Forging Life into a Weapon


My remarks are structured around a consideration of four images.[ref]I would like to extend my thanks to Gencer Yurttas and Phil Collins for the permission to publish the photographs that accompany this essay.[/ref]These images will, I hope, enable us to confront the question of violence, of a specific kind of violence, by bringing it to us in its (almost) immediate actuality, in the material traces it leaves on the human body. The first one belongs to Sevgi Erdogan. She was a former political prisoner in Turkey. This photograph was taken on the 250th day of her hunger strike, close to her death. By that point, she had been reduced to little more than a skeleton. The second photograph shows Osman Osmanagaoglu. He was a former political prisoner in Turkey as well, again on the brink of death after months of self-starvation. Both of these individuals were imprisoned because of their connections with an illegal Marxist organization. They were part of the very long struggle of political prisoners in Turkey — the Death Fast Struggle — a collective hunger strike that lasted almost six and a half years, which combined tactics of self-immolation, suicide bombing, and other conventional urban guerrilla warfare tactics. While the ostensible purpose of this struggle was to protest the introduction of super-maximum security prisons in Turkey, it soon took on a wider agenda of political and social transformation.


Picture 1: Sevgi Erdogan on the 250th day of her hunger strike. She died two weeks later. 

Courtesy of Gencer Yurttas.


Figure 2. Osman Osmanagaoglu on the 254th day of his hunger strike. He died on day 299.

Courtesy of Gencer Yurttas.

In the third photograph we see Abbas Amini, an Iranian refugee in Britain. He petitioned to stay in Britain on grounds of fear of persecution if he were to be returned to his own country. When the British government did not approve his petition, he began a protest in which he sowed shut his eyelids, lips and ears, while going on hunger strike. The final image is probably familiar to most of you. It is the famous photograph of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in 1963 in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the Vietnamese regime.[ref]This photograph, taken by Malcolm Browne, was chosen the World Press Photo of the year. See[/ref]



Figure 3. abbas amini, 2003. Lightjet print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, 60 x 70 cm.

Courtesy of phil collins.

Having placed these photographs in close proximity, I now want to use them as a springboard for a brief discussion concerning the challenges of conceptualizing corporeal, self-directed, and self-induced forms of political violence. Within this discussion, I want to highlight the problem of naming that is associated with these forms of violence.

The last three decades have witnessed a real upsurge in the numbers of individuals who choose to resist, revolt, and rebel by performing a kind of violence that is lethal to themselves and sometimes to others. The case of suicide bombers is immediately obvious, of course, but some of these other forms of self-destructive violence are less recognized. The agents who perform these acts of violence usually find themselves in protracted conflicts that are typically highly asymmetric, conflicts in which they perceive themselves to be facing grave and recurring injustices. Even though these agents fight different wars and participate in movements that are ideologically diverse and often unrelated to one another, I think that they share a common repertoire. They resort to different kinds of corporeal actions to make a specific kind of political intervention, an intervention in which their self-destruction is constitutive of the message that they thereby convey. These agents starve themselves, they poison themselves, they mutilate themselves, they immolate themselves, they explode and scatter their bodies. This phenomenon is really what I have been studying and what I am interested in bringing to the interdisciplinary conversation on violence. I want to term this self-destructive technique of political struggle “the weaponization of life” and to refer to these agents as “human weapons,” with all the complications of combining human and weapon in a single term.[ref]For an extended discussion of these concepts, see Banu Bargu, “Human Weapons: Biopolitics and the Death Fast” (unpublished book manuscript, forthcoming).[/ref]And I want to reflect upon the problem of naming this particular kind of violence.

The field of study that deals with these agents is highly polemical and controversial. There is usually a dualistic grouping characterizing this field. You have “suicide terrorism,” on the one hand, and you have “non-violent resistance,” on the other hand; the two are juxtaposed as binary and opposing forms of action. The labels used to name these acts are not neutral; they have explicit or implicit normative implications. Take “suicide terrorism,” for instance, which functions by evoking a double moral condemnation, both of suicide and of terrorism. In public discourse, these agents are constructed as irrational, pathological, suicidal, bloodthirsty, with nothing to lose. These constructions and their corresponding labels, of course, are undergirded by orientalist assumptions, and by islamophobia in particular. The moment we discuss human weapons, therefore, we are obviously plunging into a highly politicized and ideological field of inquiry.

So I would like to draw attention to how the concepts that name this kind of violence–concepts that are particularly useful in the binary juxtaposition of various kinds of political action–are deeply saturated by and shaped within these controversies. As Carl Schmitt would say, “all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning.”[ref]Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 30.[/ref]They are forged in specific intellectual confrontations, usually tied to positions taken in real political conflicts. The way in which we evaluate a political conflict or a particular form of violence will and does translate into the name that we give to that violence. So when actions like hunger striking, for instance, are classified as defensive and pacifistic, even humane, the implication is that their target is the self; in other words, they are not directed at others. They are deemed to be nonviolent; hence, their purpose is to evoke sympathy, to draw attention to the political cause. The intent of hunger strikers is to protest and to negotiate their demands, as they call upon a certain empathy in the “neutral” audience who will then also support their cause and pressure the government in their name. On the other hand, what is labeled as terrorism is offensive, it is aggressive, it is directed at the other. It is animated by despair and irrationality, even pathology, on the part of the individual. It is violent; hence, its intention is to cause terror, and no audience can be neutral in the face of terror. Obviously, this characterization, this binary construction, does not do justice to the complexity of reality. The naming and juxtaposition of these actions as opposites involve an implicit identification with the one and distancing from the other. This nomenclature is not as innocent as it pretends to be.

