Susan Buck-Morss | On Subjectivity

A Summary of Susan Buck-Morss’s Presentation

By Hannah Rose Liberman

Banu Bargu’s book, Starve and Immolate, is both rigorous and inventive in how it puts the theoretical and empirical elements together. Rather than simply a historical, empirical account, Bargu offers an anthropological account—a kind of political ethnography. Bargu frames the actions of death fasts in a way that allows readers to see them not just in the specific Turkish context, but with the respect that a theoretical mediation can give. Foucault and Agamben were incredibly important in her intervention, as both inspirations and foils. Agamben, because he discussed the relationship between sovereignty and bare life. Bare life is a term that Agamben takes from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” (“Critique of Violence”), the idea being that the sovereign wants you alive, because only then can the sovereign enact absolute power over you.

It is important to understand that the political prisoners Bargu discussed were political prisons in a facility that had space for meetings and common activities. These were, specifically, political prisoners in a political prison; they were not “criminals.” It was not just about having bad conditions in a prison, it was about the incarceration of political actors who were threatening the sovereignty of the state. This was a very specific political situation. They were also Marxists. Bargu refers to this as sacrificial Marxism. Both connected to Marxism and anarchist practices, these Marxists understood themselves as an avant-garde. They were not doing this for a specific goal that would be instrumental in politics, but as a spectacle that would produce a change of consciousness in the people watching. The idea of this as an avant-garde action is quite important and quite different from other cases that might be placed into the same category.

The Leaking Subject

The more critical intervention, though, is whether or not the conditions of sovereignty in the world today are the same conditions as those that have inspired this kind of activity in the past.

Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age contains analogies, but differences as well that might indicate that we are in a different situation of political action. Tarek El-Ariss is also writing about Eastern Mediterranean Muslim countries, and also wants us to understand them within a theoretical framework. However, El-Ariss’ case studies are of a different period: 2011 and thereafter, involving the mass demonstrations that occurred on the streets.

Both his examples of political action and his analysis are quite different from Bargu’s. However, you can make a connection by taking the Turkish situation and moving from these hunger strikes in 2006/2007 to Gezi Park in 2013, which was a mass, spontaneous, democratic occupation of public space in response to the government’s threat to take away Taksim Square.

In the fall of 2013, the spirit of Gezi was still in the air. People were convinced that it was a new era of politics. This was not an avant-garde movement. These were not people who had had their freedom taken away. However, this was a movement that was not instrumental in its goals. They wanted to save Taksim Park, but the instrumentality was in the spectacle itself, in the show of people in public space. Many different groups came out: the Kurdish, the LGBTQ community, the Muslim anti-capitalists, and right-wing groups. The demonstration did not exclude any group, there was nothing particularly avant-garde or leftist about the people that turned out. It is this kind of movement that El-Ariss discusses.

The difference between the earlier and later events is the cell phone: the digital capacity, or technological revolution, without which the events of 2011/2012/2013 would have been impossible. According to El-Ariss, the cell phone, and this kind of anonymous communication, allows for a different subjectivity vis-a-vis sovereignty, and that is the leaking subject. This is a subject that is anonymous, through which things flow. Indeed, sovereign power flows through. This is interesting today because one of his examples is Julian Assange.

The question is whether the sovereign power, or the relation of sovereign power to those who resist it, has changed because of the capacity of the sovereign power to leak out of its powerbase. This could be, for example, Abu Ghraib photographs and what happens to the legitimacy of U.S. power when these flow into public knowledge. All of the secrecy and self-protection of the state is vulnerable to attack, and therefore sovereignty itself is vulnerable to attack.

It is also a spectacle. It must be seen and have an audience. But in these cases, the audience and the participants are the same; they perform for themselves or for others that are organizing. This attack on sovereignty seems to be new, in certain ways effective and in other ways not effective. We can not know what the final, ultimate response will be. There are multiple stories about Egypt in 2011. One being that the only reason people demonstrated is because the Marxists had been organizing all along. Another narrative is that it was a total failure, as thousands of demonstrators were killed. But there are things going on right now in Sudan and Algeria, and it seems that there is the same ambiguity about the effectiveness of this method. On the one hand, it’s not effective on the instrumental level, but on another level, we cannot know its effect.

Something that is interesting about the leaking, and it has to do with feminist theory, is the action of women in 2011 in Cairo. Women posted pictures of themselves naked, pictures of menstrual blood on their sheets, on Facebook—literally leaking. These violated civil codes of propriety. They violated the Arabic notion of Adab. This is what the leaking subject is all about and it leaks out of the power of sovereignty. The sovereign’s secrets are hacked. Authoritarian regimes are exposed. It is done by a violation of standards of privacy.

The leaking subject is a feminist position because it is completely de-eroticizing of the feminist body. There is nothing erotic about menstrual blood. There is a quotation on page 41, “You are turning women’s abject bodies into a political weapon.” This is interesting in the context of discussing Banu’s work. Assange, Manning, Snowden are all leakers whose subjectivity is a gap, a hole, information data pours out. This is a totally different model of agency, it is also a paradigm shift away from Foucault. Foucault and Agamben become less important in understanding this contemporary sovereignty.

Another interesting case is President Trump. In this case, he is the hacker, he is the leak. He is doing this strange emptying of sovereign power, which could be his political attractiveness as a revolutionary figure. In a certain sense, Donald Trump, he who says no one should leak anything, has leaked everything. However, it also seems that, in some way, Trump, in his repulsive practice, is a revolutionary figure.

There is another quote on page 55, “Bodies are being pushed outside the law and its codifying power, coerced into liminal spaces such as embassies, airports, diasporas, detention camps.” In other words, rather than being contained as bare life within the sovereign boundaries, there is a pressure to push outside of the sovereign. This whole logic of bare life that is so compelling to Foucault and works so well in Bargu’s case does not work here at all.

One Comment

  1. I really believe that even the most prominent thinkers are thinking in and with national terms… Banu Bargu’s book is mainly on Kurdish political prisoners and the death fasts they have practiced many times since 90s… The fact that Buck-Morss write “Turkish context” and refers to Gezi, which is the most cited event by international academics, really misses this context and thereby omits agency, the struggle of Kurdish people and silences them to a large extent. The response is also unaware of the current context in Turkey and the death fasts of over 700 Kurdish political prisoners who hit their 170th day today… Also, I wonder if in the event, the very painful protest of Kurdish political prisoners are ever addressed or a statement was released accordingly or it was just a pure theorization of necropolitics without touching much on real lives who are affected by it…

    I am very disappointed with the way foreign authors, theorists approach issues related to Turkey and completely disregard the Kurdish issue and its very progressive dimensions as well as grass atrocities committed by the Turkish state who is aspiring to regain its imperial past and resorts to any means devoid of humanity to achieve this… Kurdish politics in Turkey are described as “Turkish context” abroad and this is a great disservice to Kurds themselves who want to be heard, not ignored and silenced in academic discussions…

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