The scenography of suicide: terror, politics and the humiliated witness

Vikki Bell
2005 Economy and Society  
A photograph appears in the world's newspapers. 1 A young woman lies on her back beneath the Moscow sky. Turning the page 90 degrees, she appears to be speaking, her mouth open, her hands poised in front of her body as if in animated discussion. But the composition and the framing of the photograph invite suspicion. The image includes a discarded drink can; she is lying amidst debris. It shows only the upper part of her body; we are looking at a torso. Her motionless posture and her closed eyes
more » ... and her closed eyes are not effects of the camera; this is a beautiful young woman in death. Moving from image to caption, in the move that seeks confirmation and explanation, but that always -even in the calligram -risks contradiction, the simplicity of any first -troubled, sympathetic, let us call it 'inter-human' -response to this image is complicated. The photograph's caption informs us that this is 'the body of one of the suicide bombers who unleashed an attack on a Moscow rock festival'. Like the painted text in Magritte's 'This is not a pipe', the caption cautions against the viewer's possible response to the image; it implies 'This is not a victim.' Magritte's painting drew attention to the tension at the centre of the calligram. Because the calligram says 'the same' thing twice, there is always the possibility that the second 'saying' (the text) may not confirm the first (the image). The stasis of the calligram is a fragile one, because the movement between the image and the text, the blank space over which the eyes move, threatens to yawn open. Precisely where meaning is supposedly trapped and closed down, the possibility of negation opens it up once again. In reading the caption, obliged to take our eyes from the image, any first response characterised by sympathy, is rendered inappropriate, perhaps, and we return to it with newly informed sight. The words 'suicide bomber' redirect or at least complicate sympathy. And they intend so to do. This woman was one of two young women, (one of whom was confirmed immediately as) from Chechnya 2 , who blew themselves up in the ticket queue to a rock concert in Moscow, killing themselves and thirteen others. The printing of this image is less controversial than Andreas Serrano's pictures of bodies in the morgue. By killing herself in this way, this young woman had given not just her permission but her 'instruction' to the world's media to circulate such pictures of the scene. Thus while the text contradicts or interrupts or complicates a response that responds because 'here lies another human being', there is also a challenge to be made as to the veracity of the text, as in Magritte's painting. Just as Foucault asked, who would seriously think those lines were a pipe, so one might ask who believes that this is 'the body of a 2 2 young woman'? Magritte intended to draw attention to the disappearance of 'the pipe' to which the painting and the painted words 'refer'. 'The 'pipe' that was at one with both statement and drawing -the shadow pipe knitting the lineament of form with the fibre of words -has utterly vanished,' Foucault writes. If the photograph resembles a victim, and if this 'first' affirmative (as Foucault terms it) is (potentially) disrupted and even displaced by the words 'suicide bomber', that disappearance of the appearance (semblance) repeats a disappearance -the 'utterly vanished' -of the woman herself, that is, not only of her life but of her dead body. That is, this is not a body, it is a photograph, a picture, an image circulating in the public sphere: it is publicity. What 'the matter' is here, is, quite literally, a printed image circulating in the world's media. In this sense, then, she is speaking. Through the materiality of the newspaper, she sends a political message; I am one of the most victimised, the unheard, the uncounted, of Chechnya. These interpretive vacillations -she appears to be speaking/she is not speaking/she is speaking, she resembles a victim/she is not a victim/she represents the most victimised -are not of course confined to this image nor even to 'suicide bombers'. But the alternatives signal something of the questions at stake here, and of the gamble that suicide bombers enact insofar as they remove themselves from the role of explanation, leaving to others the obligation to respond to the scene created. In part, this is simply to reiterate a familiar series of points: that several captions could have accompanied this image as it circulates the world's media; that the words by which we describe an event offers it a meaning that is never neutral; indeed, the choice of words by which we remember -a suicide bomber, a freedom fighter or shahid (holy martyr) -takes memorialising along a certain path so important that it enters into the political struggle itself. This was the first suicide bomb to take place in Moscow (there were earlier such attacks in southern Russia); but newspapers have become used to reporting suicide bombings, and the words make her mimicry of the tactics of Hamas the dominant interpretive context here, where the terms to be used are so