Karuna Mantena | Abjection and Agency

A Summary of Karuna Mantena’s Presentation

By Emily Gruber

There are two enigmas in Banu Bargu’s book, Starve and Immolate. The primary lies in understanding the ethnography of the fast as in some ways a logic of sacrifice that seemed resolutely opposed to instrumental reason. It is a form of protest in which “the ends simply do not seem to measure up to the means.” The enormous sacrifices that are required and staged just do not seem to match the radical nature of the language and the necessity of death, which is not meant to have a kind of instrumentality. The other, which is not necessarily an enigma but something to think about, is how this was a conflict between the state and the extra-Parliamentary Left. It’s an important question to think of why the state itself responded in crisis mode which in some instrumental sense—if there is such a thing as a purely instrumental sense of politics—was an extreme reaction from very early on. The Turkish case is notable for its distinctiveness in thinking about the longer history of the hunger strike and what kind of distinctions we might want to make.

Bargu distinguishes between defensive and offensive uses of weaponized life. Bargu also makes a very suggestive and important critique of “bare life” versus a weaponization model and Achille Mbembe’s notion of the necropolitical. Mantena’s worry is that the analysis interprets these acts and bodies through a notion of abjection rather than agency; she is wary of that abjection.

Another possible framework besides necropolitics that seems to be prominent is the notion of visibility and invisibility. There are certain types of political acts now that are trying to make visible marginal figures who don’t have a presence in public space, in a space of appearance. There is some sense that self-mutilation is trying to do that work of visibility in a shocking, exposed way. That might be a different framework that could serve as an invitation to open up different interpretive frameworks through which to understand these practices. This is one of the most convincing accounts ; bio-power in Bargu’s work comes much clearer when you look at it from the framework as resistance. It is a pretty powerful way to think of this reciprocal relationship.

Some things seem specific to the experience in Turkey. This was a mass protest that followed up, as Bargu writes, from previous cycles of protest among similar political groups and political prisoners. The prisons were reconfigured in the wake of the earlier protests and the prisoners were spatially configured in a ward in which they practiced certain types of communal self-government. There is a transformation there that she sees as a synecdoche to the state. There is, as she says, no leading figure in the Turkish case as there are in others.

Almost all hunger strikes came with force feeding. It is worth exploring why the state is so disturbed by hunger strikes and why the state needs an immediate intervention. For Bargu, she views it as a challenge to sovereignty. The prison especially is supposed to be a space of intimate control. But there’s something more. Even if these movements are not conventionally successful, they do in that moment seem to usurp the power of life and death from the state and, in her language, “challenge the state’s monopsony of sacrifice,” with monopsony meaning the monopoly of the state as a receiver of sacrifice.

The English suffragette movement did have a vast number of strikers. There was an important language of sacrifice linked to a performance of revolutionary commitment. For some, if you saw it as a tactic, this was to expose the violence of the state. If we take Bargu’s argument seriously that hunger strikes now emerge as a form of resistance to power, we also have to think of the stakes in earlier assemblage. Heroic martyrdom is central to showing a spiritual commitment to past causes. The suffragettes thought of it as a continuum of their tactics. It is useful to separate the suffragettes from the revolutionary anarchists. There was a sense that you provoke public, physical reaction as a way to shame government through a violent display of its disproportionate and allegedly despotic power.

The commonalities from that earlier moment of global conjuncture to the present moment are in one sense a language of sacrifice and martyrdom but it is useful to ask if there is a heroic sense of sacrifice and a different sense of what that sacrifice is symbolizing. Contemporary movements have a horizon of despair that is quite different from the earlier moment. Unlike the feeling in the past of being in a time of revolutionary upsurge, today they don’t feel like the last martyr; they feel like they’re the first in the train to come, which is a different horizon of the political possibly.

The other genealogy for hunger strikes from this period is Gandhi, who very purposefully distinguished himself from these traditions; he was against hunger strikes in prison except in extreme cases. He thought prisoners should not strike to be treated differently. He felt that fasting was moral coercion or blackmail; the tyrant would never be moved. In Gandhi’s language, you only fast against your own supporters. He violated some of these beliefs; he did fast in prison but would contest claims that he partook in a hunger strike. Gandhi was really against the idea of egoistic fasting, which he interpreted as fanaticism or a misplaced understanding of heroism.

Questions of efficacy, of praxis in that sense, are critical. Historically, governments always responded aggressively to hunger strikes. They always characterized them as blackmail, and the striker is always made akin to a terrorist in some form. As Bargu suggests, they have been alienating in terms of mass support. They tend not to widen support for a movement, but they can solidify support of people who are already supporting the movement. They tend to alienate opponents. The hunger strike is effective for gaining publicity, but it has not been consistently effective in changing policy or getting a state response. More recently, the public display of self-mutilation amongst migrants, refugees or asylum seekers elicits a kind of disgust and revulsion about self-mutilation. There are questions about what is being staged as abjection or dignity. Are you staging abjection to elicit pity? Are you staging dignity to elicit or provoke shaming or as a turn to conscience? People within the movement realize it seems to resist empathetic identification. In the end, we might ask what affective dynamics or logics exist in reference to that which is being dramatized and how the public is meant to read it.