The Unbearable Lightness of Death

A little while ago, I listened to a podcast titled “Governing the dead – who has authority over death?”. A main theme of the podcast was, that the control over death and the dead is intimately linked with sovereignty and political power. Having just binge-read Agamben for the Unruly term paper, this rang a bell, and at the risk of venturing into a subject, that is too gloomy for a blog, I am going to reflect out loud on death and its unruly potential.

Can taking (back) control over (one’s own) death reveal the fragility and limits of the side of modern state power that aims to keep us alive for as long as possible? Or can it be a way of resisting the other side of state power that kills and loots as it pleases? I consider two very different perspectives.

My grandfather died five years ago. In the last years of his life, he had a very practical and factual way of going about his own forthcoming death. I remember talking to him on the phone one day a year or two before he died. It was early December and I asked him what he wanted for Christmas – a new sweater? a pair of woolen socks? “None of that”, he replied. “I have so many pairs of socks, and I don’t have enough days left to wear them before I die”. Such an otherwise rational statement was unsettling for my indoctrinated welfare-heart that regarded death as the ultimate taboo.

When his time came, my grandfather challenged the death-denying narrative of the welfare state in the way he insisted on controlling, to the extent possible, the timing of his own death. He stopped breathing in his own bed in his own house after weeks of having refused treatment and hospitalization. To him, all such measures were nonsense. He was ready to die, and nobody could convince him otherwise. Without knowing it, I think that by refusing the never-ending attempts of the state to optimize and extend life, my grandfather was unruly. Even though his resistance was against the stubborn and forceful solicitude of the state – and not against destructive state brutality, which is what we have most often discussed in our unruly politics class.

At the other end of the scale is a tragic story about a Pakistani asylum seeker who recently committed suicide by jumping of a hotel building in Leipzig, Germany. His asylum request had been rejected the day before. When I first heard about this, I thought that maybe this man’s decision to die because life was unbearable was powerful and meaningful because it sent a message. Because the man stepped out of the line of refugees and asylum seekers that are constantly being escorted, controlled and pushed back and forth by war and poverty and governments. He refused to be escorted any longer. Maybe this attempt of “according flesh instead of voice the means to establish one’s status as a speaking subject”, as Nyers and Rygiel put it, can strike a chord. However, giving it some more thought, I am not sure if such a definitive demonstration of voicelessness holds any power in today’s society.

Foucault thought that in modern society, power is not a relationship of domination by the sovereign over its subjects, instead, it is mainly productive and characterised by the presence of some measure of freedom. I buy that. And it is important that we are not naïve about this kind of power – because while it is productive it is certainly also dangerous, not least because it is often subtle or even invisible. However, while I agree that this form of power is still going strong, like the story about my grandfather reminds us, I also think that power more and more often turns into that old-fashioned form of sovereign domination. These days, the facade of the friendly state that, by all means possible, cares for life is crackling. Brute force is everywhere. Bodies are nothing but bodies that are thrown around by powerholders. Talk about bare life! Touché, Agamben.

I do realize that this is not new. Sovereign brutality is as old as the sovereign. What is new, I think, is the indifference with which the powerful can let it go on right in front of everyone’s eyes without any real objection. Agamben would say, that this is not surprising, because for citizens to understand themselves as such and to value their citizenship, they need to be able to see the non-citizen, the bare life. Essentially, then, we are never going to stop treating some people as subhuman. Trump is telling us that almost every day. Assad is telling us that. Putin is. Lars Løkke (the Danish Prime Minister) is.

While the authoritarian turn that seems to be happening in the USA and in Europe is unsettling on so many levels, I am going to suggest something positive about it: it is more contrasted and confrontational and therefore “easier” to attack – verbally at least. It is easier to criticize Trump than it was to criticize Obama – because Trump is serving his divisive, authoritarian bullshit to us on a silver platter. It is easier to take a stance on right and wrong (whichever stance one chooses) because what is being done to and said about women, refugees, people living in poverty or with a disability, is so unsubtle and so harsh that it cannot be misunderstood.

