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The Political Lives of Dead Bodies

The recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting state repression in China has raised anew painful questions about the politics and possibilities of witnessing such events from afar. Virtually unprecedented among Tibetans, and lamented by high-ranking lamas as violating the Buddhist emphasis on the sanctity of life, the series of self-immolations (mostly by young monks and nuns) since 2011 has thrown Tibetans and their supporters, and critics in and outside of China, into anguished debates about the moral nature and political meaning of these acts. Some commentators invoke modernist associations of Buddhism with non-violence and universal compassion to ask whether the immolations are sinful, violent "suicides" or altruistic, nonviolent "sacrifices." Accusations and counter-accusations fly about the implications of witnessing and reporting these events: does it encourage the "destructive" or "wasteful" violence of youthful mimicry?  Or does it amplify the "constructive" protest of selfless martyrs on behalf of oppressed Tibetans?

For me, this new anguish in the face of the terrible spectacle of voluntary maiming and death recalls the moral dilemmas about the role of the anthropologist that I encountered living in a Tibetan town in Qinghai province during the military crackdown on widespread Tibetan protests in 2008. And I return to Veena Das (2007) and others' calls to reject the witness' fetishization of the event in favor of an ethnography of violence that would move with events as people reframe them over time and in their everyday lives. In this light, my own approach is to avoid debates about the intrinsic morality or meanings of self-immolation to consider such protests as primarily situated forms of communication (where the suicidal body becomes a primary medium versus, as in suicide bombers, a crucial weapon). We can then see that Tibetans' recourse to self-immolation as mass media is called forth by intensifying state-sponsored repression and dispossession on the one hand, and by foreign and PRC state media spectacles on the other. This would allow us to begin to understand the shifting "political lives of dead bodies" (Verdery 1996) in post-Mao Sino-Tibetan relations, an intensifying "necropolitics" (Mbembe 2003) that links Tibetans to other marginalized groups in the PRC and draws all observers into problematic complicities (cf. Sontag 2003).

As I found in 2008, the military crackdown on Tibetan protest institutionalized the CCP's state of exception in a state of siege targeting not a specific enemy but entire towns and districts (cf. Mbembe 2003: 30). In that context, the silence that descended on the region indexed not just the repression of individuals' "voices," but Tibetan residents' terrifying sense of disorientation, fragmentation and immobility--the loss of familiar spatio-temporal contexts that for many had seemed to (re)vivify the region as "Tibetan" in the early post-Mao years. As people in town retreated to the cover of homes and the careful banality of everyday routines under the watchful eyes of People’s Armed Police and SWAT troops, I came to see how the protests and crackdown had gravely threatened what I call the reform-era "silent pact" among Tibetans and their interlocutors in the PRC: an unspoken agreement not to publicly address the histories and political economic implications of specifically Tibetan sources of authority, even as programs to "develop" (Ch. fazhan, kaifa) and commodify the region and its resources were pushed through under the auspices of distant Chinese CCP leaders.

In effect, the 2008 crackdown and importantly, the spectre of disappeared bodies of protestors killed or detained by security forces (rumors of which circulated across the community in anguished whispers that spring), extended the state of siege from its previously quasi-hidden status (the occasional unwise dissident) to the everyday lives of all. In ways similar to what Das found in post-partition India, this process threatened to tear apart the delicate socio-moral fabric of Tibetans' lives, rewoven after the largely unacknowledged mass trauma of the Maoist years in those regions. That is, state efforts to erase the deaths of protestors in 2008 in fact helped to unleash the spectre of the Maoist dead, raising again moral questions about painful complicities that haunted all Tibetan elders and their kin, especially those who had benefited, politically or economically, from Chinese state intervention. I found that many of my Tibetan friends experienced this sudden loss of context as great fear and grief in the face of a kind of social death, the deeply polluting return of the untimely and unnurtured dead. Hence the turn, in the spring and summer of 2008, to grassroots mass mourning practices (avoiding celebrations in favor of monastic offerings, attending mass prayer assemblies). Those practices in turn elevated and politicized the roles of Buddhist monks and lamas as death specialists above all.

In this light, we would have to see Tibetan monks and lamas' turn to self-immolation from 2009 on as a tragic intensification of the political lives of dead bodies in those regions (the first one in 2009 after all was to protest the erasure of violence and death in 2008). The shift to self-immolation as protest is a mass-mediated process that serially reframes and scales up the spectre of untimely Tibetan death, from particular regions fragmented by the siege to a pan-Tibetan politics of mourning encompassing the entire diaspora. In this, we should consider the specificities of immolation as a dialogic medium of communication. In extreme states of siege (like that in Ngaba prefecture where the first immolations occurred), where state narratives dominate all public speech, how do protestors "show" grievances publicly? By what texts and bodily signs in the absence of access to words (cf. Das 2007, Butler 2004)?

Suicide as protest has a long history in Chinese regions. In recent years protest suicides, even self-immolation practices, have escalated among marginalized Chinese groups in the PRC. Their despair and anger in the face of market reforms links them to Tibetans, but the t-shirts of the Jiangxi farmers who threatened to jump en masse off a bridge to protest their dispossession by corrupt local officials evince a very different cosmology and relation to the state: "Where are heavenly principles?" said one shirt, "I use my death in exchange for a righteous soul," said another. (NTDTV Aug. 2011). By contrast, Tibetan immolators frame that practice in the specifically Buddhist idiom of the intentional conquest of death, one that, in their final shouts and hand-written pamphlets, indexes the absent Buddhist sovereign: the Dalai Lama. But we would have to see the horrifying spectacle of the burning body, the primary medium of protest, as most importantly a dialogue with the grotesque excess of state violence and media vilification of monk protestors and the Dalai Lama that, since 2008, has been framed as a war against "terrorists". For example, as possibilities for collective protest radically narrowed, Tibetan monks' (and two nuns') self-immolations were largely the individual acts of youths, presenting them as oppositionally voluntary and altruistic. But I'm left thinking that, in the face of collective, unrequited grief across the plateau, the burning silence of Tibetans under the ongoing siege, what immolators' bodies most importantly "show" is the searing fact of untimely death itself, against its ongoing erasure by state security forces (in forced disappearances) and by state media (in ongoing censorship). The impossible question they pose for us is what to do about it.

Additional Links

Anthropology and the Anaconda - Charlene Makley

Interview, "Self-Immolations in Tibet." PRI's The World, December 2011.

28 March 2012


Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London: New York: Verso.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

Verdery, Katherine. 1996. What was Socialism? and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Charlene Makley, Department of Anthropology at Reed College. She received her Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Michigan (1999), where she pursued interdisciplinary graduate studies in Buddhist Studies, Chinese and Tibetan language and culture, and linguistic and cultural anthropology.