The power of language and the language of power

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11 Kontinentalverschiebung

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16 The power of language and the language of power

17 L'illuminato

18 The Ideological Intruder

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Ivan Grubanov, Smoke Screen #1, oil and smoke on canvas, 100x80cm, 2010 (Courtesy of the artist)

The power of language and the language of power
a speech by Marko Stamenkovic

Imagine you were in Moscow thirty years ago: visiting the capital of Soviet Union, in the aftermath of its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, would have probably been a unique experience for a foreign guest - especially if your visit occurred on the occasion of the 1980 Olympic Games, most notable for the largest boycott of this event in history due to the invasion. Imagine you are walking around the city, enjoying the monumental architecture around, and, all of a sudden, something unusual captures your attention: you are in the middle of the Red Square and it looks like something is burning, but you are not sure what it could be. Intrigued by what you are looking at from a distance, you want to get closer and take a photo – as any tourist anywhere in the world would do, of course. You take your photo-camera out of your funny backpack, and at the moment when you are just about to press the trigger, some unknown persons approach you and – knock you down! Or, if it was your wife or a girlfriend or your lover who wanted to make that picture, she is very officially asked by the same strange guys to hand them over the camera, which she actually does, so they immediately take the film out and destroy it. Quite an unusual experience for a tourist, isn’t it? And certainly an unusual situation to have your ‘unborn’ image-souvenir put to death - sounds more like a photographic abortion than the state-sanctioned censorship, doesn’t it?
In his study “Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963–2002,”[1] a sociologist from the University of Oxford Michael Biggs gives exactly this example when addressing the lack of information (of visual kind in particular) concerning the polemical extent of media coverage in a relatively short yet powerful history of self-immolation acts:
Needless to say, the media sources did not report every act which could be classified as self-immolation. Lack of information, lack of interest, and self-censorship all act as barriers. Totalitarian states can effectively suppress information on protest, including self-immolation. In 1980 tourists in Moscow saw someone on fire in Red Square. One was knocked down as he attempted to take a photograph; others had their film exposed by KGB agents. The authorities insisted that it was merely a burning cigarette or a ‘garbage fire’ (AP, 2 August 1980; 17 June 1981). How many others committed suicide in more remote locations, out of sight of Western visitors?[2]
The notion of ‘totalitarianism’ as pointed out here is not to be taken for granted at this point. The idea of a totalitarian state certainly does not exhaust itself in its common association with the countries and geopolitical areas not belonging to the developed (‘democratic’) world as our preconceived understanding has it. Another example in Biggs’ study relates in a more direct way to the infamous case of Graham Bamford, a haulage contractor, who set himself alight on 29 April 1993 in London, UK. Although he did it in front of the House of Commons, as Biggs points out, The Times did not report it.[3] What he did in an ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice was finally self-censored by the respective media. This is exactly because his overexposed public suicide was committed not only in order to protest a British inaction over atrocities in the Balkans (as Biggs describes it), but also ‘in an attempt to change the attitude of the British government towards the war in former Yugoslavia,’ as noted by Nenad Puhovski, a Zagreb based film director and author of a documentary movie about the Bamford’s case, as a resonance of their friendship preceding the street spectacle of violent death in 1993.[4]
But what makes an image so disturbing, so powerful in relation to the self-inflicted death? And what makes it even more significant in the context of the public space where acts of self-immolation usually take place? What makes it a vehicle of information and of protest, a ‘sparkling flame’ toward political transformation? What is it, finally, about suicide that touches a number of issues concerning the image in today’s culture – in particular if we tend to understand the culture of our times as being shaped by a civilization in decline embodied by the abstract image of a falling man, or a burning man indeed? The future survival of such a civilization, in terms of its reproduction, not only seems to parallel but also to depend on the process of self-annihilation. How come that we can still ignore this paradox of our era without being able to face its image, in front of our eyes, in order to make a little difference, for the better of the future?
As Biggs points out, especially in relation to a historical example of the 1963 self-immolation by a Buddhist monk in downtown Saigon (and its famous photographic record by a US journalist Malcolm Browne), it is precisely the image which makes an ultimate offsetting factor in this situation. The fact that a ‘burning man’ could have entered what Biggs calls the global ‘repertoire’ of protest lies exactly in the point of intersection between ‘self-destruction’ and ‘re-production’ - in the visual potentialities of suicide-related phenomena by means of technological and media reproduction (i.e. the reproduction of images of self-annihilation), which is what ‘made possible for a single sacrifice to have a dramatic impact on a huge audience.’ [5]
