By Sami Cleland
Banu Bargu’s Strave and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons and Tarek El-Ariss’ Leaks, Hacks and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age were the extremely interesting companion pieces that spurred our Praxis 12/13 discussion on the old and new tactics that drive contemporary resistance against the late post-capitalist sovereign of our decidedly neoliberal era. Bargu’s book examines the “weaponization of life,” which “entails the militant turning his or her life into a political weapon of struggle… the practices range from death fasts and self-immolation to other forms of self-mutilation or suicide attacks.” During our discussion, Karuna Mantena highlighted how such tools of resistance have been circulating in global resistance struggles for centuries, and questioned the efficacy of such tactics. Is it inevitable that extreme acts of self-sacrifice will alienate the public and result in charges of fanaticism?
El-Ariss’ text explores the leak and the hack in the digital age, arguing that “the intellectual speaking truth to power” is a space now occupied by a new generation of activists, bloggers, hackers and leakers. The power of the leak is that it creates a spectacle which the public simply cannot ignore: “viewers cannot look away from scandals and leaks… they are drawn to the unfolding narrative of the secret that must be revealed, and to the embodied exposure performed in viral videos and acts of hacking.” While Susan Buck-Morss emphasized that there is likely little about the nature of contemporary State (or corporate) power that could surprise us, the scandalous act of the leak mesmerizes the public and directly confronts abuses of power. There is a meaningful distinction between presuming something is true and acquiring the “concrete [proof].”
Visibility and Efficacy
In the social media era, with endless content (read: distraction) at our fingertips, the primary goal of genuine grassroots political actors is often simply achieving visibility and ensuring their message reaches the public. During Praxis 12/13, Mantena cited the “enormous pressure to do more shocking things for the press.” In generating this visibility, the “weaponization of life” and digital tactics such as hacking and leaking vary in terms of efficacy and clarity of message.
Bargu distinguishes “acts that are entirely self-directed (such as death fasts and self-immolations), which [she] refers to as defensive forms of weaponization of life, and acts that are simultaneously other-directed (such as suicide attacks), which [she] refers to as offensive forms of weaponization of life.” Dealing first with the offensive weaponization of life, it quickly becomes clear that while tactics such as suicide attacks are extremely visible (drawing worldwide attention in the form of near universal condemnation), they fail to convert the public to a political cause and instead tend to retrench the public against perceived fanaticism.
Moreover, with regards to distributing a political message, the offensive weaponization of life is often counterproductive. Famously, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, President George W. Bush misled to the American people by telling them that the suicide attackers “hate us for our freedom.” In terms of publicizing their anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist message, the 9/11 attackers failed miserably. States can quickly confer illegitimacy on the offensive weaponization of life by their political contestants by labeling such actors “terrorists.”
Defensive forms of “the weaponization of life” are often tied to the carceral context, where state control of the body and mind is at its pinnacle. As Bargu writes: “since biopolitics functions by extending control over life itself, the argument goes, then resistance to it must accordingly occur as a response to this control and at this level.” In the prison, hunger strikes and death fasts serve to make visible marginal figures and contest the maltreatment (including torture) that occurs in the prison context. Sadly, though, it is not clear that these self-sacrificial tactics galvanize the public. The state often responds aggressively with inhuman tactics such as force-feeding, and reporting around the hunger strike often distorts or clouds the political purpose of the hunger strike action. That said, it is important to remember that the audience for modalities of resistance is not only the public. The defensive weaponization of life reasserts one’s agency over one’s own body. As someone mentioned during Praxis 12/13, only if you’re alive can the sovereign exercise absolute power over you.
