When One's Body Becomes an Instrument of Protest

While many may associate the tactic of the hunger strike with the “nonviolent” resistance of Gandhi, most hunger strikers considered their fasting to be just as violent as guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings

Banu Bagru, Starve and Immolate:  The Politics of Human Weapons. Columbia University Press, 2014

Banu Bagru,
Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons
Columbia University Press, 2014

“We have nothing to lose but our bodies. But we have a great world to win!” (p. 328). This reformulation of Marx and Engel’s famous parting shot of the Communist Manifesto was written in a pamphlet distributed by a faction of the Turkish revolutionary communist hunger strike movement of 2000-07 that Banu Bargu artfully explores in Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons. As a direct response to, and elaboration upon, Michel Foucault’s classic Discipline and Punish (1975), Starve and Immolate sets itself the ambitious goal of using the Turkish hunger strike movement as a case study for the creation of “a historical trajectory for resistance analogous to the one for power relations” laid out by Foucault since “we are lacking a convincing Foucauldian theory of resistance” (pp. 55-56).

Frustrated by theorists of biopolitics who sneer at the possibility of resistance, Bargu sets out to examine this Turkish movement in order to theorise what she considers to be “a global phenomenon” of corporeal defiance, including hunger strikes in Guantanamo, Palestine, China, the United States, and migrant detention facilities around the globe (p. 10). Since the forms that resistance takes mirror the power regimes that produce them, Bargu grounds her analysis of the hunger strike movement(s) in what she calls the “biosovereign assemblage.” As opposed to the traditional Foucauldian analysis that has posited the decline of sovereignty with the birth of biopolitics, Bargu convincingly argues for the “contradictory amalgamation of sovereignty and biopolitics as the distinguishing feature of contemporary power regimes” (p. 26). And just as sovereignty is biopoliticised, so too is resistance “necropoliticised” in the form of hunger strikes, self-immolations, and other forms of self-mutilation like sewing one’s eyes shut or self-killing (which Bargu carefully distinguishes from suicide).

Starve and Immolate explores the impact of the uneasy combination of “a politics of life (and death) and a politics over life” on the forms of resistance that emerged in response to news of the imminent implementation of new high security prisons in Turkey in 2000. Faced with the terrifying prospect of cellular confinement and the destruction of the collective “ward communes” that revolutionary leftist prisoners had eked out from behind prison walls over the course of decades of struggle, several parties of the extra-parliamentary Left embarked upon an epic hunger strike across forty prisons that eventually involved 1,500-2,000 prisoners. While such a high level of participation may strike many readers as strange, one should remember that upwards of 30,000 California prisoners participated in a roughly two-month hunger strike in 2013 against solitary confinement for prisoners with gang affiliations. Yet, the unique nature of this movement becomes evident in the fact that 395 of the hunger strikers escalated their defiance by shifting courses toward a “fast unto death” where nothing but the complete adherence to their demands by the state (not even their personal release) would divert them from their self-destructive course.

Westerners tend to think of the hunger-strike as more or less a game of chicken where both the hunger-strikers and the authorities try to go as close as possible to the edge before either the fasters succumb to their gnawing hunger or the authorities cave in. It is conceived as an instrumental battle of wills. For Bargu, however, the “fast unto death” demonstrates a “paradoxical combination of instrumentality and the abolition of instrumentality” (p. 16) as these communist militants envisioned their bodies not as mere bargaining chips in a liberal public sphere, but rather as “human weapons” whose eventual expiration was not simply an unfortunate outcome of a high-stakes political gamble, but rather the fulfilment of revolutionary duty and an immortal beacon to popular resistance.

