Bodies in Pain: Yasiin Bey and the Force-Feeding of Hunger Strikers at Guantanamo Bay

Lauren WilcoxA guest post from Lauren Wilcox, currently Charles and Amy Scharf Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Lauren is starting a new job as a University Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge this fall. Her  work is located at the intersections of international relations, political theory, and feminist/queer theory in investigating the consequences of thinking about bodies and embodiment in the study of international practices of violence and security. She is the author of articles in Security Studies, Politics & Gender and, most recently, International Feminist Journal of Politics. Lauren’s current book manuscript is entitled Practices of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations.


Mos Def Nose Tube

Earlier this month, the UK human rights organization Reprieve released a video in which Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, a well-known and critically acclaimed American hip-hop artist and actor, underwent (or attempted) the force-feeding procedure undergone by hunger strikers imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. In this five minute video, Bey dresses in an orange jumpsuit like those worn by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and states simply that this is the ‘standard operating procedure’ for force-feeding hunger striking prisoners. He is then shackled to a chair resembling those used to force-feed prisoners (such as those pictured below). Bey is approached and held down by two people who attempt to insert a nasogastric tube down his nasal passage way. The video shows Bey struggling against the nasogastric tube, crying out, protesting, yelling for it to stop, and ultimately the force feeding is not carried out. The video is extremely emotional and difficult to watch. After the attempted force-feeding ends, Bey struggles to describe what it feels like, describing it as ‘unbearable’. It ends as it begins, with Bey stating ‘peace’ and ‘good morning’.

For some background context, 166 prisoners remain in Guantánamo Bay: of these, 126 have been cleared for release as not posing any threat to US national security, but are still being imprisoned. To protest their treatment and indefinite confinement prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes since the prison camp opened in July of 2002, the first wide scale hunger strike reached a peak in June 2005, when between 130-200 out of approximately 500 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay began refusing food. Hunger strikes again reached a peak in the spring and summer of 2013, and are ongoing with around 100 prisoners refusing food, and of those, between 44 and 46 are being force-fed (pictured above is an image of an inmate being hauled to the medical facilities to be force-fed), a number so high that the military had to send a back-up team of medical personnel to assist with the force-feeding of prisoners. While the force-feeding of hunger strikers when virtually unnoticed in the media in 2005/6, and again in 2009, the latest months have brought renewed attention to the plight of those who have been held at Guantánamo Bay, some for over a decade, with seemingly no progress made on holding tribunals or securing release of the remaining prisoners. Prisoners have spoken out, including an op-ed published in the NY Times by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel entitled “Gitmo is Killing Me”. While President Obama has recently renewed his pledge to close Guantánamo Bay, and a federal judge has even more recently stated that while she had no power to stop the force-feedings, Obama could himself order the force-feedings stopped.

What are the effects of Bey’s action? As someone whose work revolves around issues of torture, warfare and other forms of political violence, as well as issues of embodiment from feminist/queer and other critical perspectives, the actions of Yasiin Bey were of particular interest to me. I know some people were reluctant to watch, in perhaps a similar way that certain people are reluctant, if not opposed, to, say, reproducing the images of the ‘sexual abuse’ scandal at Abu Ghraib, not only because viewing such representations of pain may cause discomfort for some people, but also of what may be called the ‘pornography of pain’, in which representations of pain can be obscenely titillating precisely because of their taboo (this is why I’ve chosen to provide a description of Bey’s video as well, although this does not completely eliminate the problem).

Force Feeding Chair

Comparisons can also be made to the late Christopher Hitchens, conservative author and commenter, who volunteered to be waterboarded. Unlike Bey, he did not believe prior to undertaking this experience that the treatment in question constituted torture. Yasiim Bey’s force-feeding had a different purpose—not to prove or disprove that force-feeding was ‘really’ torture (medical ethicists around the world agree that force-feeding mentally competent patients is an ethical violation) but to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Hitchens volunteered himself as a skeptical arbitrator of the question of whether waterboarding constituted torture—a fact only denied by certain other conservatives. The voices of human rights activists and those who themselves had been waterboarded were apparently not enough, but the experience and judgment of a white man supposedly enough to warrant a column proclaiming to add firsthand experience to the debate and “believe me, it’s torture”.

Elaine Scarry famously wrote that pain cannot be represented, it can only be felt in the body as an interior, subjective experience. Bey’s actions can be read, on one level, as an attempt to represent the pain of the hunger striking prisoners who are being force-fed. As no video or images of this procedure used against the detainees has been released or leaked, Bey has substituted his own body. Bey is not being force-feed because he is deemed to lack the reason necessary to decide on his own whether or not to refuse food as a matter of political speech, his force-feeding itself was political ‘speech’. While the video shows Bey in intense pain, in liberal societies it is not so much pain itself that makes force-feeding torture—that is, that constitutes the illegal use of government force. Pain itself is not expressly disavowed, rather, as Talal Asad argues in Formations of the Secular, it is an excess of pain that is disavowed. Furthermore, it is rather the lack of consent for the violation of the body’s integrity that makes force-feeding prima-facie torture: citing writer Lindsey Beyerstein, John Protevi describes the forcefeeding of women when they had previously declared themselves to be opposed to such procedures as ‘tube rape’. What defines ‘excessive’ pain is constituted by gendered, racial, and colonial logics. Studies making the rounds in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin that shows white people literally do not feel the pain of black people as much as they do white people.

