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.
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.
Sitting and standing
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.