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TitlePutting oneself on fire as a political act

Self-Immolation: Waving or Drowning?

۱۹ فروردین ۱۳۹۰

■ Mohammadbagher Forough
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April 8, 2011

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” (Hamlet)

On the occasion of recent public self-immolations, from the young street vender in Tunisia who set himself on fire and incited a host of riots and revolutions in the Middle East to the Iranian man who two days ago set himself on fire and died in Amsterdam because he was denied asylum by the Dutch government, it would not be out of place to engage self-immolation as a ‘political question’.

Self-immolation is a form of suicide. Suicide, together with other types of self-injurious behavior, has been an immensely complicated object of enquiry in different disciplines. Psychoanalysts (e.g. Freudian ‘death drive’), sociologists (e.g. Emily Durkheim’s four types of suicide), philosophers (e.g. Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus where suicide is abandoned in favor of revolt), theologians (e.g. Augustine and Aquinas see suicide as a mortal sin), and literary writers (e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Woolf’s Ms. Dalloway) have all addressed this issue from their different perspectives.

When self-immolation is carried out outside the private realm, it obviously taps into matters beyond the personal and the private. It becomes a public or political act. The questions that follow are: what kind of act is it? What is its history? What/who does it address? Why is it performed in this way? What can we learn from it? In what follows, I will dwell on these questions.

Self-immolation has a long history, rooting back to ancient Buddhism and Hinduism (e.g. Sati (1) ). I will confine myself, however, to its practice in the recent history of world politics. One of the most famous and earliest instances of it took place when Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, calmly set himself on fire in the middle of a street in Saigon as an act of protest against the dictatorial regime of Ngo Ding Diem in South Vietnam, which privileged the Catholic minority and persecuted the Buddhist majority there. With its worldwide publicity and the impact on people’s psyche, the event was a turning point in the downfall of Diem’s regime. Jan Palach did the same thing in Czechoslovakia in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation of his country. In the 60s, several American political activists (e.g. Norman Morrison, Alice Herz, Roger Laporte, George Winne) set themselves on fire in protest against the American war in Vietnam. These are but few examples.

Given all these instances, we can reasonably infer that an element of utter desperation bordering on a sort of madness, or some state of mind beyond madness (utter emptiness or objectification?), and sheer disappointment in one’s powerful interlocutor (e.g. a state or a Kafkaesque bureaucracy) is sensed by the people who carry out this kind of violence on themselves. But, to quote Hamlet again, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”.

What kind of method is there? Allen Feldman in his discussion of the Irish Republican Army formulated a theory of ‘performative violence’, which, briefly put, is a situation in which a violent action becomes a political text or message and is a symbolic ritual or performance against a symbolic institution (e.g. state or bureaucracy), issue (e.g. war), edifice (e.g. the palace of a dictator), and so forth. Feldman talks about IRA which used violence against others. In the case of public self-immolation (which is first violence on oneself) we can follow the same theory because it is simultaneously violence against others too by the very fact that it is public and the public has to see and tolerate that violence and its psychological impact, which is what makes it a ‘political question’ in the first place. No matter what the thoughts of the self-immolator are, we can say that public self-immolation is a symbolic performance against a regime; I am using the word regime in a broad sense here, i.e., ‘as a prevailing system or pattern’.

The Tunisian street vender, irrespective of his conscious thoughts at that moment, performed a ritual against Ben Ali’s despotic regime in Tunisia and articulated a political message, namely, he vented out his literally self-consuming desperation and discontent with that regime. The Iranian asylum-seeker (as the archetypal figure of the ‘other’) who killed himself in Amsterdam, you might say, performed the same kind of ritual against a bureaucratic machine, a faceless Kafkaesque bureaucracy that brought him down to the level of an object (i.e. without subjectivity, citizenship, and identity), a ritual against an immigration bureaucratic regime that is constructed to pander to the xenophobic tide that is currently sweeping the Netherlands and Europe.

Public self-immolation has a deep impact on our collective consciousness

How does it address us? Public self-immolation, by the very fact that it is public, has a deep impact on our collective consciousness. If our intention is to prevent such events from happening in future, we can learn that an event like this can function as a wake-up call for us to think about the message and the performance that are imposed on us publicly, and to steer clear of what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’, namely, the transfiguration of an evil into a bureaucratic regime and the passive and thoughtless acceptance of that regime by the people.

Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular are experiencing yet another dark chapter of their history because of the very ‘banality’ with which they are victimizing their defenseless ‘Others’, i.e. its demonized immigrants such as The Roma, Muslims, Arabs, and so forth. People here need to wake up from this cold and dangerous nightmare and begin to question it.

In Stevie Smith’s poem Not Waving but Drowning (2) , people mistake a drowning man to be waving to them, and thus let him drown. The question here was ‘what is self-immolation: waving or drowning?’ It is both a drowning (self-destruction) and a waving (a message), out of which two things are possible: either we don’t see the message and we as a society drown as we have in the past, or we get the message and move towards becoming a more open and inclusive society as we should in future.

(1) The now illegal act or practice of a Hindu widow’s cremating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in order to fulfill her true role as wife
(2) See this link for the poem: http://www.artofeurope.com/smith/smi1.htm

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