6 Bodies 6 Bodies

Body talk

We express ourselves in ways other than words: in posture and gesture, in the ways we stand or sit, by waving our arms and hands, and sometimes simply by being present, by putting our bodies forward as signs.

Rank and power are traditionally connected with certain postures and from the way in which men group themselves we can deduce the amount of authority which each enjoys. We know what it means when one man sits raised up while everyone around him stands; when one man stands and everyone else sits; when everyone in a room gets up as someone comes in; when one man falls on his knees before another; when a new arrival is not asked to sit down… The dignity of sitting is the dignity of duration… A man lying down is a man disarmed… Sitting or squatting on the ground denotes an absence of needs, a turning in on oneself… Kneeling is a gesture of supplication…

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

The assembly is already speaking before it utters any words… The ‘we’ voiced in language is already enacted by the gathering of bodies, their gestures and movements, their vocalizations, and their ways of acting in concert.

Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015

Gathering is physical, corporeal, a matter of bodies coming together, before it is verbal. As Judith Butler notes, ‘(F)orms of assembly already signify prior to, and apart from, any particular demands they make’. What matters is what is done physically as well as what is done verbally; the body also ‘speaks’ politically.

Reclaim the Night marches started in the UK on the 12th November 1977, when torchlit marches were held across England in Leeds, York, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton and London. They were called by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who were inspired by news of co-ordinated women-only ‘Take Back The Night’ marches against sexual harassment, held across towns and cities in West Germany on the 30th April 1977. These were reviewed in the UK Women’s Liberation Movement magazine Spare Rib and titled ‘Germany: Women Reclaim The Night’ (Issue 61). In America the marches are known as ‘Take Back The Night’ and the first formal march with this title was held in San Francisco in 1978. Reportedly, the first ever ‘Reclaim The Night’ march with that title was held in Rome in 1976 to protest against a rise in reported rapes.

Sitting and standing

When the Turkish government in the summer of 2013 banned assemblies in Taksim Square, one man stood alone, facing the police, clearly ‘obeying’ the law not to assemble. As he stood there, more individuals stood ‘alone’ in proximity to him, but not exactly as a ‘crowd’. They were standing as single individuals, but they were all standing, silent and motionless, as single individuals, evading the standard idea of an ‘assembly’ yet producing another one in its place. They technically obeyed the law forbidding groups from assembling and moving by standing separately and saying nothing. This became an articulate yet wordless demonstration.

Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015

What does it mean when we talk of a candidate ‘standing’ for election and then ‘sitting’ in parliament?  What are we saying when we use these words?

There’s something about being the one person standing up; you are the only person standing up. Everybody else is sitting down, And the centrality of that focus on you, together with the enormous noise, together with the fact that everybody’s squashed in, because there aren’t enough seats in the House of Commons for all the MPs, you are physically jammed shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, all squashed in like sardines, and then you stand up. And that is a very exposed moment but it is a moment full of potential. And more or less every Prime Minister’s Questions there is that air of anticipation. It is theatre.

Harriet Harman, Acting Leader of the Opposition 2010 and 2015
Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics, 2018

Standing is active but also exposed: the candidate stands to speak, she stands up for something, but she also stands out.  In standing she makes herself visible, and makes the interest or cause she represents visible too.  She becomes exceptional, separating herself from the sitting; she is both distinctive and identified, the object of a collective subject.  Her sitting is then to rest and reflect, to engage in certain forms of careful and intricate, largely non-manual work; to consider; to belong to and talk in a group and, of course, to listen to those who are standing.


The national anthem is played before all professional sports events in the US, when all present – players, coaches, staff and spectators – stand as a mark of respect.  In the final preseason game of the NFL, on 1 September 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid knelt during the anthem, in protest at recent police shootings of young black men.

‘I did what people do when words fail’

Former West German chancellor Willy Brandt, reflecting on falling to his knees in front of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, 7 December 1970, in Mark Cousins, The Story of Looking, 2017

It was a radical gesture, but not radically new.  it carried echoes of other similar protests during World Wars I and II and later, the war in Vietnam; of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising gloved fists in a black power salute during their medal ceremony at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and of college football protests during the 1960s and 1970s.  Anthem protests have continued sporadically since, focused usually against military conflict and racial oppression.

For a few weeks before taking the knee, injured and not wearing his playing strip, Kaepernick had remained sitting during the anthem, unnoticed.  Only after talking to former NFL Player and Green Beret Nate Boyer did he wear his jersey, come forward and kneel among other players.  This way he couldn’t be accused of not showing respect: he was showing respect differently, and perhaps respecting something different.

