Body/Politic and the Illumination of Human Suffering

Author: K.M. Fierke, University of St. Andrews

Why write a book on a topic so macabre as Political Self Sacrifice? The beginnings were simple enough. I was puzzled by the significance of two distinct words, ‘suicide’ terrorist and martyr – words with two very different meanings, yet used interchangeably to refer to human bombs. But the question of language, while interesting, is not the only one. Why put cases as different as self-immolation by fire, nonviolent martyrdom, hunger strikes and the human bomb under the same microscope, when surely these are very different phenomenon? What do, for instance, the hundreds of Tibetan monks who have set themselves on fire over the past few years, the sixty Kurdish hunger strikers in Turkey (2012) or the hundred some hunger strikers at Guantanamo, the thousands of nonviolent activists killed in the early days of the Syrian revolution or the suicide terrorist from Hamas, share, if anything, in common? Why have acts of self-destruction, whether in the form of lighting a match or putting one’s self in harm’s way, been undertaken by so many and why should we, as scholars of international relations, be interested?

Some IR scholars have suggested that perhaps we should leave it to the sociologists and anthropologists. IR is, after all, about states, rational choice, and violence. There is a significant literature on suicide terrorism, a very small literature on nonviolent action, but even less, to my knowledge, on self-immolation by fire or hunger strikes, at least within IR. Both the identification of a family resemblance between seemingly disparate acts and their placement in the context of international relations is unusual. We can accept that the human bomb is a weapon of war. Even if we can’t really fit non-state actors within a realist framework, there is no denying, post-9/11, that ‘suicide’ terrorism is of relevance to international politics, even if at the time, we didn’t see it coming. Nonviolence? Well, we had largely forgotten the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe over 20 years ago, and the end of the Cold War, was, after all, really down to Reagan pressuring the Soviet Union into submission, wasn’t it? We made the same mistake with the Arab Spring. No one saw it coming. And Bouazizi, well, we would rather not think about that.

The relative absence of attention is in part a function of the methodological focus on states and rational choice, not to mention the extent to which this focuses obscures questions of human suffering. Despite the post-positivist debate, many are still reluctant to raise serious questions about the assumptions that underpin the analysis of global politics and processes. First and foremost this involves the tendency to discount the importance of non-state actors and individuals, and not least those who are nonviolent, but also a failure to question how one’s position in global space influences questions of rational choice. Rationality has been linked to survival, in particular of the state. But one can ask what is rational for those who have fallen through the cracks of the international system, whether through foreign occupation or a loss of sovereignty in other ways. What these various acts of self-sacrifice share, and what makes them a ‘family’ of acts, is that they take place in the context of political struggles for freedom, often articulated in terms of the humiliation of foreign occupation or interference and a desire to live in dignity.

Arguably, the hunger striker at Guantanamo, who was picked up by mistake, is in a somewhat different category than those individuals who die in the context of societal struggles. But the difference may come down to how we make distinctions or draw boundaries between categories of analysis. At the core of all these struggles is a claim by individuals and communities to political agency and freedom. One might make a different distinction between those who intend to inflict violence on the self and those who merely intend to live as if they are free, and suffer the consequences. But even this is somewhat artificial. There are traditions of thought and historical and cultural contexts within which an act of voluntary death has been considered ‘the supreme proof of liberty and of the freedom to decide one’s own being or non-being’ (Minois 1999: 2). In this respect, living as if one is free may include a choice to die. The acts then have to be viewed on a spectrum spanning from deliberate self-destruction, such as setting oneself on fire, to acts that one knows with relative certainty will bring about retaliation for living as if one is free.

The objective is freedom and political agency in shaping the future of a community. But why would a life destroying act bring about this end? The nonviolent salt marcher who was bludgeoned by the imperial police in India or the Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire to resist a repressive state can be said to be engaging in a life creating act in so far as the death of the body, which symbolizes the humiliation and suffering of a community, contributes to the instantiation of renewed community. This meaning has its clearest point of reference in Mahayana Buddhism where self-immolation by fire, if undertaken with right intention, by a bodhisattva, is understood to be a life creating act rather than suicide. As the Buddhist monk and scholar, Thich Nhat Hanh said, in speaking of the Buddhist monks and nuns who set themselves on fire in the 1960s in Vietnam, ‘they transformed their bodies into torches to illuminate the suffering of the Vietnamese people.’ The sacrifice represents an ‘act of speech’ in circumstances where a community has been silenced. The self-sacrifice communicates ‘I am sovereign, even in the face of death,’ a sentiment communicated by Gandhi in the early stages of the South Africa campaign when he said: ‘They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body not my obedience.’

The suffering body speaks without words, in a voice louder than words. The extent to which the act persuades, inspires or convinces is a function of the emotions generated in various audiences, and whether they are moved to vilify the terrorist or hail the martyr. The question is whether the ‘act of speech’ ends up dividing the audience and reinforcing the legitimacy of the powers that be, including their ability to retaliate, or whether the legitimacy of the extant power is destroyed with the creation of ‘martyrs’, opening the door to new forms of community. If the ‘body politic’ has historically been a metaphor of the flesh-and-blood body, the act of self-sacrifice represents its reversal, in which the death of the individual becomes a metaphor for the death of community and its potential regeneration. In this shift, the image on the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a large body of power enclosing a people, is replaced with the body of the martyr who suffers on behalf of a community.

Prof. Karin Fierke will be speaking at King’s College London, Research Centre in International Relations tomorrow, 15th November 2013, 12 noon-1.30, War Studies Meeting Room (K6.07) on the 6th Floor of the King’s Building, Strand Campus, King’s College London

She will be speaking and discussing her latest book Political Self Sacrifice: Agency, Body and Emotion in International Relations, published by Cambridge University Press, for more information please click here.

Professor Fierke has been based at St. Andrews as a Professor in the School of International Relations in 2006. She is currently on the steering committee of the Standing Group on International Relations of the European Consortium for Political Research and representative on the ISA Governing Council. She is the author of Critical Approaches to International Security, Polity 2007; Diplomatic Interventions: Conflict and Change in a Globalizing World, Palgrave 2005; (edited with Knud Erik Jorgensen) Constructing International Relations: The Next Generation. M.E. Sharpe 2001; Changing Games, Changing Strategies: Critical Investigations in Security, Manchester University Press 1998. For full bibliography and profile on Prof. Fierke please click here.

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