highly contested. In Palestinian communities, posters and murals that appear on walls depicting the faces of mostly young men pitch a battle at those who would describe shaheed as 'suicide bombers'. Like the murals in Northern Ireland that appeared during the hunger strikes (of 1981 in which ten men starved to death in order to reclaim the label and thus the status of prisoners of war) and that similarly used portraits and text as public mnemonic technologies, the murals declare not only a refusal to forget these individual lives, but also a refusal to accept a description that accompanied and would undoubted follow (from those who opposed the political intent of those who participated and those who died), a description that refuses any logic of equality in their acts. These images display the faces and names of those who have died in this way as martyrs; they are attempts to recreate a low-tech mode of publicity that will circulate despite a mass media that, on the whole, remembers differently. We know, already too well, of discourse's power to 'deny and redouble', the power that is highlighted for Foucault in Magritte's 'This is not a pipe', playing as it does with the penetration of discourse into the very 'form of things'. But while in the painting 'words have surreptitiously introduced a disorder into the solidity of image, into its meticulous resemblance', the newspaper image operates according to the pretence of the calligram, with its aspiration to still the possibilities of seeing the image differently. The text orders, in both senses. It aims to give the world an order, and commands that this be how it is comprehended. 3 3 It may seem, therefore, that formulating a critical response to the dominant interpretive context consists in a challenge to language's order(ing), to insist on the alternative readings that one might make of this scene. This response insists that the scene can be read and labelled differently, that, for example, 'suicide bomber' and 'terrorist murder' are not the appropriate terms to use in order to comprehend the causes of this event. It entertains the notion that perhaps she is a victim, even the most victimised. The political question would thus be located at the level of the discursive, turning on how one categorises and thereby comprehends the bomber's actions. But if we understand the political question in this way, have we simply denied the moments that preceded the reading of the text? Can the term discursive claim explanatory value over those moments in which the viewer is rendered exposed and vulnerable, grappling for the meaning of this image? What of the initial, confused, affective response? What of the initial pain we term 'sympathy' as one suspects this young woman has died too young and in a public space, or the sense of unease pervading the image and crystallised perhaps in the drink can strewn inappropriately close to her body? What of the suspicious sense of foreboding that jostles within the pull of the ethical, in which the other is asymmetrically placed in relation to the I, elevated over me? Must the vacillating responses to the image be understood as the confusion which is always ultimately to be discursively resolved, channelled and ordered, by the text? Must we understand the text as directing, redefining our response post-hoc, as it were? For does not the bundle of sensations that the materiality of the image 'holds' remain held there in the materiality of the photograph of the scene, as do the lines of Magritte's 'pipe', whatever we choose to say or write about it, however we decide to read its caption? Of course to approach the phenomena of suicide bombings through consideration of a response to an image, is to run the risk of aestheticising politics, of approaching politics through aesthetic considerations. But a consideration of aesthetics is never more appropriate: such acts are absolutely about the production of images. To violently transform bodies moving in everyday routines into the smoking mangled burnt out wrecks of metal and body parts. This is the aesthetic task of such acts of terrorism. Whatever the 'goal', the product is a scene of devastation, a scene and an accompanying series of images over the adequate description of which survivors and commentators frequently struggle. Moreover, just as aesthetics concerns not just the making of an image but also, and crucially, the response to an image, so terrorism is not in the act but in the body of the one who responds to it (Taussig, 1989) . It is this embodied response to terror that makes it appropriate to begin at the level of sensibility, in the vulnerability to exposure, to exteriority, that Levinas understood as the site of ethical responsibility. The event of a suicide bombing is a political event that operates through the production of a scene of devastation to which one's responses are bodily, or pass through the body. To move too quickly to consider this scene through a politics of language is to ignore this response at the level of sensibility. And while such an analysis does not mean one remains at the level of the senses, that the analysis cannot remain at this level is not due to the apolitical or de-politicising tendencies of