To make the statement he wanted, his action had to be made visible.  But it also had to be recognisable, operating in part according to established behavioural codes, in part by contravening them, and with some degree of precedent.  Only then might his statement be read in the way it was meant.  It had to be practised, too, Kaepernick and Reid experimenting, reflecting, calculating and adjusting until it worked.

Arms and hands

Hands – raised up in surrender or self-defense, curled into fists and defiant power grips… folded across locked arms on protest days, clasped in prayer for peace or open in outreach – belong to a language of gesture.

Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 2018
People standing, talking, arms raised in confrontation.
Adrian Arbib: ‘Residents discuss the road’, Solsbury Hill, 1994, © Adrian Arbib

Adrian Arbib’s pictures of Solsbury Hill show a protest which is intensely physical.  There are no weapons, but arms everywhere: wrapped around a tree; reaching to grab a neck, stretching in order to hold on, pull down or carry away.  Others mark a position, yet others protect.  Arms are raised, putting hands at the height of faces and heads: hands holding a radio, or the mouthpiece of a megaphone; others which reprimand or restrain.  Hands on hips confront a hammer raised; fingers point, direct and emphasise; a palm is upturned to offer an explanation.

A construction worker and a protestor are locked in a stare astride a digger, their bodies levered and supported by their limbs, mirroring the mechanics of the machine on which they have climbed.  A body lies on a bank of earth among dead and severed trees, eyes closed and head thrown back, hat somehow like a helmet, the middle distance obscured in dust or mist: a war photograph. In this way, politics is done in gesture, in arrangements of looks and limbs, between human beings in close proximity.  Hands draw the photographer’s eye because he cannot capture what is said and heard: hands and arms signify in place of words.

Shaking hands is a special gesture of recognition, of respect for the integrity of the other.  Because it requires a laying aside of weapons, its very purpose is to define a situation as one of civilised interaction rather than physical conflict.

When the Japanese Emperor hosts delegations, foreign citizens shake his hand while his subjects straighten their arms, grab their lower thigh and bow. Shaking the emperor’s hand would be out of the question.

Iver Neumann, Diplomatic Sites, 2013

Handshakes between political leaders inevitably have special significance.  The first of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Executive Committee member Mahmud Abbas.  US President Clinton then shook Israel President Itzhak Rabin’s hand, and Leader of the PLO Yasser Arafat’s.  He stepped back slightly, his right arm outstretched behind Rabin, in the way a host might introduce one guest to another.  Arafat reached out his hand to Rabin, and Rabin offered his in return, generating ‘the picture we’ve been waiting for’, as CBS news anchor Dan Rather said. And as with Arafat and Rabin, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is said to have noted in his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister in 2004 that ‘when we shake hands, the whole world will be watching’.  In a different context, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron clasped hands.

Deliberation or debate seem purposefully non-tactile, yet they are often initiated by rituals of touching and being touched where hugs, handshakes and kisses convey a plethora of corporeal messages from welcome to superiority and where impressions of others are gleaned from the way they perform these apparently mundane gestures. Additional clues are adduced from the way speakers touch themselves: unthinking acts that are ripe with opportunities for misunderstanding in multicultural contexts. Wringing hands, licking lips, folding arms, stroking jowls, are all signs used to evaluate others’ performances and to embellish our own. Protocols of sexual difference, overlaid by pulses of desire, intimidation and harassment, further commend touch as an especially potent vehicle of carnal power.

Diana Coole, ‘Corporeal communicators and the embodiment of power’, 2007


The gilets jaunes demonstrations began as a protest against increased fuel tax in France.  The gilet jaune is a yellow, light-weight, hi-viz jacket cars are required to carry in case of breakdown or other emergency.  It’s ubiquitous, cheap and readily available.  It’s associated with the object of its wearers’ protest.  It’s designed to make its wearer visible, which matters in politics as much as at the roadside.  It has a uniform effect: it makes its wearers identifiable, and identifies them as belonging to a group rather than as individuals.  It makes the group and its demands present in a way they couldn’t be otherwise.

Nixon: You dress kind of strange, don’t you?

Elvis: You have your show and I have mine

What politicians wear matters, because we assume that what they wear says something about who they are.  We are used to seeing politicians in business suits, their ties in their party colours, as well as much more awkwardly in casual wear in apparently candid shots at home.  As with many such conventions, dress codes become significant when they are breached.

Robert and Jane work in Arise!, a Marxist-Anarchist bookstore run by a collective in Minneapolis.  Robert wears a red hoodie, a light brown (tan) Hard Times tee shirt, and green pants. Beneath his Hard Times tee shirt is a long-sleeved gray shirt. Jane wears a black coat with a mock-fur collar, a pink shawl, yellow long-sleeved shirt, a black long sweater, and black leather shoes. Their politics lies in what they wear as much as in what they do or say.  Their clothes encode a specific ‘insider’ identity, stake a claim to a particular kind of credibility, the effect of which is to exclude others who don’t dress the way they do, or do so less successfully.  ‘Collective members were subsumed in articulating their individual identities through their style rather than articulating Arise! as an enunciatory community’.

