This post builds on the research article “The Sociopolitical Lives of Dead Bodies: Tibetan Self-Immolation Protest as Mass Media,” which was published in the August 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has previously examined the issue of self-immolation as protest in Tibet in a 2012 Hot Spots series, which featured twenty-three short essays on the topic. The journal has also featured a number of articles on Tibetan communities, including Carole McGranahan’s “Truth, Fear, and Lies: Exile Politics and Arrested Histories of the Tibetan Resistance” (2005), Anya Bernstein’s “More Alive Than All the Living: Sovereign Bodies and Cosmic Politics in Buddhist Siberia” (2012), and Vincanne Adams’s “Karaoke as Modern Lhasa, Tibet: Western Encounters with Cultural Politics” (1996).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on life and death, including Abou Farman’s “Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons” (2013), Andrew Alan Johnson’s “Progress and its Ruins: Ghosts, Migrants, and the Uncanny in Thailand” (2013), and Bhrigupati Singh’s “The Headless Horseman of Central India: Sovereignty at Varying Thresholds of Life” (2012).
About the Author
Charlene Makley is Professor of Anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Her work explores the history and cultural politics of state-building, economic development, and Buddhist revival among Tibetans in China's restive frontier zone (southeast Qinghai and southwest Gansu provinces). Her current book project, The Politics of Presence: State-Led Development, Personhood and Power among Tibetans in China, is an ethnography of state-local relations in the historically Tibetan region of Rebgong, set in the wake of China's Great Open the West campaign and during the 2008 military crackdown on Tibetan unrest. The book brings anthropological theories of states, development, and personhood into dialogue with recent interdisciplinary debates about the nature of human subjectivity, agency, and relations with nonhuman others, including deities.
Other Works by Charlene Makley
2014. “Spectacular Compassion: ‘Natural’ Disasters and National Mourning in China’s Tibet.” Critical Asian Studies 46, no. 3: 371–404.
2014. “The Amoral Other: State-Led Development and Mountain Deity Cults among Tibetans in Amdo Rebgong.” In Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands, edited by Emily T. Yeh and Chris Coggins. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
2013. “The Politics of Presence: Voice, Deity Possession, and Dilemmas of Development among Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 3: 665–700.
Interview with the Author
Jonah S. Rubin: How did you come to start work on the topic of Tibetan self-immolation?
Charlene Makley: As you might imagine, given the topics I talk about in the article, I came to write and speak about this topic very reluctantly. Previously, those of us who work outside of central Tibet, where widespread open protests did not occur until 2008, could be somewhat complacent about our roles as researchers and our access to people. But now that the center of protests has shifted to the eastern Tibetan regions, where I work, all of us who work in these regions have to grapple with these same ethical dilemmas. What is our role as foreign researchers in contexts of violence and state repression? How do we witness and narrate and analyze violence and untimely death in these places respectfully and without getting people in trouble?
When this spate of immolations began, I didn’t want to just claim a simple pundit role in mainstream media. I didn’t want to be seen to be exploiting this tragic situation as a career move. So the way I thought about it is that I happened to be living in that Tibetan town during the 2008 military crackdown. I was one of the few foreigners in a position to experience it unfolding, since most foreigners were deported or asked to leave. So I felt I could contribute an important and more ethnographically grounded perspective on this phenomenon. The upshot is that from my perspective, this spate of immolations does not come out of nowhere. In a way, it is a logical outcome of a state of siege and of historically specific Sino-Tibetan tensions.
JSR: One of the very powerful analytic moves in your essay is that you don’t limit yourself to analyzing the videotaping of self-immolations as a form of mass mediation. Instead, you see the bodies themselves as becoming a form of mass media. What is at stake for you in treating the body itself as a form of mass mediation, rather than just an object of mass mediation?
CM: Part of this commitment is to push back on notions of media that came out of the twentieth century, as just electronic media. My take on the ongoing life of dead bodies was inspired by Katherine Verdery and Achille Mbembe, but neither of them really addresses—as do scholars like William Mazzarella or Alexei Yurchak—what I call the constitutive role of mass mediation in creating the dead as interlocutors. My insistence that we think about the body itself as media and, in this case, as mass media comes out not just in my training in media studies, but also out of my training in linguistic anthropology. We are trained to think seriously about how people sense and frame all objects we encounter as types or as assemblages of signs. So from that angle, bodies or corpses are no exception. So you could consider how, in these events, bodies can operate as moving frames, like walls or buildings, for messages to others via dress, gesture, hairstyle, facial expressions, and implements like flames. What’s especially relevant here is that under severe state repression, when most access to mainstream electronic and print media is cut off, bodies in dialogue with camera lenses become key framing devices for urgent messages or petitions. What are flames in this context but eye-catching deadly neon? I was vindicated in this way of thinking by the famous Tibetan poem that I mention in the article by the blogger Sangdhor. In another stanza of his poem “Mourning,” he addresses the immolators directly and he says: “Your red hot bare bones have become your dying hope.” Another way to put that is to say: “Your burning bodies have become your urgent petitions.” This is why I think we need to pay attention to the specificities of not only what, but also how flaming and burned bodies and their actions signify things to witnesses. So we have to be more nuanced in what a medium is. It’s not just electronic; it’s anything.