aesthetic considerations. On the contrary, it will be argued here that the politics of suicide bombings can be seen to operate through the aesthetic responses they produce, insofar as these responses are provoked and necessarily mobilise further 4 4 responses. In this exploration in which aesthetics and ethics provide the routes of analysis, it is important to insist that these acts remain political, that there is nothing 'mere' about an aesthetic route into the political, especially in the face of powerful figures who would seek to deny these acts political status. For there are, of course, those who seek to present suicide bombings as only horrific, as incomprehensible and as anti-political. So conceived, suicide and other bombings in Russia can be regarded not as in themselves political acts but as impediments to 'political' process underway in Chechnya. 3 If, instead, the horror of that scene, and the confused responses it provokes, are understood as integral to the form of politics enacted, the questions become: What sort of politics is this, one that operates through sensation rather than opinion first? Is it possible to own a response of horror and of confusion, while understanding suicide bombings as political intervention? How precisely to think the event itself, its horrific and violent eruption in public space, as a political act as opposed to a sign of the limit of political? II. To turn to the work of Hannah Arendt at this point may seem counter-intuitive. With their combination of death, violence and murder, suicide bombings are hardly a model of political action that Arendt would applaud. 'Death', wrote Arendt, 'signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearance and shall leave the company of our fellow men, which are the conditions of all politics. '(1969:67). Moreover, like death, violence is anti-political. Violence removes the possibility of speech, persuasion, debate. Suicide killing is a blow that appears outside the proper realm of the political, striking as it does at the everyday, the shared common spaces, where people mingle socially, its horizontality contrasting with the verticality that have characterised Israel's actions in Gaza and the West bank (according to Eyal Weizman, 2003). For these reasons, one might reasonably conclude that suicide bombings are not political in any Arendtian sense: they are anti-political, murderous attacks on the social. To argue in this way would be, in effect, to concur with what has become the US administration-led 'international community's' response to Russia's actions in Chechnya in which Russia's human rights abuses, once a source of disquiet and something that the US pressed Russia to address, have become re-articulated within the context of a war on terrorism. 4 The divorcing of the term 'terrorism' from 'the political' disenables any analysis that treats the terrorist event itself as political, even where, by way of concession, the latter term is relegated to a broader conception of 'causes'. Here, rather than merely assert that these acts of violence are political acts, I want to push the argument through the two elements peculiar to suicide bombing that seemingly make it difficult to argue that this is political action in any Arendtian sense: the violent making of a scene of devastation and the disappearance of the event's principal actor. Focussing on these two elements, the analysis understands suicide bombings as a performative political intervention that operates not through force of argument or rhetorical brilliance, but, rather, that obliges response through its 'sensory' dislocation, its horrific 5 5 incomprehensibility. This is a performative, therefore, the effect of which operates less through a discursive or cognitive than through a sensory or embodied route. Let me back up a little. The accusation of aestheticising politics is a familiar one in the literature on Hannah Arendt. That politics is made equivalent to aesthetics, replacing political realities with non-political considerations, is a frequent accusation levelled at her political theory. For Arendt emphasised the space of appearance in which greatness could appear, in which men could achieve immortality through their actions (Villa, 1996) . Moreover, in relation to her The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt has been accused of aestheticising the relationship of subject to state, regarding the state of terror as the imposition of a kind of 'mood'. There one finds her description of the experience of living under a totalitarian regime as an 'experience of the removal of the capacity for experience', a description which some have found puzzling, even 'mystical'. Recently, Michael Halberstam (2001) has mounted a form of defence of Arendt insofar as his analysis places her work on totalitarianism in the context of the German philosophical tradition within which she was steeped and to which the aesthetic category of the sublime is key. Arendt's sometimes mystical-sounding pronouncements on totalitarianism can be understood, he argues, when placed within this tradition where the experience of the sublime has long been considered as one concerning the individual's relationship to the greater movement