Despite the cultural and political chasm that seems to distance the English-language reader from the subjects of the study, Starve and Immolate arms us with the analytical, historical, and ethnographical weapons necessary to penetrate the chaotic world of Turkish governmental and revolutionary politics to understand the context and implications of such a seemingly “extreme” struggle. Bargu situates the 2000-07 movement within a rich tradition of prison hunger strikes in Turkey that stretches back to the 1930s. The close relationship between Kemalism and the revolutionary Left, grounded in the Marxist hope that Kemalism could lay the “bourgeois” foundation necessary for the transition to socialism, grew increasingly strained as the century progressed before finally imploding after the 1980 military coup. Death fasting in the prisons of the military government came to symbolise the foremost resistance against the regime and set the tone for the waves of hunger strikes to come over the following decades.

Bargu’s 100 interviews with hunger strikers provide firsthand insight into the process whereby “consciousness of sacrifice” came to supersede “class consciousness” in the construction of a vanguardist “sacrificial Marxism” (pp. 236-241). She guides the reader into communist “resistance houses” and sits us down by the bedsides of frail hunger strikers who explain why they continued to deprive themselves of food despite their release from prison. Bargu’s ethnography allows her to transcend one-dimensional explanations of the motivations of the hunger strikers to explore three main interpretations of the movement from those involved: (1) as defensive resistance against encroachments on democracy and human rights, (2) as a proactive war against neoliberal capitalism, and (3) as refusal to submit to the state’s attempts to reassert its sovereign power and domination (pp. 273-274). Her in-depth knowledge of the confusing world of communist parties and micro-parties grants the reader the requisite context necessary to parse through the shades of competing politics and varying analytical frameworks that gave this struggle such rich texture.

While many readers may associate the tactic of the hunger strike with the “nonviolent” resistance of Gandhi or the suffragettes, most communist hunger strikers considered their fasting to be just as violent as the guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings that rounded out the repertoire of retaliatory actions at their disposal. The care that Bargu takes to tease out the nuances of how the hunger strikers expressed themselves and interpreted their actions helps to disrupt the standard binary between violent and nonviolent forms of protest, and demonstrates how the context in which a tactic is implemented and the politics that shape it strongly affect how it is envisioned and received. She refuses to subsume her subjects of study under the popular homogenising rubrics of “terrorism” or “fanaticism,” preferring to analyse the events before her on their own terms. Bargu delves into the layers of theologised ritual and transcendent myth making that imbued the movement with such force, from the henna ceremonies organised the night before the start of the hunger strike to the evocative red headband fastened around the head of the faster, without simply reducing it all to religion and thereby ignoring how the actors interpreted their actions themselves. All too often historians and scholars of the various schools of socialism have homed in on spiritual or transcendent aspects of anticapitalist praxis in an effort to contradict the anticlerical, secular, or scientific claims of revolutionaries without taking seriously the possibility of secular spirituality. In contrast, Bargu is perfectly comfortable examining the transcendent core of “sacrificial Marxism” through a nonreligious lens especially as embodied in the “new revolutionary subjectivity” of the “militant-martyr” (p. 224).

Finally, one of the most refreshing aspects of Starve and Immolate in relation to its hunger-striking subjects is how it takes “inspiration from their commitment to live and their readiness to die for their convictions” although its “purpose is neither to condemn nor to condone these individuals” (pp. xii-xiii). Bargu never shies away from presenting her critical analysis of the actions and strategies of the militants she analyses, and her ultimate assessment of the concrete gains accomplished by a death fast movement that left 122 dead is rightly negative. Nevertheless, I share her sentiment that “in a political present dominated by values of self-interest, instrumental calculation, well-being, and security, a present in which absolute dedication, heroism, and self-sacrifice have little currency, these individuals appear curiously archaic or dangerously prefigurative of a different politics” (pp. xii-xiii). Reading the strikers’ tales of absolute refusal to be reduced to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (a completely marginalised, purely biological existence) or learning about the absolute determination these militants showed to throw their soon-to-be-lifeless bodies in front of the steamrolling onslaught of carceral neoliberalism seems to open a tiny window into an otherworldly ethos of uncompromising justice that is sorely lacking in the world and often derided in scholarly circles.

Mark Bray is author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street

This review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.