But there is also a danger, and that takes me back to the point about the Pakistani man’s suicide in Leipzig, that we are already adapting to this new ‘unsubtleness’ and are shrugging our shoulders at state-sanctioned atrocities at a pace that might lead to said shoulders being dislocated. When an asylum-seeker jumps off a hotel rooftop in Leipzig, do most people think: “this is what the world has come to, we must resist!” or “this is what the world has come to, but it is not really my problem” or “I feel sorry for the guy and all, but did he have to do it in front of everyone?”.

Sources

Agamben, G., 1995. Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life, part two. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault Power – Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 (pp. 208-226). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nyers, P. and Rygiel, K., 2014. Citizenship, migrant activism and the politics of movement. London: Routledge.

Disrupt! Stand up! Shake our streets with a glimpse of disorder!

Being indignant has never sufficed. A negative emotion cannot replace the affirmative Idea and its organization, any more than a nihilistic riot can claim to be a politics.

When History reawakens, it is the reawakening that matters; it is what is to be saluted (…). As for the results, we shall see.

– Alain Badio

10 years ago, on March 1st 2007, the part of Copenhagen where I live, Nørrebro, entered a state of anarchy. A clash between young protesters and the police resulted in more than 700 arrests. I did not live there at the time, and if I had, I would have probably stayed inside and watched the drama unfold on TV. I don’t think I really embraced the potential for rebellion and disruption in my youth/teenage years. The young people my age at the time that did participate in the riots were almost fictional figures to me. Where I came from in the heart of Denmark’s mainland far away from the capital, such aggressive behaviour was not an option – social policing in favour of social stability and citizen obedience operated perfectly.

The riots went on for six days between young left-wing activists (as they are often labeled) and the police and were a reaction to the clearing and demolition by the police of the Youth House – a hang-out and gathering point for young anarchists – on the main arterial road, Jagtvej 69. The clearing was ordered by the new owners: a sect-like Christian church, who bought the grounds from the Municipality in 2000.

The Youth House was an institution. It had a long history before it became the Youth House and even hosted Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg prior to World War I. As the Youth House, it was a place for the rejects of society, for the anarchists, the creative, the provocative, the visionary, the angry. For some, it was the symbol of freedom and a radically alternative space in a city – and a country – that lacked imagination. For others, it was a breeding ground for radicalised, anti-democratic youth.

The clearance ordered by the Christian church was an unbearable and highly contentious action that sparked anger and frustration among the users of the house and their allies. Every year since, the clearance has been marked with demonstrations in the area led by young people in black hoodies, scarves covering their mouths and noses and with big banners reading ‘Intet glemt. Intet tilgivet.’ – ‘Nothing forgotten. Nothing forgiven.’

This year was no exception. On the 1st of March a small protest-march (approximately 1,000 people) began from the city center and quickly became violent. While the majority marched peacefully, a fraction of the demonstrators smashed bank and shop windows on the way to the now empty lot of the former Youth House (Yes, you read correctly, the lot is still empty! When the Youth House was torn down, nothing was ever built in its place and today the empty space is a bare, grey reminder of the victory of state power over the inexistent.)

Photos: The empty plot of land at Jagtvej 69. The word ‘MAGTVEJ 69’ is written in graffiti on the wall. The ‘J’ in Jagtvej has been substituted with an ‘M’. ‘Magt’ is the Danish word for power.

I was not in Denmark when the demonstration took place on March 1st. And if I had been, I would not have participated. Not because I do not sympathise, but because I am not sure what I am supposed to sympathise with. Reading about the demonstration and hearing the demonstrators and Youth House activists that did participate talk about it, there is no trace of excitement. No sense of dynamic contention. No optimism. No fidelity. Just destruction. Resignation. Nihilism. And on the other side of the Danish TV screens: indignation. In the days that followed, social media and newspaper opinion pieces echoed the same message from the voices of Welfare Denmark:

“What do you young people have to complain about? You are privileged and spoilt. Your violence is meaningless. You have no right to ruin decent people’s shop-windows. Pull yourselves together. Get an education. Get a job. Contribute to society.”