What I want to suggest instead is that there is actually an “elective affinity” between the kinds of struggles that are based on the weaponization of life. I want to cut across this binary and suggest that all of these forms of struggle have a common core. It is interesting, and supportive of my position here, that most of the organizations that resort to self-destructive violence actually utilize several of these tactics at the same time. So we see hunger strikers self-immolate. We see hunger strikers, or individuals affiliated with the same group, also conduct urban guerrilla warfare. Refugees, for instance, go on hunger strikes and also self-mutilate. We find groups that rely on suicide bombers also conducting hunger strikes. So the complexity of reality stands in tension with these polemical conceptualizations and juxtapositions in the scholarly studies of violence.

But in a more theoretical register, these acts can be grouped together around the common core defined by the political intervention of the body. However, this intervention often has a metaphysical element attached to it, an element regarding the meaning of life, the meaning of existence. Self-destructive acts use the body, but the body is a conduit; the act itself comments on life, it conveys the prioritization of political goals over life. These acts say, in a sense, that it is not worth living life if you cannot live it according to your own politics; it is not worth living life if you are forced to live a mere existence. That is the metaphysical component, and that is why I refer to these acts as the weaponization of life (and not the weaponization of the body).

Moreover, it will be important to note that in neither case death is desired for itself; neither in suicide bombing nor in self-immolation is the ultimate purpose to die. Instead, there is a deeply sacrificial logic: a giving oneself to the community and the cause and a reciprocation of the community by reverence and remembrance (through martyrdom). So even though death is there and it is a constituent component of the political action, these acts are not acts of despair. These are political acts that are spectacular, that are performative. It is possible to interpret these actions as very intense acts of communication with an expressive function, expressing a desire for refusal and rebellion.

By grouping these different forms of action under the same rubric of the weaponization of life, and by emphasizing their expressive character, their political and public character as a mode of intervention, I am also arguing against Hannah Arendt. Arendt makes the contention that “speech is helpless when confronted by violence,” that “violence is incapable of speech.”[ref]Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 19.[/ref]

Thus, in a sense, she relegates these forms of actions outside of the political. Indeed, she argues, “Because of this speechlessness, political theory has little to say about the phenomenon of violence and must leave its discussion to the technicians.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]Needless to say, I disagree with this. These acts are fully political and gain their meaning by intervening in the political. I see this symposium as going against the grain of Arendt’s statement on the limits of the political.

If we recognize that there is a common element to these acts, we can also question the binary constructions that determine the naming of these forms of violence and acknowledge their deeply political quality. In essence, I am arguing that we need to shift attention from the objects of violence–self, other, building, crowd–to the subjects who perform violence. In conventional discourse on the kinds of violence that are dependent on the use of the body–hunger striking, self immolation, suicide bombing, etc.–the subject acquires a certain opacity, while the object takes prominence. We tend to forget that there is a moral-political agency at work within the performance of violence, an agency that is making conscious decisions, volunteering, while simultaneously being subject to manifold social pressures, carrying certain aspirations, having political intentions. And we fail to see that whenever someone directs violence to the self (regardless of whether it involves the other), there is a convulsion, an implosion, an internalization of whatever violence does, how violence functions, what work it performs. The implosion to which I refer produces a certain unintelligibility. When violence is directed at the other, it is very easy to talk about the instrumentalization of violence: violent actors have political objectives that they want to achieve, power structures they want to challenge, and alternative ones they want to establish. But when violence is directed at the self along with the other, or only at the self, the means-to-an-end structure seems to disintegrate, and violence loses some of its clarity as an instrumentalized act. If one is a human weapon, it is very difficult to hierarchize which quality comes first: are you a human or are you a weapon? My work is located within the ambiguity encapsulated by the term “human weapon.”

I will conclude this brief reflection with a quote that comes from a pamphlet of the political prisoners of Turkey, a quote that plays a little bit with Marx and Engels’ famous claim in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”[ref]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker, (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), p. 500.[/ref]The Turkish political prisoners have slightly modified this claim. They write: “We have nothing to lose but our bodies. But we have a great world to win.”[ref]Joint statement issued by political prisoners of different affiliations, condemning the preparations for a military intervention in prisons and calling for public support, dated October 10, 2000, printed in Yaşadığımız Vatan, October 16, 2000, p. 21.[/ref]In the weaponization of life, bodies have replaced chains.


Banu Bargu is Assistant Professor of Politics at the New School, where she teaches political theory. She is currently completing her book Human Weapons: Biopolitics and the Death Fast. She is the author of several articles in theory & event, Constellations, and various edited volumes. She has also been the recipient of numerous teaching and research awards, including the John M. and Emily B. Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Luigi Einaudi Fellowship, and the Janice N. and Milton J. Esman Prize for Best Dissertation.

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