Bernard E. Harcourt | Weaponizing Life: An Introduction

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

And God willing, after madness, illness, crime, sexuality, the last thing I would like to study would be the problem of war and the institution of war within what one might term the military dimension of society. And there again I will surely encounter the problem of law, both in the form of the law of people and international law, et cetera, as well as the problem of military justice and, finally, what makes it possible for a nation to ask someone to die for it.

— Michel Foucault, Interview with André Berten, May 7, 1981[1]

As I was searching for this epigraph, first unsuccessfully in The Order of Discourse, but then ultimately finding it in an interview accompanying his 1981 Louvain lectures Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, I had recalled Foucault’s response slightly differently. I thought Foucault had said that, after madness, punishment, and sexuality, he hoped to address the question: “What makes it possible for someone to willingly die for their ideals?” The meaning is perhaps hardly different—especially if we join Foucault in mapping relations of power on civil war. Indeed, given the “military dimension of society,” what is it that makes it possible for a political movement, struggle, or ideal to impress upon any one of us the duty to die for it or worse, for ourselves?

Banu Bargu’s book, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), labors in the furrow of this question. Bargu returns to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and, more broadly, to his analyses of different forms of power (sovereignty, discipline, security), in order to describe and diagnose a unique type of political practice: the hunger strike, the fast to death, self-mutilation, self-immolation—in her words, the weaponization of life. Bargu characterizes this type of praxis as “biosovereignty,” a contradictory amalgam of early modern conceptions of sovereignty and of Foucaultian biopolitics, but empowered and augmented by the very interaction between the two. And in reaction to this biosovereignty, Bargu identifies the weaponization of life as a new form of resistance—what she calls “necroresistance.” Her book navigates between the two. It is located in the space where “the biopoliticization of sovereignty meets the necropoliticization of resistance.” (337)

The “weaponization of life” entails the militant turning his or her life into a political weapon of struggle. The practices range from death fasts and self-immolation (which were practiced in Turkish prisons from 2000 to 2007, Bargu’s case study, and continue today) to other forms of self-mutilation or suicide attacks. Bargu provides the full articulation and description of the types of practice here:

As a tactic, the weaponization of life encompasses a series of practices that range from varieties of nonlethal self-mutilation (which include forms of amputation, maiming, infection with disease, sewing of eyes and mouth, temporary starvation, all inflicted by and upon oneself) to the more fatal actions of self-immolation (understood as setting oneself on fire), temporally indefinite hunger strikes, fasts unto death, self-killing (through a variety of methods including hanging, drinking pesticide, slitting wrists, overdosing on medication, and swallowing cyanide capsules), and forms of suicide attack (involving, again, different forms of actions such as the detonation of bombs strapped upon the body, driving a loaded vehicle into a target to induce explosion, participation in military assaults with no chance of survival, and so on). (14-15)

These forms of praxis, Bargu suggests, are at first blush almost inexplicable—too extreme, too demanding, too severe given the political stakes, even the extraordinary political stakes of solitary confinement and punitive excess. As she writes, “The ends simply did not seem to measure up to the means.” (7) But ultimately Bargu makes sense of these practices by rethinking and reformulating our categories of power. Her objective—and ours as well, I should think—is not to judge these acts of courage and sacrifice, but to understand them and what they reveal about our present. “Not to excuse or justify human weapons, nor to condemn or vilify them, but to reckon with them; to engage, earnestly and critically, with their intervention into politics.” (350)

Bargu performs, in essence, a kind of autopsy of a philosophical nature of the actions that produce death in order to make sense of them and our present political condition. From the perspective of the relation of theory and praxis—the object of our Praxis 13/13 seminar—Bargu theorizes praxis in order to understand it. The directionality of her project is from praxis to theory in order for theory to enlighten praxis. This is evident throughout her methodological discussion. Bargu writes, for instance: “This book therefore explores the death fast struggle by placing self-destructive techniques of political action at the center of its inquiry in order to theorize this highly particular form of struggle in which life is forged into a weapon.” (9, emphasis added) “In order to theorize”: the objective is to understand by means of critical theory. The set of questions that guide Bargu’s inquiry are equally revealing: “What are the reasons for choosing such tactics? What are the justifications provided for this choice? What are their ethical and political implications?” (9)

Bargu engages in categorization, for instance distinguishing defensive from offensive uses of human weapons. She engages in interpretation, suggesting for instance that these forms of death fasts are not non-violent. She is concerned “with understanding their relation to the conditions out of which they emerge” (20). She is engaged in an interpretive task—not to judge but to understand. Specifically, to understand “in order to deploy [these] findings toward the theorization of this emergent repertoire of action that increasingly stamps the radical struggles of our present.” (20) We are firmly in the space of the theorization of praxis: “I theorize the self-destructive practices that forge life into a weapon as a specific modality of resistance.” (27)

Bargu’s theoretical work enriches our understanding not only of how power circulates in society today, but also of how resistance circulates as well, so that we see the resistance as not simply trying to “make life better” in opposition to biosovereignty and the regulation of life, but to implicate and draw out the centrality of death as well.

Theorizing praxis. That seems essential in such a charged context as this, one situated between, on the one hand, the total domination of life in solitary confinement in supermax prisons, and on the other hand, the only remaining weapon to resist the domination, life itself. Theory and praxis. Death fasts and self-immolation.  To help explore these issues, we are delighted to be joined by two brilliant critical theorists: philosopher Susan Buck-Morss of the CUNY Graduate Centerand political theorist Karuna Mantena of Yale University.

Welcome to Praxis 12/13.

Let me end here, though, at least for now, on a slightly different note. For as I was searching for Foucault’s formulation of the question, another variation also came to mind. It is from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and his critique of the reification of universal categories—his critique of illusions, of how the universals of country or class or political ideals so often lead us to sacrifice our lives. Let me stop here, then, on this perhaps more embarrassed note, with Marcuse, channeling François Perroux:

On croit mourir pour la Classe, on meurt pour les gens du Parti. On croit mourir pour la Patrie, on meurt pour les Industriels. On croit mourir pour la Liberté des Personnes, on meurt pour la Liberté des dividendes. On croit mourir pour le Prolétariat, on meurt pour sa Bureaucratie. On croit mourir sur l’ordre d’un État, on meurt pour l’argent qui le tient. On croit mourir pour une nation, on meurt pour les bandits qui la baillonnent. On croit—mais pourquoi croirait-on dans une ombre si épaisse ? Croire, mourir ?… quand il s’agit d’apprendre à vivre ? [2]



[1] Michel Foucault, “Interview with André Berten,” 235-246, at p. 246, in Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, trans. Stephen W. Sawyer, eds. Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[2] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man(Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 206-207, quoting François Perroux, La Co-existence pacifique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), vol. III, p. 631. The passage is translated in Marcuse 1964:207 n.2 as:

They believe they are dying for the Class, they die for the Party boys. They believe they are dying for the Fatherland, they die for the Industrialists. They believe they are dying for the freedom of the Person, they die for the Freedom of the dividends. They believe they are dying for the Proletariat, they die for its Bureaucracy. They believe they are dying by orders of a State, they die for the money which holds the State. They believe they are dying for a nation, they die for the bandits that gag it. They believe—but why would one believe in such darkness? Believe—die?—when it is a matter of learning to live?