I do not argue in favour of physical destruction of shops and streets, but I do want to say: No! Don’t listen. Disrupt. Stand up. Shake our streets with a glimpse of disorder. I think, that despite its lack of vision, the demonstration on the 1st of March had significance that transgressed the isolated event. It was a reminder, that there are pockets in this pretty little society, that refuse to be controlled.

The inexistent stirred. Created ripples on the water.

But did the March 1st demonstration have any historical and political significance? I say it did not. Why? Because it lacked edge and direction. And not direction as the one you will find in a political party manifesto or a government’s five-year plan. No, it lacked the kind of direction that manifests as an idea of what needs to be changed – what is the common battle and why must it be fought?

To hell with the expected outputs, but at least shed light on the injustices – appeal to the authority of truth.

In Denmark, there is very little latitude for the ones that stand out – Danish society is hypnotically streamlined. And the solidarity that was, is diminishing. If the riot is to be historically significant, it must make clear what it is rioting over. The riot of 2007 was significant. I think, that it has dug its way into the consciousness of most Copenhageners. And it seems clear to me, that the nostalgia surrounding the 2007 riot is a key ingredient in the yearly demonstrations that have followed. But to what extent can we utilise nostalgia? Can it also be damaging? There will be Danes that will say “back in the day, the youth had something to fight for. But today…”. But I think, that that is mistaken. Of course there are still battles to be fought. What about the battle for waithood? The battle for the space for creativity, provocation, mistakes, inefficiency, the non-market-oriented. If the youth do not believe in this battle, then who will?

Where is that glimpse of truth?

 

Badiou, A. (2012) The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprising. London: Verso.

 

On Feminist Waves and the Unruly Potential of Naked Bodies on Instagram

 

Are political acts unruly if they challenge the rules but do not attempt to substantially change the system within which these rules have been defined? Do highly sexual photos (/selfies) on Instagram of young women’s conventionally beautiful bodies promote the feminist cause or do they add fuel to the neoliberal (here meaning individualistic, depoliticizing and capitalist) fire? Or do they do both? Can they do both?

In Denmark, so-called fourth-wave feminism is a hot topic. In short, the fourth wave is largely internet based and continues the third wave’s focus on micro-politics and the insistence on dealing with issues of intersectionality (PSA, 2017). The debate is rich and covers themes from revenge porn over rape culture to everyday body politics – in essence, I think it is fair to say that this ‘wave’ is about breaking free of established societal conventions of how women should behave and what they should be and refusing the shaming that follows when such conventions are not followed.

At the risk of being accused of gross simplification of a complex and important debate, I will here deal only with a fraction of it and present it as being one about a central issue: the one outlined above about the sexually charged photos of the conventionally beautiful bodies – you know, small waists, big lips, breasts, booty – think the Kardashians, and you get the picture. The debate is played out between two dominant positions.

  • Position 1: These photos do not help the feminist agenda. On the contrary, these women’s insistence on calling their individualistic and self-promoting project a feminist one is damaging and distracts attention from more important issues that the feminist movement is obliged to address.
  • Position 2: These photos are a way of doing body-activism, of reclaiming sexuality – a woman’s right to be sexual instead of sexy.

In Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The adventures of a photographer’ from 1971 the character Antonio is ranting at his photographer friends and their choice of photographic motives. He says: “Your choice [of motive] isn’t only photographic; it is a choice of life”. Similarly, both sides of the fourth-wave feminism debate recognise that the choice is not only photographic – or visual – it too is a choice of life. And since the photographs are made public and reach thousands of people, the choice is also a political one. In and of itself, this latter conclusion is uncontroversial, and rather uninteresting. After all, the idea that the personal is political was already introduced way back in feminism’s second wave.