Elizabeth Dauphinée argues that visual expressions of pain flatten the experience of pain by only capturing visible causes or expressions of pain, in which “people become generalizations of their plights”, further distancing people from one another. Dauphinée makes the important point in regard to the circulation of the photographs from Abu Ghriab that “the ‘ethical’ use of imagery of torture and other atrocities is always in a state of absolute tension: the bodies in the photographs are still exposed to our gaze in ways that render them abject, nameless and humiliated—even when our goal in the use of that imagery is to expose their condition.” The video of Bey being forcefed raises the specter of what Himadeep Muppidi refers to as “bodies in pain on the horizon,” the bodies that always already cannot be heard from, but only viewed in their pain and suffering as objects of pity in International Relations. “Pity” as an affect (re)produces hierarchical relations and the objectification and abjectification of certain bodies in International Relations. Dauphinée is concerned with representations of ‘bodies in pain’ serving to reproduce the very abjection that such narratives are meant to counteract. Furthermore, as Judith Butler has argued, images of certain bodies in pain or dead bodies can also be used triumphantly to celebrate the punishment or demise of figures that stand as signs of evil—examples include the large photos of the dead bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and, in darker corners of the internet, images of dead Osama bin Laden or ‘drone porn,’ images of destruction by UAVs. Such ‘souvenir’ images recall the other images of the demise of racialized men, such as photographs of lynchings (trigger warning for beyond the main page on that link).

But the body in Bey’s video is not voiceless, and it is not a photograph, it is a video with sounds, words, and a narrative. Bey’s use of his body in this video poses interesting questions that may challenge a similar reading to Dauphinée’s. To do so, we need to start at a different place than Dauphinée—with the issue not the ‘representation’ of pain, but the circulation of suffering, humiliation, and despair as emotions. Sara Ahmed and others associated with the ‘affective turn’ argue that emotions do not exist in singular bodies; rather, emotions circulate among bodies, and work on the surfaces of bodies to align or attach some bodies together and others away from each other. Ahmed argues that emotions are not psychological states, but social and cultural practices. Bey’s video challenge those who watch to feel what Bey feels, to viscerally feel what it is like to be forcefed.

Bey is a black man, a Muslim, an artist, a political activist, and celebrity. In my reading, by donning the uniform and undertaking the forcefeeding procedure, and by narrating such an ordeal with a simple statement of ‘peace’ and positive recognition of the audience (‘good morning’), Bey’s performance asks the audience to imagine that this could also be them, just as it could be him. He (temporarily) made himself abject, treated brutally and inhumanely. As a black man and a Muslim, such a performance runs the risk of reproducing the equation of masculine, racialized and Muslim bodies as abject bodies that deserve the harsh treatment they are so often subject to under racist criminal justice systems, and, racist cultures, producing contempt or indifference. But: as an American, and as an musician and actor with a fair amount of celebrity, Bey is also someone whom (at least some) people are used to watching and paying attention to. Bey’s is a ‘body that matters,’ or at least occupies multiple spaces in relation to social power and privilege. What is perhaps too quickly dismissed as a publicity stunt can be read as a performance in the Butlerian sense of speaking, feeling, resolutely human subject whose, thought his words and actions and the emotions they set into circulations, ask to be aligned with those who are both like him – Muslim, racialized, male – and unlike him – non-American citizens, non-famous.

I’m not an expert on Bey’s life or work, but I found this piece to provide some useful context and added dimension to what it might mean to ‘ask to be seen as’ human through the performative effects of his suffering, his insistence that the suffering stop, and his simple words of ‘peace’ and ‘good morning’. Furthermore, my colleague, Lester Spence, suggested to me that Bey’s force feeding performance could also be read in terms of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr’s practice of non-violent resistance. As such, it could be read as a critique of Obama and a message to black audiences that the continuing struggle for human rights involves supporting the hunger strikers at Guantánamo Bay. Could we perhaps understand Bey’s embodied performance as an attempt at aligning an distanced alienated audience who perhaps do not have to struggle to be recognized as human with those who are most assuredly not granted the status of human (hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay) though his own performance of abjectification, but a performance that is not merely a picture of pain or humiliation, but shows a deeply human struggle to comprehend the nature violence people inflict on each other and its dehumanizing effect?

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3 thoughts on “Bodies in Pain: Yasiin Bey and the Force-Feeding of Hunger Strikers at Guantanamo Bay

  1. Pingback: That does say “Eyeball licking,” right? | Everblog

  2. Pingback: Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’ (The Disorder of Things) | Uma (in)certa antropologia

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