Failed Rhetoricality: Bodies that Mutter


Soon before President Bush left office, he had a pair of shoes thrown at him during a press conference on his farewell journey to Iraq. The thrower was Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist upset with the American occupation of his country. In the middle of the press conference, al-Zaidi stood up, yelled, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” and threw a shoe at Bush.62 Before security personnel were able to intervene, al-Zaidi launched another shoe, saying, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” Showing just how unaffected he was by the whole ordeal, Bush later laughed it off by saying, “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw,” further shrugging of the protest with the comment, “I don’t know what the guy’s cause was. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it.”63 As a strategy of confrontation, al-Zaidi’s shoe-ing follows Voltairine de Cleyre’s classic definition of direct action as one of the “spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation.”64 Moreover, it matches the essential characteristics outlined by direct action advocates, being confrontational, public, disruptive, and illegal.65 Yet it was unable to affect Bush, probably because it was immediately contained by the politics of identification, which raises an important question: can other types of embodied protest disrupt power?

Tim Dean proposes a strategy to break through the strict boundary policing employed by the politics of identification: attend to the signs produced by bodies that cannot be dismissed through signification. To find these signs, he argues for a distinction between “suave bodies” and “bodies that mutter.”66 As described above, suave bodies are those bodies that inscribe desire as suasive force, which gives way to the oppositional power of signification essential to the politics of identification. Bodies that mutter, in contrast, are an effect of the incommensurability of the body and the subject – this failure produces desire, which they communicate by speaking “almost inaudibly,” “unintelligibly,” and producing signs “that are not immediately legible even as something requiring reading.”67 Or to say it another way: it is a body that seeks recognition but does not know how to find it. While such a muttering body is usually in pain, there are some interesting examples of bodies employing the effects of this dissatisfaction to politically productive ends. The queer failure of desire haunts the “dualistic economy” of identification that is organized “in terms of oppositions.”68 These oppositions are inherently unstable, which has been made visible as gender binaries and the opposition between straight and gay identities are deconstructed in increasingly public ways. As Dean notes, the social threat posed through the unraveling of these binaries explains both the cultural campaigns launched to retrench them but also the intensely personal violence unleashed “when this instability becomes too evident.”69 Psychoanalytically, the violent securing of these binaries is done through signification, which “exceeds expressive intention and consciousness” to restore subjective identification.70 The consequence is “symbolic alienation” as a subjective condition, which describes the experience of subjective division enforced through the linguistic machine of the symbolic.71

How do bodies that mutter change embodied protest? Dean’s answer comes from the queer potential in “the inability of language to say everything.”72 According to Dean, the rhetorical demystification of persuasion – such as a critique of the persuasive power of advertising to sell forms of sexual and social relations – is less persuasive than the form of persuasion it is critiquing.73 And because rhetorical critique is unable to “cancel the opposing persuasive form” and often leaves advertising’s suasive power “spectacularly undiminished,” Dean is convinced that confrontations with persuasion must come from something beyond rhetoric.74 Instead of challenging power at the level of signification – as do the two discursive strategies of personal attacks and ‘I Told You So’ narratives outlined in the first part of this paper – Dean suggests that political strategy should engage with queerness of the Lacanian Real, which is the aspect of experience where “all words cease and all categories fail,” and is therefore “the object of anxiety par excellence.”75 While the Real is elusive, its effects can be observed in the mismatch between the body and language. The body, as Dean argues, is a site of encoding – language cuts up and maps the body by dissecting it with grids and networks.76 Language is “like a net that settles over the body” that “has a ripple-like effect on human subjects.”77 And as language “hits the body,” he writes, “its impact produces not merely the subject of the signifier but also the subject of desire.”78 For while the body and the symbols that intersect it never really match up, it is those mismatches that generate desire. Good and bad fits between bodies and language abound. Especially bad fits cause striking ruptures, and intense, often uncontrollable flows of desire that make up queerness.79 And while all bodies contain zones of resistance that repel symbolization, queer subjects of desire are an effect of symbolic disruption.80

The conventional approach to bodies in politics is direct action, which uses their physical presence to disrupt a scene. Al-Zaidi’s “shoeing” of Bush, for instance, instigated a public confrontation through the material power of a person and his shoes. The challenge of direct action, however, is that the political of identification prefigures the response to disruption. So in al-Zaidi’s case, although he clearly stated his motivations (but in Arabic and not English), Bush never became aware of them. This paper thus ‘queers direct action’ by studying how bodies that mutter circumvent the politics of identification by producing subjects of desire, in particular, how they blur the binary boundaries established through rhetoric and unleash a politics of desire based in collective trauma.

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