of self in nature and the world. For Kant, distancing himself from a Romantic notion of the sublime that had become an aesthetic category within German (and British) philosophy, Nature is 'not judged to be sublime in our aesthetic judgements [simply] so far as it excites fear, but because it calls up that power in us (which is not nature) of regarding as small the things we care about (goods, health and life).' In the movement of the sublime the subject undergoes a humiliation of the imagination and the faculties of sense. The subject is cast back upon the self and referred to its own rational (in)capacity to grasp the infinite, supersensible purposiveness that seems to give meaning to the unity of nature and of self and world. It is thus a movement in the viewing subject that impresses upon the subject a limit to her capacities for grasping that supersensible meaning to which she is nevertheless referred, and in which she nonetheless seems to partake. This limitation cannot be thought or evaluated as such; it is experiential, a sensation. Thus 'while [for Kant] the experience of beauty is an experience in which the subject feels a harmony within itself and with the object of experience, the sublime is the experience of a dislocation with regard to what presents itself to the senses.' (Halberstam, 2001:116). The subject has the disarming feeling of dislocation precisely because s/he is presented with an empirical scene that through its capacity to excite fear or awe, directs her toward the infinite or absolute, while simultaneously illuminating her incapacity to grasp it. The sublime moves the subject but does a form of violence to subjectivity; it is 'a movement of sensibility that does violence to the very capacity for grasping the world on the level of sensibility. '(2001:116). This is why, for Kant, the sublime has 'a transcendental significance, for it recommends to the subject an overall relationship to sensibility on the level of sensibility itself' (Halberstam, 2001:116). This is not to say that the infinite or absolute can be experienced, just that the subject is prompted toward consideration of herself in relation to the infinite. To experience the sublime is 6 6 to experience a humiliated, uncomfortable and disarmed subjectivity, to be prompted toward consideration of the transcendental while never having the ability to confirm a greater purposiveness in Nature's -or the world's -movement. Halberstam convincingly argues that, however implicitly, Arendt draws upon aspects of this German tradition. Indeed, although she doesn't use the word, Arendt figures the totalitarian sensibility as a species of the sublime. Her paradoxical description of the experience of living under a totalitarian regime as an 'experience of the removal of the capacity for experience' takes up moments in Kant and others after him within an account of how 'terror shapes the extreme self-world relationship of the subject under totalitarianism.' (Halberstam, 2001: 108). The notion of 'terror' is used in Arendt's theory to refer both to the literal terrorisation of society by the totalitarian machinery for making war on its own people, and at the same time to designate 'a complex sensibility of existential dislocation that according to Arendt affects the population broadly under totalitarian rule. '(2001:122). It is the mood by which people are obliged to live. The experience of terror here was akin to the existential dislocation associated with the sublime while the movement toward transcendence was exploited as the subject's awareness of inadequacy was 'resolved' by ideologies that purported to give meaning to the experience from which the subject is 'removed'. The subject was required to trust that there were those who had some greater capacity to lead the nation to fulfil, if not necessarily to comprehend, the higher purpose of Nature and history. Insofar as people did so entrust, they sustained the Nazi ideology that articulated a higher purposiveness, a law which could not be grasped but which could only be felt, which was embodied in a nation and a race rather than in a rational discourse, and which had to be followed. It is this implicit link in Arendt between terror and the complex sensibility of existential (dis)location associated with thinking the sublime that has relevance within a discussion of suicide bombings. It is often remarked that fear freezes us in the present, dislocating us from the repetitions that tend to propel us forward through time; simultaneously, one might argue that its effect is precisely to locate us by its form of humiliation. In other words, faced with a scene of devastating violence, one is obliged to ask questions for which there are no immediate or correct answers. Such bombings provoke a series of confused and rapid questions in which the witnessing or watching subject struggles in a sea of present horror. The 'smaller' questions look backwards (who are the victims, what have we lost?) and they look to the future (what should I do? how shall I go on?). But this temporal freezing and uneasy dislocation has also the impulse to transcendence, the movement between subjectivity and objectivity. The bigger questions -of meaning, of the