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Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body

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Since the Gezi resistance started with bloodshed on 31 May, it has had an “anti-depressant” effect, as a friend of mine puts it, as much as it has been nerve-racking. During this period where each day has been prone to new crises and normalcy was completely disrupted, we simultaneously experienced the peaks of ecstasy and the depths of sorrow.

Analyzing such an intense event naturally requires taking some distance. Pending systematization, however, the vivid memory of each day impels one to put on paper multifarious ideas that resonate well with the resistance. Each morning, many bodies with sleep deprived eyes wake up in Istanbul, Ankara, Antakya, Urfa, and Denizli to take to the streets once again, after having quickly checked the latest news in the social media. They are astonished and impressed that they can still walk, run, stand up, and carry provisions for those in the parks. Exhausted bodies rejuvenate with every new threat that the government utters, and with thousands, tens of thousands of others they begin flowing to Taksim, Kızılay, Kuğulu Park, Gündoğdu, Abbasoğlu, and Yeniköy Park carrying home-made gas masks, swimmer goggles, anti-acid solutions, and whistles.

No one does or can govern these bodies. The masses that gather in public spaces are not formed by virtue of transferring tax money into the wallets of partisans. No one provides shuttle buses for them; no one gives them flags, or feeds them with sandwiches. No one assigns them the slogans they shout out during the demonstrations. Bodies that take heart from knowing that they are not alone do not count, or count on, numbers to meet with others in communal or virtual spaces. One standing man suffices for thousands of others to take to the streets. After all, “one” is also a number…

The government, whose tactlessness prompts these resisting and standing bodies to convene again and again every single day, could not have missed the significance of this body politics. These bodies naturally do have a language, even a few languages that are at times congruent and at others incongruent; however, as a whole, they constitute a politics of the body. The rage and dreams that have been embodied in tweets and graffiti since 31 May turn into material realities through the physical existence, visibility, and endurance of the bodies. If history is being rewritten, then its subject is the body.

Four of these bodies lost their lives during this war that the government has waged on society. Thousands of bodies have been beaten up: some lost their eyes, some received irretrievable injuries. Skins were burnt under the water from the cannons, “laced” with chemicals for maximum harm; lungs were choked with tear gas. Pounded arms, legs, and heads got crushed and broken. The long-term effects of the tons of chemicals dumped on bodies are still unknown. What is known, however, is that these chemicals killed hundreds of cats, dogs, and birds, and that they did harm to countless insects, butterflies, and other smaller organisms.

The apparatuses of the state, and the vehicles of death that responded to Gezi’s politics of the body, attempted to imitate the life force that they failed to extort. In response to the huge numbers that filled the parks and squares and astonished everyone without exception, they hoped to gather partisans together in scripted rallies. They began comparing head counts; they calculated representative percentages. When the calculations did not match, they increased the number of police in body armor and helmets and moved them from protest to protest. They built walls of flesh and steel against the wave of resisting flesh. When that did not work, they offered these bodies—which have been in contact with each other physically and virtually through meetings, banners, and tweets—a mise en scène of dialogue, the conditions of which were more or less already determined. They could not even wait for this attempt to yield fruit; two warnings and a command were enough to launch an assault to remove the bodies that produced an alternative sociability from the park, from the space in which physical resistance could be transformed into a life style. They freed the public space of the public. They collected all the banners, pictures, and colors one by one to erase them from social memory. They stripped all the trees, each dedicated to victims of state violence; they appropriated the barricades that were named after tens of people who had undergone physical and psychological torture, and they tore them to tatters. They destroyed the efforts to keep alive the memories of Fikret Encü, who was a victim of Roboski; Metin Göktepe, who was tortured and killed in detention; Dicle Koğacoğlu, who could not take all the sorrow inherent in this society any more; and the Surp Hagop Armenian Cemetery, which was destroyed by Turkish racism.