The anonymous case in Moscow’s Red Square in the middle of the Cold War (prohibited from any sort of public or media view by the Soviet state) as well as an identified, overexposed case in front of the
Houses of Parliament (self-censored by the British state-media) have not made an envisioned impact on their audience for the same reason, respectively. But they helped us bring into our focus two sides (supposedly opposite) of a single regime, a ‘totalitarian scopic regime’ - the set of rules and conditions controlling the bio-political dimension of self-immolation (and of suicidal phenomena at large) in its relation to the levels of visibility. Aiming toward a public act - and exclusively public, indeed - ‘individuals [involved in suicidal performativity] have good reason to orchestrate publicity—by travelling to a public place where there will be witnesses or by alerting journalists to be on hand’. [6]
If you really went to Moscow in 1980 I guess you might have not known this - but since then you must have noticed some difference at least. In the context of the last decade’s worldwide resurgence of suicide-rituals we have witnessed a radical shift in terms of perceiving the suicidal phenomenon itself. The most recent examples are only a few among numerous other cases that have delineated the margins of our visual, cultural and political horizons throughout the 2000s: self-immolation as a request for democracy and justice in the Mediterranean region by the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 – inspired by Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammad Bouazizi (March 29, 1984 – January 4, 2011) [7] as a distant echo of Jan Palach’s 1969 case in Prague under the Soviet occupation; self-sacrifice of the so-called ‘suicide-bombers’ or ‘living martyrs’ for religious and political causes in geostrategic worldwide attacks - including the European metropolitan zones, Moscow and Stockholm being the most recent examples; and individual suicidal acts resulting from personal agony but also from working conditions, poverty and despair under the regime of global economic crisis, as in the case of Renault employees in 2007, for instance. Such a worldwide spreading trend has increasingly influenced our notion of suicide to become transnational and to have undergone a transformation from an ultimately private to an overexposed, globally mediated phenomenon. This has been all the more possible through the ways media inflict upon our everyday lives, in particular since the historical rupture marked by the September 11 ‘event’ in New York.
If our times have been increasingly defined by the significance and outreach of the 9/11 context (including its immediate and delayed aftermath), I tend to see this context as the condition in which we witness the globalization of a (suicidal) gaze in planetary grand-scale optics, to use Virilio’s terms. It is the condition in which every discourse on suicide demands a radically different approach; it also demands an alliance with a situation in which the cybernetic interactivity provides free access to our universal (digitalized) voyeurism. Such a voyeurism is a radically different phenomenon from the modernist (mechanical) introspection.[8] The traumatic experience of a universal suicidal gaze, spectacularly mediated on a global level since the WTC attacks in New York, is nowadays perhaps more significant than ever before: it reveals in fact those aspects of perverted interdependence between an individual and society/social authority at large that are produced through a specific kind of tension. This is the tension between the extreme procedure of bio-control by the order (the moment when the body is no more capable of enduring capital-politics) and the self-disciplinary gesture par excellence.[9] And if we still tend to understand that order as a ‘totalitarian scopic regime’, I would dare to paraphrase the concluding words by the Italian philosopher Giovanna Borradori in her critical Manhattan dialogues with Habermas and Derrida in the aftermath of September-11-2001. By ‘calling philosophy to arms’ she insists that the figure of the ‘philosopher’ has a crucial role to play in ‘enlightening’ ‘new’ historical ‘events’.[10] Just as philosophy has its own task in coping with the new constellation of meanings, can we address the role of arts in our own words, by saying “Painting is called to arms?” If we could say so, then is it because we need painting in helping us come to terms with the globalization of the (suicidal) gaze in planetary grand-scale optics experienced as never before?
A satellite aerial view (the abstract image over a territory lost in the clouds of smoke) could be taken as an ‘iconographic’ model of perception pertaining to such a regime: what it reveals remains in the form of a ‘loud’ image, accessible anywhere in the world by channels of global communication, spreading the information about the fact of death – easy for the masses to identify with, and to take action with an immediate, or almost immediate, political effect. This last instance corroborates the idea about the binary situation in which this other (counteracting) regime - ‘the regime of suicide’ - properly resides, which is the one between the private and the public sphere. Unlike the form of suicide as a matter of personal concern, committed or attempted within an exclusively private and secluded space, we no more understand the suicidal phenomenon as the one which intentionally internalizes the self-harming gesture. It neither connotes anymore the invisible or ‘pure suffering’ in which the ‘political’ remains enclosed within the borders of a supposedly ‘sovereign legitimacy of personal belief’ according to which an individual behaves. What we are experiencing nowadays is (also and all the more) the kind of suicide capable of externalizing the gesture of self-inflicted death by means of an optical prosthesis (TV/photo/web camera, to name but a few most common examples of technical tools) which connotes the ambiguous positioning of the visible in-between the private and the public space. Indeed, the ‘political’ here, as before, still relates to the borders of a supposedly sovereign legitimacy of personal belief. However, it does not remain closed within such a legitimization: facilitated by the distribution of digital messages, it crosses those borders while opening itself up toward the outside/public view.
