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Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.

At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.

“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.

The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.

Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest.Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.

Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact.What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.

Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.

This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.

The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.

…That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair…

–Costica Bradatan, “The political psychology of self-immolation

Yes, self-immolation is on the list of dark/twisted/perverse things that fascinate me. Protest meets death meets mythology meets attempts to instigate social change = right up my alley.

Longer post on this definitely overdue, but for the time being Bradatan’s essay in the New Statesman is fantastic (hence me copying and pasting almost all of it).

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Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one. (Foucault was the tough one, Derrida was the dreamy one, Lacan was the mysterious one — I like to imagine them sometimes as a black-turtlenecked, clove-smoking boy band called Hors de Texte, with the hit album “Discipline ’n’ Punish.”) Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he calledjouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment. He proclaimed the death of the author and advocated a style of reading he referred to as “writerly,” in which readers work as active creators of a text. His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy. (Barthes first rose to prominence, or notoriety, thanks to the furor surrounding his early book about Racine.) In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.

The most reliable and user-friendly source of Barthes’s special variety of fun — the bouillon cube, if you will, of his critical flavor — is his early book “Mythologies,” originally published in 1957. In it, Barthes basically invented what we think of as cultural criticism: he was the first really first-rate intellectual to tell us what our most mundane pop culture actually means…

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths. He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk. He wrote an essay about Greta Garbo’s face. (“The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”) He wrote an essay about Billy Graham, who had come to preach in Paris. (“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

…The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning. “In a single day,” Barthes writes toward the end of the book, “how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.” (He was the Walt Whitman of critical theory.)

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

This also suggests, however, one of the major differences between postmillennial America and 1950s France. Barthes was writing at the dawn of what we think of as mass culture: a time when the average citizen’s relationship to images was changing rapidly, when the texts people shared were suddenly not just religious or civic or local but global: a common set of images drawn from commercial entertainment.

The dawn of that kind of culture has obviously long since passed. We now live at least in its late afternoon, possibly even its twilight. The Internet, notoriously, came along and broke the old model’s kneecaps. Instead of just passively absorbing a series of broadcasts from Planet Media, consumers today participate directly in the creation of culture.

To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.

My favorite moments in the book are those in which Barthes seems moved by, and invested in, the culture he discusses: when he writes, for instance, about professional wrestling as a spectacle of justice, and seems to be defending it against reflexive and shallow criticism. In Barthes’s posthumously published book “Mourning Diary” — a collection of the notes he made after the death of his mother in 1977, 20 years after “Mythologies” — there is an especially poignant moment. Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

–Sam Andersen, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap

In reaction to the blockbuster hype for new superhero movies coming out this summer, NYT movie critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have a conversation on the genre, with some juicy thoughts on the contradictions between superhero mythologies and the corporate media industry that produces these films (bolding and ellipsing is mine).

On national myths of American superheroes and the contradiction with global politics:

DARGIS: On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myths, including that of American Eden (Superman’s Smallville); the Western hero (who’s separate from the world and also its savior); and American exceptionalism (that this country is different from all others because of its mission to make “the world safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson and, I believe, Iron Man, both put it).

SCOTT:  …It’s telling that Hollywood placed a big bet on superheroes at a time when two of its traditional heroic genres — the western and the war movie — were in eclipse, partly because they seemed ideologically out of kilter with the times.

On the rise of revenge in superhero narratives:

SCOTT: …The Joker’s mocking question from“The Dark Knight” — why so serious? — echoes through the past 10 years, when, with a few exceptions, there has been very little that is comic in comic book movies. Instead these movies have mostly been angry, anxious and obsessed with the idea of revenge.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the state of the world after Sept. 11, 2001. Certainly the superhero movies of today are, like the gangster pictures of the Depression and the westerns of the ’50s, a screen onto which our society projects its fears and dreams. But I also think that the grimness arises from another source. When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it is never a laughing matter.

On the corporate, commercial power of superhero stories:

SCOTT: There is something paradoxical about the modern ascendance of the superhero: world domination is what these guys were born to fight, and here they are chasing after it in a fairly literal way…  Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does.

On today’s contradiction of more tech but less choice:

DARGIS: We’re at a paradoxical moment when new digital technologies have created more and more stuff, movies included, even as the consolidation of the media gives us fewer real choices.

On how American superhero movies reify an outdated status quo of American democracy & problematic gender roles:

SCOTT: …And much as they may fetishize courage and individualism, these movies are above all devoted to the protection of a status quo only tangentially (or tendentiously) related to truth, justice and the American Way. The DC and Marvel superheroes, champions of democracy in the ’40s and ’50s and pop rebels in the ’60s and ’70s, have become, in the 21st century, avatars of reaction.

DARGIS: …For all the technological innovations, the groovy new Bat cycles and codpieces, superhero movies just recycle variations on gender stereotypes that were in circulation back in the late 1930s, when Superman and Batman first hit. The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.

Also, I love Nathan Fox’s graphic for this piece, which gets eclipsed by the movie stills on the article page. My only edit would be instead of having superheroes on a blank, iceberg-like terrain, I would have used a globe with the characters leaping from the US. But I tend for the obvious with these sorts of things: maybe the camera guy’s ostensibly American gym socks are enough to express the push for global cultural hegemony.