The only thing that remains is a politics of the body—but the bodies that produce this politics differ from what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.” They are not “mere” bodies that the arbitrary will of a sovereign can isolate from society, oppress unceremoniously, or push to the margins of the symbolic world. Rather, they evoke what Ernst Bloch calls “the upright man,” the collective Prometheus. Bloch writes:

Nothing is more fortifying than the call to begin from the beginning. It is youthful as long as it is; to it there belongs a young and aspiring class. It is innocent of the bad things that have happened, for it has never had a real opportunity to be guilty. When this happens, justice has the effect of a morning; it opposes itself to that eternal sickness which was handed down before it. Beginning anew is freshness through and through; it is a first if it appears completely ahistorical, and if it seems to lead back to the beginning of history….It carries the image of the pastoral mood, of the shepherd, of the simple and upright man; one can play with it even in the dark.[1]

Gezi is the struggle of disorderly bodies, those who do not have any dispositif other than their own bodies, against the death machines. If the machines are regulatory instances that follow commands and extort public spaces of mobility with force and violence, then the force they face is the resistance of life itself. Life flourishes at the most unexpected moments and places, just like weeds that crack the concrete and spring out of it. No apparatus of the state can succeed in dominating life absolutely.

The state seeks order; it can control only those whom it orders. It cannot cope with the demand of "freedom"; it has to ask questions such as “freedom for whom,” “freedom for what,” or “freedom under what circumstances” in order to tuck freedom into neat boxes. Order draws borders, fixes identities, and defines. It attempts to establish a hierarchy. By telling parents to take their daughters and sons home from the park, it both brands the resisting bodies as "children" and tries to trigger into action the nucleus of society: family. Through its rhetoric of security, it attributes the risks of its own making to the resisting bodies. It hangs its own flag or banner on the bodies that it prefers knocking down rather than protecting. It punishes those who do not obey; it uses punishment as retaliation. It operates through censorship, threats, and propaganda.

Life, on the other hand, is a constant flux. It challenges borders and moves beyond them. It opens up to circulation those spaces that are closed off due to construction; it paints such destructive vehicles as bulldozers pink; it transforms steps into tribunes, pieces of iron into wish trees, and trees destined to be cut down into monuments. It walks on highways and bridges that are closed to pedestrians. It does not like the empty and the sterile; it covers them up with banners, slogans, tents. It leaves its mark on every surface. It disrupts silence at times with pots and pans, and at other times with a tune from a piano. It plays with identities and definitions; it makes them fluid; it renders them indistinguishable. It can make fun of both itself and the established order thanks to its humor. By changing one single letter in a word, it can ridicule the heaviest of symbolisms. When the state apparatus sends a riot-intervention vehicle to pour tear gas on it, life stops to catch its breath for a while and goes right back to resisting. When a body grows tired, it gets replaced by a reinvigorated one. Life turns into thousands of fingers that tweet and take photographs when the state apparatus sends down vehicles of propaganda. It stops its wheelchair to grab the flag that fell on the ground while escaping from tear gas. It apologizes when it steps on someone's foot while running; it calms down those who panic.

It is obvious that these bodies that fascism wants to militarize will not assume any ideological identity. When they do not drink alcohol, they ridicule conservatism; when they lie under a TOMA, they make fun of liberalism, which claims that life is the most valuable good. Orthodox Marxism cannot decide under which class struggle these "çapulcu" bodies are to be subsumed. As long as they stay in physical contact, as long as they remain as collective Prometheuses, as long as they—have to—continue the resistance, they grow accustomed to each other's colors, languages, and genders. They disrupt the behavioral rules that ideologies and institutions expect from them. The natural or moral instinct of protection that has been attributed to mothers loses ground when female bodies participate in the resistance alongside their children. The nationalist and the Kurd exchange anti-acid solutions in gas-filled hotel lobbies. The upper-class college kid drinks the water handed over by the kid with an Anonymous mask without needing to ask what neighborhood he’s from. Soccer fans save their curses for the police rather than for their rivals.

What comes out of all this is trust, not chaos. That's why the bodies multiply with every gush of tear gas, spaces expand with every police attack, and the quality of contact among the bodies increases with every propaganda speech. The life woven together by bodies born in Gezi is so tenacious that the government is right in fearing it. The power of these bodies stems from their capacity to mutualize endurance, rather than vulnerability (as Judith Butler envisioned they would). One would need to look into the extensive interstices of this politics of the body, rather than into macro-level discourses, to begin deciphering it.


[1] Ernst Bloch, Natural Right and Human Dignity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 61.

[An earlier version of this article was published on 26 June 2013 on BIA ("Independent Communication Network"). The link to that version can be found here. This article was translated from Turkish by Gülfer Göze.]

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