interchangeability of human lives (what is (my) life for, what is it worth? Why should I be saved and not him or her?) -are raised, and left unanswered. They are unanswered precisely because there is no possible experience of transcendence. There is rather only the prompting, the movement toward transcendence such that the subject's experience is caught in the tension between the subjective and the objective, rushing from one to the other. What is important, politically, here is that through the horror of the scene of devastation there is a prompting or referring toward transcendence. In more Arendtian terms, one might say that the unexpected, violent scene interrupts 'our' becoming, reminding us simultaneously of our own finite lives, while simultaneously it prompts 7 7 consideration of life, and of the world, as if viewed from afar; and correlatively, of the relationship between one's individual existence and being-in-common. It forces both a private existential contemplation of being-toward-death and prompts a contemplation of larger movements of the world that must involve social and political considerations. There is, then, in the halting interruption of everyday life, the enforced pausing in the present, a scene that 'communicates' on the level of the senses. Through the experience of terror, broader questions concerning the realities and possibilities of a common world, can emerge as questions and hold the potential, therefore, of becoming political. This is a scene, moreover, from which the principal actor disappears. Indeed, because the principal actor removes him or herself, there is no speaker-actor such as political action requires in Arendt's theory of political action. If we are prompted to ask 'why?', the principal actor does not remain to direct that search for meaning. Nor can the event of suicide bombings in themselves articulate the meaning of terror -its purposiveness -as part of a plan within which the witnesses are enjoined as did the ideologies of the totalitarian state as Arendt suggested. These events are not 'ideological' in that sense. In relation to this 'silence', Maud Ellmann has written -with regard to the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland -that it is when there is a refusal to declare motives a hunger strike is transformed into a mere pathology or a suicide (1993:18). More generally, she suggests, it is 'the text provided by the terrorist that acts as its signature in the most performative sense of the word. Without it nothing is authenticated, no (terrorist) event can be said to have taken place.' (Ellmann, 1993:19). But while there may come a claim of 'responsibility', until that time and in itself the suicide bombing in Moscow does not itself bear a signature. This does not render it 'merely' a pathology or a suicide in this case, because of the killings and the creation of a scene of devastation that accompanies the suicide. While these aspects do not 'sign' the event as such, they communicate and thereby prompt a search for meaning. It is this search for meaning that requires that the event become discursive, a search for comprehension that entails the articulation of political perspectives and argument. There is gamble enacted by the suicide bomber in this regard. The gamble is that while -and even because -she herself is removed from the scene, the movement toward transcendence involves raising her being-in-common as a question. In the context of education, Arendt wrote that each student has a double aspect: 'the relationship to the world on the one hand and to life on the other.'(PFF, p185) 5 . By abandoning one side of her double aspect, her relationship to life, the young woman in Moscow leaves us to consider her relationship to the world. Her relationship to 'the world', here, is not simply to refer us to her motivation, to a psychological state of mind or religious belief-system, as crucial and important as these may be on one level. It is also to refer us, through our inability to grasp it, through an inability to explain her let alone empathise with her, to her place in the world we shared with her: our humanity in common. But this is not a simple form of empathetic identification. Indeed, the horror of her actions -the in-humanity of her murderous actions -cannot be divorced from the analysis. The question of her relationship to the world -in the Arendtian sense of the world-in-common -is raised, somewhat paradoxically, as a result of this inhumanity in the sense I have been arguing here and without passing through 'empathy'. Empathy requires a closing down of the distance between one and another, a 8 8 'comprehension' of her actions that frequently becomes a contemplation in terms of her life(-story) and her relationship to 'life', neglecting the crucial question of her relationship to the same world which I share(d) with her and which I continue to share with others after her departure and her act. The attempt to 'stand in her shoes' is to remove the distance between her and oneself, to attempt to 'identify' with or humanise her motivations. Those efforts to find in the psychology of the suicide bombers a psychological disposition or
doi:10.1080/03085140500054628 fatcat:tbarrfrqhjdofh3guh2tcccpiu