suffering for others (often not ‘combatants’ in any formal way).

      That strikes me as an important difference, not only because of the obvious problems around the ethics of the act itself, but also because that targeting of others for death complicates the capacity of the act to extend community and inspire others via a noble or dignified suffering.

      This needs to be separated very clearly from questions of religion and culture, although they are of course all mixed up together in the way they initially strike us. Until fairly recently the Tamil Tigers (a secular group) were the predominant users of suicide operations, but in all cases it would seem the ‘audience’ for the acts is one that can expand, but doesn’t seem to in the way as is the case for other self-sacrifice. For example, when people express some sympathy with suicide bombers, it’s about ‘understanding’ how someone could become that desperate, rather than holding them up as a paradigm of political righteousness.

      I think the question of counter-violence is more complicated, because the situation which provokes the act can also rely on body politics in a similar way. So if police/soldiers fire on protesters and they respond with bricks or even bullets of their own, there’s still a gap in relation to carefully and with malice of aforethought killing others in your act of self-sacrifice.


      • Thanks for the reply! Just wanted to address a couple of points:

        “…but also because that targeting of others for death complicates the capacity of the act to extend community and inspire others via a noble or dignified suffering.”

        The thing is, the way martyrdom is constructed (in both the LTTE and in the Middle East), it is considered a noble act against an oppressive colonizer/invader…In fact, in the Tamil language, what we call “suicide bombing” is often translated as “gift of self.” Maybe for people outside the in-group, suicide bombing might not be considered noble, but for those inside the in-group it might be a way of reclaiming dignity, a la Franz Fannon. And since these deaths are highly advertised, it does inspire other people to follow in their footsteps. (Sorry, my thesis is on the LTTE, so I’m going by empirical analysis.) Many Tamil youth, for example, see these acts as inspiring and a way to be useful, as opposed to staying at home and being “useless.” So I’m not sure if I can really differentiate the difference between suicide bombing and setting oneself on fire based on this distinction. Both can inspire others and both can be perceived as noble.

        To be honest, I don’t think there is a difference between suicide bombing and other forms of self-harm on a purely symbolic level. They both turn the body into political agents that send messages. I think people are disgusted by suicide bombing because it harms those they perceive as innocent and involves other bodies, whereas if I was to set myself on fire, the harm would be contained to one person. In that sense I agree with you. But I don’t think the way people turn their bodies into political messages differs across the spectrum. The difference might be in the result, not the method.

        “Until fairly recently the Tamil Tigers (a secular group) were the predominant users of suicide operations, but in all cases it would seem the ‘audience’ for the acts is one that can expand, but doesn’t seem to in the way as is the case for other self-sacrifice”

        Totally agree with this. But can we really separate symbolic acts by the appeal it holds for the audience? It seems that if the difference between harming others and only harming yourself is the difference between having a narrow and wide sympathetic audience, then there might not be that much of a difference, morally speaking. Or is that a big difference? I might be be misunderstanding what you’re saying here, so please correct me if I am.

        Again, thanks for taking the time to respond.


      • Hi Sarah,

        Agree with all your points. I wouldn’t at all deny that suicides/martyrdoms/gifts involved a sacrificial body politics. What I was trying to stress was precisely the scale of the appeal, not the moral difference as such. So the fact that LTTE operations appeal to those already within the relevant symbolic sphere is what makes it more limited than the examples I was trying to discuss. Similarly, standard police violence at protests outrages those already sympathetic (and some ‘external’ others), but doesn’t puncture wider consciousness the way #occupydavis and Pepper Spray Cop have. By the same token, the interesting thing about Duc in this context is not that fellow Vietnamese Buddhists understood and acknowledged his gesture, but that it also made sense to Quakers and others in 1960s North America.

        In short, I do think it’s a matter of scale and appeal and that seems crucial to me if we are looking at such acts/sacrifices as forms of propaganda.


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