Again, what is it about suicide that touches a number of issues concerning the image in today’s culture? Is the regime of suicide capable of imposing the rules of the New Law against the totalitarian scopic regime? Do images play the main role in that? A similar question (referring to ‘masochism’ rather than suicide) was posed by a Slovenian philosopher Renata Salecl when in her text Why Do We Consider a Dying Masochist To Be an Artist? she addressed the curious notion of self-inflicted violence - in relation to artistic practices in Europe, and in its former Eastern part in particular. According to her, today’s culture has often been described as the ‘culture of complaint,’ since people who often feel unhappy about their lives are constantly searching for the culprit of their unhappiness.[11]
Paradoxically, although the failure of traditional laws imposes an urge for the New Law, there are fewer and fewer authorities whom one can address with complaints, which is why for some people the law appears to be a necessary tool for finding some repayment for their suffering. Her stressing of that perverted mutual dependence between the rise of masochism, on the one hand, and the decline of traditional laws in the very ‘comfortable’ context of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, on the other, is what I find particularly challenging:
But this perception that someone is taking something from us, which is why we complain about it, goes hand in hand with the self-imposed limits that people themselves invent. Especially in times when it seems that people are actually freer than in the past, the latter forms of constraint seem to be on the rise. […] It is in the very liberal society that masochism is on the rise and therein has also become linked to art in a particular way.[12]
In support to her thesis, Salecl brings forward a number of cases, starting from the classical examples exposing artist’s private perversion to the public (Gustave Courbet, as well as his Lacanian ‘combination’ with André Masson in the famous case of L’origine du monde), through some more recent cases (Bob Flanagan, Orlan, Stelarc, Marcel Li Antunez Roca, Anthony-Noel Kelly, Günter von Hagens, Joel-Peter Witkin, Iliya Chichkan, Richard Shannabrook, Mona Hatoum, Peter Mlakar, and Enrique Metinides) all the way to the Swiss policeman Arnold Odermatt, the recently discovered representative of the so-
called “accidental art“ who for forty years has been photographing car crashes that he observed on duty.[13] But what could be the ‘duty’ of images in that context, today?
Throughout the last decade the ambiguous object of suicide, in its own right and even more curiously, has become an issue of immense public concern as well as private torment in contemporary Europe and beyond. To give an immediate critical stance about the subject would be a futile task: what drives me toward it is exactly the uncertainty, or impossibility of having any legitimate final conclusion. An individual effort to break the code of silence and open up a public discussion by means of visual and textual language could, however, become a task, a challenging one indeed. Nonetheless this is not an easy task at all, as its first step does not conceive of putting forward a judgmental view; rather it demands coping with and overcoming our mute acceptance of the fact that suicide is the major public health problem throughout the contemporary world, where every year approximately one million people commit it and ten million people attempt it world-wide.
If we would dare to reflect upon one point of intersection between masochism (as a form of constraint that resides upon ‘the self-imposed limits that people themselves invent’) and suicide (as a form of fantasmatic release from such a constraint), would that be enough to bring us closer to any specific type of knowledge other than public health concerns? In other terms, could we understand today’s suicidal behavior-patterns worldwide as a matter of knowledge about our own, increasingly transnational ‘suicide culture’? Following the line of thought as proposed by Salecl, we could also argue that artist’s staging of death (as their own death, in their own work) endows them with the god-like power to witness and control their own hour of death.[14] The ‘photographic abortion’ in Moscow thirty years ago revealed the vulnerability and failure of the image to master the moment of escape due to the reasons as explained at the beginning of this text. If in the world of today, on the contrary, with advances of science, technology and reality TV, the ultimate fantasy surrounding the matters of life and death immerses a contemporary human being in the fantasy that one can (still) master death in order to achieve immortality, than a new issue arises from the idea about ultimate escape – the potentiality surrounding the concept of escape itself. But how does ‘the image of escape’ escape its own death?
By eluding any certainty, a wise Evil Painter would claim.