That the photographer’s choice of motive is also a choice of life is not Calvino’s character Antonio’s main point either. Instead, what he points out to his photographer friends is that their photographs reflect a certain version of life. Their photographs reflect choices that exclude “dramatic conflicts, the knots of contradiction, the great tensions of will, passion, aversion” (Calvino, 1971). Similarly, the debate about the fourth-wave feminist Instagram photos is about which political agenda these photos fuel and are fuelled by – it is about how photos are political.

This, I believe, is where the two sides clash. This is where the question of unruliness becomes relevant. Because where the proponents see the half-naked selfies as an expression of the right to use and display your own body exactly how you choose to use and display it, the critics see the same photo as an expression and a validation of a gender stereotype that feminists for decades have fought hard to conjure away.

Are these fourth-wave feminists unruly in the sense that they are rejecting the objectification and commodification of the female body and reclaiming their sexuality (the ‘re’ in reclaiming is important here, as the focus on body politics is not a new idea within feminist theory and practice)? Are they unruly because they go against the ‘established’, traditional conceptions of what it means to be a feminist? Is their version of feminism a radical reimagining of the politics of the body?

Or

Are they painstakingly ruly because they do nothing but reinforce old, patriarchal gender stereotypes and because they do not manage to shake and change the political economy of the body, but merely confirm an objectifying and individualistic, capitalist world order?

…Or can it be that both positions hold some truth in them? Foucault once said “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous”. Neither position is completely wrong, just as neither is harmless if left unquestioned.

In a reality where young boys share photos of naked girls among each other without the girls’ consent and where a young woman is shamed for having several sex partners while a young man is encouraged (“boys will be boys” and all that), rejecting the conventional (hetero normative) wisdom and shedding light on its social and individual consequences is essential. It is not only important on an individual level; it has structural implications and will have for generations to come. Thus, downgrading or rejecting these issues of everyday sexism is not doing feminism any favors.

In the same vein, this internet based fourth-wave may not be defined by a common front in a traditional sense. That does not mean, however, that there can be no common goals. What seems to be a fragmented collection of individual acts may also be seen an expression of a conscious choice to abandon what Donna Haraway in 1985 called “the political myth called ‘us’”. Because the fourth wave is not about defining an ‘us’. Instead, it is about the struggle for freedom to define the self. To quote one of the Instagram-feminists, whose photos are part of the debate I have outlined here: “I insist on defining my ‘I’, instead of letting the roles that I carry out define me” (translated from Danish, Politiken, 2017)

While I personally believe in the power and relevance of this feminist project, I am left with the unsettling feeling that some of these fourth wave feminists are fighting their battle with the weapons of the enemy, so to speak. Where is the critique of capitalism within this new feminist agenda? Where is the critique – or at least reflection – of the reproduction of a certain, very specific, version of the female body as an object promoted over and over and over again for the purpose of making money?  Can fighting the patriarchy be separated from fighting the capitalist world order? Should it? I don’t think so. Nancy Fraser said it well, when she said that the challenge (for second-wave feminism, that is – but let’s not get lost in the waves) is to reconnect “struggles against personalized subjection to the critique of a capitalist system which, while promising liberation, actually replaces one mode of domination by another.”

 

Sources:

Calvino, I. (1971) ‘The Adventures of a Photographer’, in Difficult Loves.

Fraser, N. (2009) ‘Feminism, capitalism and the cunning of history’, New Left Review, 56, pp. 1–12.

Foucault, M., (1983) ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.’ in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Massachusetts Press. (1983)

Haraway, D. (1985) ‘A cyborg manifesto: science, technology and socialist- feminism in the late Twentieth Century’ in Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149-181.

Political Studies Association (2017) ‘Feminism – A fourth wave?’, Accessed 25 February via  https://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/feminism-fourth-wave

Politiken (2017) ’Unge Feminister: Derfor er vi afklædte’, Accessed 1 March 2017 via http://politiken.dk/debat/debatindlaeg/art5780289/Derfor-er-vi-afkl%C3%A6dte