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The Body as Political Battleground: Biopolitics and Self Destruction

Writing by Robert Hansell. Artwork by Lucienne Saisselin.

Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 self titled album cover features an image of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức’s body engulfed in flames as he sits calmly in a Vietnamese intersection. This graphic image, taken by journalist Malcolm Browne, highlights the hypervisibility and intensity of self-immolation. Quảng Đức’s self immolation is part of a broader movement of self destruction as protest, both within Buddhist movements and in other social movements globally: since 2009, almost 160 Buddhist monks have set themselves on fire in protest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (3), and the self-burning of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi is widely credited with igniting Tunisian revolution and subsequent Arab Spring. To understand what drives one to defy the human instinct of self preservation and destroy their body in protest, we must look at how “politics” is not an external object, rather, it is situated in all of our bodies as political subjects.

It is important not to reduce self-immolation practices to the politically-desparing suicidal tendencies of the protestor. Suicidal tendencies are not a homogenous category. French sociologist Émile Durkheim distinguished between fatalistic and altruistic suicides. Fatalistic suicides are derived from a sense of despair, such as Juliet’s in Romeo and Juliet. Altruistic suicides, alternatively, intend to forward a socio-political cause (2), and must be understood as distinct from fatalistic suicides. Sociologists who have studied self-immolation systematically, like Michael Biggs, have argued that they are almost never derived from suicidal tendencies (1). We must read Biggs’ claim here in Durkheims model that fatalistic suicidal tendencies rarely lead to self immolation; If one excruciatingly burned themselves alive in a highly public, protest setting, it is unlikely their intentions can be reduced to purely despair. Thus, self-immolatory protests can be read through Durkheim as being altruistic suicides, as they intend to forward socio-political causes. The altruism of the self-immolator’s suicide is a reflection of their agency in their deaths, as they choose to exercise control over their bodies to demonstrate their political convictions. However, to understand how self-immolation demonstrates the political nature of bodies, we must go farther than the concept of altruistic suicide.

Another element of self-immolation is the logic of martyrdom; wherein a politically “successful” self-immolation, or any other politically infused destruction of one’s body (like the hunger strikes of IRA prisoners), would be constituted by the production of a symbol around which a movement could gain a revolutionary consciousness. However, as the “tank man” photographed blocking a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square demonstrates, the protestor-subject does not need to die to be a part of a movement’s revolutionary consciousness. Despite this, though, the death of the self-immolator holds a special position as a martyr because of the destruction of their body is “completed” to the point of suicide. To understand why the protestor who dies, rather than remains a living symbol, presents a special political challenge to authority, we must turn to Foucault’s concept of biopolitics.

Biopolitics is essential to understanding the body as site where politics occurs. Biopolitics describes the domination of subjects by a sovereign who controls their lives and deaths and achieves its power via the disciplining of bodies towards ends like optimising production (2). Thus, the power of the sovereign lies not just in its person or office, or even in the material capabilities it has to enforce its domination (such as police forces and militaries), but also in the bodies of subjects themselves. The subjugation of subject-bodies to the discipline of a sovereign fuels that sovereign’s power because it reifies its control over lives and deaths. Consider, for example, how the global North places global South countries in primary and extractive levels of production in the international economy, leading to brutal physical labour and low life expectancies. This delegation of primary production to the South is a reflection not only of the North’s international hegemony through means like the IMF and multi-national corporations, but also how its supposedly neutral economic system relies on the subjection of Southern bodies and livelihoods. As a subject of a biopolitical regime, therefore, your political agency lies in your ability to determine your life and death.

This conception of political agency demonstrates why self-immolation is a means of directly challenging the authority of a sovereign. To intentionally set oneself ablaze takes life itself and uses it as a weapon against the sovereign: by reclaiming agency over one’s dying, and negating one’s body as useful to the power of the sovereign (such as through its productive capacity), the power the sovereign has over life and death “becomes useless” (2). Therefore, self-immolation practices ultimately show that political struggle is composed not only of bodies acting collectively in social movements, but also that the body itself can be a political battleground.


“The Political Psychology of Self Immolation”

“Biopolitics of the Self-Immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi”

"Self-immolation fact sheet”

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