John Finnegan | Necroresistance as Destitution

By John Finnegan

Banu Bargu’s ethnography and theoretical exploration of the Turkish death fasters differs from many of the prior texts read in this seminar series in declining to offer much prescriptive content. Unlike, say, Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism or Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons, Bargu’s Starve and Immolate does not attempt to answer directly the question of “what is to be done.” Rather, the book offers its readers a story of what has been done, already, by the Turkish death fasters, and interprets those acts through a critical lens. In the process, Bargu extends Foucault’s conception of sovereignty and biopower to argue that the Turkish state’s power regime constituted what she calls “biosovereignty,” a term “distinguished by its paradoxical combination of the power of life with the power over life.”[1] The death fast, Bargu argues, emerges from that assemblage as a resistance that “disrupt[s] biosovereignty by rejecting its domination and refusing obedience.”[2] This specific type of resistance, as exemplified by the death fast, is what Bargu terms “necroresistance,” and it is this concept that drew me in. From my reading of Starve and Immolate, necroresistance’s logic of “refusal against simultaneously individualizing and totalizing domination that acts by wrenching the power of life and death away from the apparatuses of the modern state” seems to be the same kind of “destituent logic” called for by the Invisible Committee in Now.[3] The death fasters, in seizing power over their own lives and proclaiming a right to die, engage in a similar act of breakage to that called for by the Committee, albeit taken to a far more final end.

This comes through most clearly towards the end of the book, after Bargu has detailed the state’s conception of the death fasts and how the various left movements within the prisons settled on the death fasts as a viable tactic for resistance. In describing the contours of necroresistance, Bargu makes clear the “multivalent” nature of it, noting that “[t]he performers of necroresistance had a plurality of intentions, motivations, and desires, and this diversity was reflected upon the different ways in which they interpreted the objectives of the struggle.”[4] Singling out three strands of militant thought, Bargu argues that the death fasters saw their struggle in the following ways: “resistance, a defensive struggle against torture and oppression in the name of human dignity . . . war, a manifestation of the struggle among classes; and . . . refusal, an exodus that expresses a desire to break away from the existing order.”[5] Putting aside the other aspects of necroresistance, it is the last strand—refusal—that corresponds with the Invisible Committee’s call “to desert, to desert the ranks, to organize, to undertake a secession” in Now.[6]

Much as the Committee praises the power of breaking things as an affirmative act, one that demonstrates to the world “against all appearances: ‘This is ours!’’’[7] Bargu describes the death fasters of this strand as viewing their act as both an act of negation and affirmation. Even as the faster violently exits the control of the state by taking back the sovereign power of life and death through her fast, the faster produces “the revolutionary collective, facilitat[ing] the emergence of the latter as an alternative locus of sovereign power through this usurpation of the power of life and death from the state.”[8] The negation of the state’s control thus generates an alternative to the state in itself, making possible what the fasters believed was “a truly political life, one whose relation to justice has not been severed.”[9] When faced with the choice presented by the Invisible Committee—the “choice between two crimes: taking part in [this world] or deserting it in order to bring it down”—the fasters chose the latter option.

I hesitate to go too far with this comparison, given both the temporal and contextual distance between the two texts. I doubt the Invisible Committee had the death fast in mind as a form of destituent power, or that the fasters, had they had the opportunity to read Now, would have agreed with the Committee’s theory of change (particularly given the disdain the Committee seems to have for traditional leftist collectives, of which the fasters were undoubtedly a part). But I cannot help but draw parallels between the two, given their shared emphasis on what most would consider purely “negative” activity as a means to build a positive construct.

If we view the death fasts as a destitutive activity, would that then change the evaluation of the movement’s legacy? Bargu closes the text with the construction of an (admittedly necessarily incomplete) “balance sheet” of the movement, focusing on both the instrumental and expressive aspects of the movement’s goals, and asking whether either of those aspects succeeded.[10] The instrumental aspects Bargu notes were largely unsuccessful,[11] and even the expressive parts of the project appear to have been in part frustrated, as “the dramatic impact of the weaponization of life was continuously submerged, repressed, and co-opted by the strategic choices and practices of the state.”[12] Bargu laments that the fasters’ strategy underestimated both the “agility of the Turkish state in attending to its own wounded sovereignty” and the “cynicism with which the state was able to churn out whatever shame it was supposed to suffer as a result of the deaths of prisoners . . . in the form of a self-righteous display of pride and strength in its struggle against terrorism.”[13] While the book explicitly withholds any overall judgment of the fasters’ success or failure, in reading this litany it is hard to not come away with a sense that the movement faltered, its goals unrealized, its martyrs in vain. The movement’s end in 2006—with the reframing of its purpose by human rights advocates as “advanc[ing] claims against isolation on the grounds of the basic and universal ‘right to live,’”[14] lends further strength to this impression, with Bargu arguing that the this reframing “unwittingly affirmed the ‘sanctity of human life,’ a claim that had ironically stood at the core of the state’s justification to use violence in order to reestablish its control.”[15] This inevitable co-optation sounds in the same register as the Committee’s disdain for those leftists who “think they can make something happen by lifting the lever of bad conscience.”[16]

But, if one instead focuses solely on the expressive aspects of the death fasters, on their attempts to refuse the state’s control, to exit from the state’s reach, to destitute the state’s sovereignty, then the legacy left behind by the fasters becomes less marked by failure. Indeed, some of the fasters themselves viewed the act this way, emphasizing that victory had already been won merely by deciding to fast: “To make the decision for the death fast is to get ahead 1–0 against the state . . . to make the decision for the death fast is our victory.”[17] In this view, the act itself of fasting, then, brings the fasters to victory against the state and against biosovereignty. Regardless of the materialization of a larger movement that followed suit or the furtherance of the fasts’ more tangible goals, by seizing power through the fast the state has already been overcome. This conception of the act of fasting conforms again with how the Invisible Committee calls for breakage: “The true richness of an action lies within itself. . . . the impact potential of an action doesn’t reside in its effects, but in what is immediately expressed in it.”[18] And of course, the fasters in death appear to have achieved precisely what the Committee called upon its readers to do: “to make ourselves ungovernable.”[19] By supplanting the state’s sovereignty with their own power, the fasters rejected the governance of the Turkish state forever and irrevocably, destituting entirely the attempts by the state to control their lives. This alone, I think, would be seen as cause for celebration by the Committee, as fully realizing their call to destitution, even at such a high price. We might question whether such a victory is “worth it” as a strategic matter, but should not deny its existence.

[1] Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons 54 (2014).

[2] Id. at 84.

[3] The Invisible Committee, Now 78–79 (2017) (““[S]omeone who breaks doesn’t engage in an act of negation, but in a paradoxical, counterintuitive affirmation. They affirm, against all appearances: “This is ours!” Breaking, therefore, is affirmation, is appropriation. . . . The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture.”).

[4] Bargu at 272–73.

[5] Id. at 273–74.

[6] Now at 18.

[7] Id. at 88.

[8] Bargu at 306.

[9] Id. at 330.

[10] Id. at 330–31.

[11] See id. at 331 (“In keeping with the practical-political goals of the death fast struggle, it would not be inaccurate to say that the movement has largely failed in securing its immediate objectives.”).

[12] Id. at 336.

[13] Id. at 337.

[14] Id. at 218.

[15] Id. at 222.

[16] Now at 9.

[17] Bargu at 308.

[18] Now at 80.

[19] Now at 81.