There are many levels at which one can explore the efficacy of leaking as a practice of political contestation. Generally speaking, hacks and leaks generate significant media attention, as hacking and leaking “embarrass, shame and expose, and, in doing so, engage a transnational public with accounts of political abuse and scandal.” The digital world makes possible engagement across borders: “as a result of the internet, we are now living in a time where it’s a lot easier to convey what we know about our corner of the world and share it with others.” But to what effect is the outrage generated by high-profile leaks? The most revolutionary outcome might lie in how leaks alter our understanding of State power. While the discrete leak highlights abuse of power, corruption, or dishonesty, on a more fundamental level the leak serves to “expose fictions of power, making a scene of their porousness and spills.” Leaking “involves a process of desacralizing power and delegitimizing its founding myths or fictions.” With leaking, the public is empowered to question the legitimacy of State power and/or how the State deploys its monopoly on the use of violence. This is undoubtedly a positive outcome; power and its legitimacy should constantly be questioned and investigated by the public.
El-Ariss doesn’t stop there, though, and instead emphasizes that our contemporary digital culture has had some decidedly problematic effects. As El-Ariss writes, “in this new [digital] landscape a portal has opened up, unleashing fantasies of archaic violence and group formation, and further eroding idealized models of community, justice, and the law.” The long-term effects of a digital and political culture built around hacking, leaking, exposing and shaming remain to be seen.
Means – Ends
For those on the outside looking in, tactics as severe as death fasts, when they have only the limited political goal of (for instance) improving prison conditions, are hard to understand. Bargu emphasizes that the “ends” of “the weaponization of life” are not always political or outside oneself, and that looking at means/ends solely through the lens of something akin to economic rationality is inapposite: “[the body’s] deployment by way of its destruction defies the distinction between means and ends and obliterates instrumental rationality.” This is a powerful point; Mantena emphasized in Praxis 12/13 that contemporary movements have a “horizon of despair.” Those that undertake extreme forms of self-sacrifice understand fully that they may not change the fundamental dynamics of power in the short term, but (1) “the self-destructive act makes a commentary on the meaning of life by conveying the prioritization of the life of a political cause over the biological existence of its proponents” and (2) it is hard to measure the success of an avant-garde in keeping alive ideas or goals that would otherwise fade away.
Short-term measures of success are inappropriate when humans commit acts of self-destruction to demonstrate a commitment to a cause and/or their own personal agency over their body. While mainstream notions of rationality would dismiss such actions as “ineffective” or simply “not worth it” from a means-ends perspective, mainstream political rationality almost always operates in a counterrevolutionary manner by encouraging actors to engage in individualistic cost-benefit analyses. The weaponization of life transcends such narrow modes of thinking towards something greater; this implies that the weaponization of life, like Ghandi’s Satyagraha, understands that in the long term overcoming political resistance requires emphasis on the psychological and even the transcendental over the strictly rational.
The means-ends calculus for hackers and leakers is decidedly different. Most are able to operate anonymously and evade capture (but they are taking a definitive risk — the State desires to incarcerate and incapacitate those who leak). As El-Ariss explains, with hackers and leakers, the division between thought and action evaporates and the leaking acts also evade rationality in the sense that they occur automatically, as if by a machine. “Users and activists leak, write, respond, share, reveal and gossip through the machine as it leaks and reveals through them… the fingers of the Tweeter move on their own, collapsing the human/machine distinction.”
In synthesizing Bargu and El-Ariss’ texts, it becomes interesting to think about how contemporary tactics of resistance range from our most fundamental tool as humans, the body (for protests, hunger strikes, self-immolation and even armed uprising), to newfound digital tools such as hacking, leaking and online exposure/shaming. Our tools as resisters naturally correspond to how the states deploys its degenerate power. In the prison and on the streets, the body brings visibility to state repression of antagonistic voices. Online, hacking and leaking highlight practices that the state would prefer to conceal and “expose a corrupt and excessive political power.” As Bargu emphasizes, “in a political present dominated by values of self-interest, instrumental calculation, well-being, and security, a present in which absolute dedication, heroism, and self-sacrifice have little currency, [resisting] individuals appear curiously archaic or dangerously prefigurative of a different politics.” While this statement applies most obviously to those who engage self-sacrifice of the body, hackers and leakers risk excessive state response including indefinite incapacitation. We must not engage with contemporary forms of resistance in purely rational terms — such calculus favors the state. Instead, we must endeavor to understand the “subversive and emancipatory potentialities” as well as the “shortcomings, reversals, and failings” entailed by radical forms of resistance.