[1] Michael Biggs, ‘’Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963–2002”, in Making Sense of Suicide Missions, ed. Diego Gambetta, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 173-208.
[2] Michael Biggs, Ibid., p. 6.
[3] Michael Biggs, Ibid., p. 7.
[4] See: Graham and I: A True Story, 1998, 52', color, video, Croatia /UK, documentary, directed and produced by Nenad Puhovski, available HTTP: (accessed on March 1, 2011)
[5] Michael Biggs, Ibid., p. 9.
[6] Michael Biggs, Ibid., p.9. According to Biggs, “In 2001, for instance, several Falun Gong followers travelled 350 miles from Kaifeng to Tiananmen Square to set fire to themselves—before cameras from CNN. [Nevertheless], the Cable News Network denied that it was tipped off beforehand; its producer just guessed that some sort of protest was likely (AP, 8 February 2001). The film was confiscated by the police.”
[7] When Biggs wrote his study, in 2003, there was still a significant indication about the lack of self-immolating practice in Africa and the Middle East [“What is striking is the clustering of self-immolation in space. There are no reported cases from Africa or from the Middle East.” See: Michael Biggs, Ibid., p. 18]. The most recent cases (2010/11) in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in Northern Africa along with the revolutionary uprising in the entire region (including the Middle East) serve as an updated evidence to this new, unprecedented trend in that part of the world, unlike before.
[8] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, trans. Chris Turner, Verso: London/New York 2000, pp. 7-18.
[9] In terms of Jean-Baptiste Naudy, a member of the Paris-based art collective Société Realiste (from personal correspondence)
[10] Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, “Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida”, in Sens Public International Web Journal, 2007. Available HTTP: (accessed Feb 11, 2011). See also: Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago University Press: Chicago, 2003.
[11] Renata Salecl, “Why Do We Consider a Dying Masochist To Be an Artist?“ in Seven Sins: Ljubljana-Moscow: Arteast Exhibition, Ljubljana: Moderna galerija, 2008, p. 47. Also: “The Seven Sins. Ljubljana Moscow”, e-flux online archive [12/07/2004], Available HTTP: (accessed on March 22, 2011)
[12] My italics. See: Renata Salecl, Ibid.
[13] Renata Salecl, Ibid.
[14] Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., Narcissism and the Literary Libido, Rhetoric Text, and Subjectivity (New York U P; New York, 1994), p. 168. [as quoted in Holly Paradis , “Le Suicidé: Edouard Manet’s Modern Cricifixion,” in PSYART: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, Article 051115. Available HTTP: (accessed on March 12, 2011)

*Marko Stamenkovic is a freelance curator and art historian based in Belgrade.

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