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). Continue reading