Style and symbol—that is: clothes (or single pieces of garment like boots, belt, parts of uniforms), colour, habitus, the way of speaking (or single keywords) as well as aestheticized signs as expressive symbols for opinions and behaviours—signal the public which tendency an individual or a group belongs to… At the same time style and symbol refer to existing or desired lines of tradition that are implored and occupied for the present.

Eike Hennig, ‘The significance of symbol and style for neo-Nazism’, 1989


Goffman notes that human beings ordinarily have the physical capacity to cause great damage to the people and things around them, as well as themselves.  He was interested for the most part in the extent to which individuals usually forego opportunities to do so, that is in the way social order depends on what he calls their ‘systematic desisting’.  But sometimes those individuals decide to disrupt that order, choose to fail to desist.

I took my clothes off because they treat us like animals. We are claiming asylum, we’re not animals.

Mercy Guobatia, in Imogen Tyler, ‘Naked protest’, 2013

In April 2008, when a Burundian mother and her British-born baby were to be deported from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, a group of pregnant women and mothers in the family wing took off their clothes in protest.  It was an action designed to draw the attention of the media, the habitually sexualised imagery of the female body being invoked and challenged by the maternal, non-white body, naked rather than nude.

The physical capacities of any normal adult equip him, if he so wills it, to be immensely disruptive of the world immediately at hand. He can destroy objects, himself, and other people. He can profane himself, insult and contaminate others, and interfere with their free passage.

Erving Goffman, ‘Where the action is’, in Interaction Ritual, 1972

‘Forms of assembly already signify…’: is from Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015, p 8; ‘The assembly is already speaking…’: ibid, pp 156-7, emphasis in original

The background and context to Reclaim the Night marches are from the organization’s own website here.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans Carol Stewart, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p 449

Harriet Harman is quoted in Hazarika and Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics, op cit, [page]

‘When the Turkish government…’: Judith Butler, op cit, pp 168-9

I am indebted to Savannah Moss for material used in this account of the NFL protests: Moss, S (2019) ‘The NFL: a vehicle for change? The anthem protest and agenda setting through social movements in the United States’, MA (Hons) dissertation, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh

Brandt’s reflections are reported in ‘Kniefall’, Mark Cousins’s account of the famous photograph of the event, Studies in the History of Photography, Scottish Society for the History of Photography, Winter 2018, p 94

‘Residents discuss the road’ appears in Adrian Arbib’s Solsbury Hill – chronicle of a road protest, Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2009; see also: Solsbury Hill

Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics, op cit, p 140

Dan Rather is quoted in Leon Hadar (1994) ‘The picture and the spin’, Journal of Palestine Studies 23 (2) 84-94, p 85, and the relevant news footage is part of a History Lesson on the Oslo Accords, presented by James Lindsay for the Council on Foreign Relations; Harsh Pant refers to Wen’s remark in his (2015) ‘The growing complexity of Sino-Indian ties’, Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia 24 (1) 1-33, p 3; Merkel and Macron clasp hands here, and Iver Neumann’s observation about Japanese etiquette appears in his ‘Sited diplomacy’, in Jason Dittmer and Fiona McConnell (eds), Diplomatic Cultures and International Politics: translations, spaces and alternatives, London: Routledge, 2015

‘Deliberation or debate…’: Diana Coole, op cit, p 420

The Nixon-Elvis exchange was used by Craig Brown in the Guardian, 19 June 2016

What Robert and Jane are wearing is analysed by Matthias Wolf-Meyer in ‘The politics of materiality, or ‘The Left Is Always Late”, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 29 (2) 254–275 (2006); ‘Collective members were subsumed…’ is p 265

Eike Hennig’s ‘Die Bedeutung von Symbol und Stil für den Neonazismus und die Rechtsextremismusforschung in der Bundesrepublik appeared in Rüdiger Voigt (ed) Politik der Symbole – Symbole der Politik, Opladen: Leske und Budrich, and is cited in Fabian Virchow (2007) ‘Performance, emotion and ideology. On the creation of ‘collectives of emotion’ and worldview in the contemporary German far right’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (2) 147-164, pp 156-7

The naked protest at Yarl’s Wood is reported by Imogen Tyler, I (2013) ‘Naked protest: the maternal politics of citizenship and revolt’, Citizenship Studies 17 (2) 211-226, and Mercy Guobatia was quoted in the Independent, 11 April 2008

Erving Goffman, ‘Where the action is’, op cit; the quotation is p 169