*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. 
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.
 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.