JSR: In recent years, we have seen self-immolation emerge as a protest genre around the world, from Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose death in 2011 sparked the Arab Spring; to a series of self-burnings in 2013 in Bulgaria to protest utility monopolization and rate hikes; to a 2014 act of self-burning in Texas to protest racism in hospitals. Yet the most famous case of self-immolation seems to remain that of Tibetan Buddhists. What is it about the Tibetan case that has managed to capture international attention in this way? And in what ways can your insights into Tibetan self-immolation raise issues that we should be thinking about when we hear about other cases of self-immolation in the news?
CM: First, I would remind folks that immolation is a much larger concept. The term in English means any kind of a sacrifice of a living being. And I take it that way. So my article would push us to ask, in all of these contexts around the world: why has immolation by fire escalated in frequency and spread across regions in the past decades? And why has that form of self-sacrifice gotten so much media attention? And I would contrast that with many other kinds of immolation protests amongst Tibetans and others that are downplayed or not paid attention to in the media or that are even, in some cases, evaluated as lesser forms of protest. Amongst Tibetans, there have been self-stabbings, people jumping off of buildings or bridges, hangings, and drownings. So there’s all sorts of ways that people are sacrificing their lives in order to say things in protest. As I say in the article, we must attend to the specificities of the relevant performance genre for immolators and their publics.
One key link amongst all the events you mention is the choice of flames as the key modality of immolation. But what flames mean and do in these various contexts can differ. What I refer to in this article as the intersubjective aesthetics of pain and suffering through these different kinds of protest are generalizable. But the subjectivity part of it is highly specific. So, in looking at these occurrences, you’d have to ask: who burns? Who dies? Who lives? And for whom? And that’s what, in practice, can be highly changeable, highly contested. I find that I can’t just call all of these acts forms of suicide, in English, or lump them under a rubric of suicide protest, because it’s not getting at the complexity of what’s going on there or even what’s specific about what links them.
Another way my article would push us to think about these events is to contextualize them historically and culturally. If we did that, we could begin to link them by considering how many of them are trying to address wider publics as end-runs around central state leaderships. So we could see them as embodied petitions made spectacle that, in the process, bring to the fore particular histories of necropolitics that are specific to national scenes. Another key link among all of these events is that they are all mass media phenomena. That is, national and transnational communities and citizenship have all along been constituted through the rise of technologies and infrastructure for mass-mediated spectacles of violence and protest in postcolonial theaters. One other key link among them could be claims to absolute sincerity, that the act via flames supposedly seals the intention of the protester, itself a response to perceptions of intensifying corruption, inauthenticity, and the low-stakes performative facades that people see in popular media. Thus, another thing linking all of these things is transnational media capitalisms.
- In preparation for class, watch the two documentaries discussed above. How do these two documentaries seek to frame the issue of Tibetan self-immolations? What rhetorical and visual strategies do they employ in their efforts to control the legacy of the dead? Which did you find more convincing? Why did you find this portrayal more convincing? In answering this last question, you may wish to reflect upon not only the content of the documentary, but also upon your own social position, as well as the information on and impressions about Tibetan self-immolation that you had prior to reading Makley’s article and watching these documentaries.
- In her article and in the interview above, Makley makes the argument that protests about death and the life of the nation must be understood within particular historical and cultural contexts. She also argues that we should pay attention to the specific audiences that protest actions seek to address and the ways in which they are mediated. With this in mind, read the recent Hot Spots series on #BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance. (In particular, you may want to focus on Joao Vargas’s argument about the “untranslatable Black agenda” and Christen Smith’s essay on the uptake of the protests in Brazil.) How do Makley’s insights open up new questions about #BlackLivesMatter? Keeping her arguments in mind, how would you design a research project around this movement?
- Translation matters. It is not a simple practice of one-to-one matching, but a delicate art of linguistic and poetic commensuration. Read Sangdhor’s poem “Mourning.” Contrast this version with the translation provided below by Makley and Abho (a Tibetan pseudonym). What are the key differences between the two versions? How do the different translations alter your perceptions of the meanings and audiences of the poem? What do these differences tell us about the practice of translation in general?
Because the intense despair of living is worse than death,
Your red-hot bare bones have become your dying hope.
The flaming mouth moves. The flaming hands flourish.
The flaming chest lights up. And flaming prayer beads, one by one, scatter on the ground.
Clouds of smoke from many chimneys spread out.
They will watch the monastery's golden roof. They will watch the doors of each monk's quarters.
At that moment, a snowstorm raged on one part of the grassland.
While in other parts of the grassland, snowstorms also raged.
Following the direction of the winds, dark and baleful forces gradually gathered.
Additional Resources on Self-Immolation in Tibet
- International Campaign for Tibet
- High Peaks, Pure Earth
- Martin Mills’s blog, TibetProtests: Understanding Protest in Modern Tibet
- Woeser’s Invisible Tibet blog (Chinese; many of these posts are available in English on High Peaks, Pure Earth)