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A Body is a Weapon

Daniel J Glendening

“We’ve become bored with theories of novelty—with post-modernism, post-Fordism, and each new product of the academy—not so much because they fail to capture an essential continuity, but because the capitalist restructuring of the 1970s and 80s is no longer novel.”
“Bring Out Your Dead” Endnotes no. 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century. October 2009.

I didn’t march in 2003. The United States was going to war (again; still?), and I didn’t believe marching would stop it. The mechanisms of politics had changed since the mass protests of the Vietnam era and there was no stopping the mobilization of capital across Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan.[1] Politics and economics would never heed common people in the streets, as George W. Bush proclaimed at a briefing February 18, 2003: “First of all, you know, size of protests--it's like deciding, `Well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.' The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon, in this case, the security of the people.”[2] This focus group consisted of “a massive flood of protest conquer[ing] the streets throughout the world. Millions of people in more than six hundred cities worldwide protested against the imminent war on Iraq...Together, the February 15 demonstrations were the largest protest event in human history.”[3]

I didn’t march in 2003, but I should have, and I’m marching now. I remember trying to explain my stance and decision to a family friend at a 2004 New Year’s Day dinner: marching won’t work, and I protest instead through art. At the time, I believed in the potentially transformative power of art. I believed that art-making in itself was a political action, and that through art I could affect change. Now, I’m not sure whether this was simple naiveté or blind idealism.

We artists like to think our work can change the world. We like to pour faith and hope into aesthetics, but capital claims everything, and not for the artist or society but for itself. At its best art can offer a platform for discussion or confrontation, an avenue for experience or a mechanism to produce empathy. At its worst, well, at its worst it becomes a tool of state power to perpetuate social, economic, racial and other forms of oppression, to signify power and wealth, and to serve as a mechanism for the trafficking, manipulation, sequestering and spread of capital.[4]

If art can do anything, its power lies in a nascent ability to get people together in a room: bodies occupying space together, bodies touching bodies, bodies sweating in the dark. An art of screeching noise and pounding rhythm: a stage and screams and a release of bodily tension. Bodies in the dark moving together and bumping into each other and spilling and oozing and being corporeal together. When the lights come on, keep dancing.

A body is a weapon — ideological, physical, spatial.

A body is a weapon, and I felt this while marching in the street, shouting, holding hands with other bodies as cops in military surplus stood itching their batons. A body is a weapon, and I felt this while standing in a dark room, caught in a web of sound, shouting, holding hands with other bodies, sweating, corporealizing. It is in support of other embodied actions that art has power: as manifestations of the physical intervention of bodies as resistant forces between the gears of the mechanisms of capitalist exploitation; of bodies that refuse to prop up forces of exclusion and oppression. Of bodies standing in the street, refusing to move.[5]

Maybe what we need isn’t to understand what art does, but how we can use it: this sculpture is a weapon. This sculpture is a chair. This sculpture is a lamp. This sculpture can be used to start a fire. This sculpture can be used to hunt game. This sculpture can guide me. This sculpture can become a shelter when it begins to rain and all our roofs have been swept off.

This sculpture will keep me alive until I learn how to hunt and trap and purify water.

This sculpture is a tourniquet.

It feels as if we are approaching an ending. Perhaps we’re approaching the end of capitalism but capitalism will do anything to stay alive. Perhaps we’re approaching the end of the nation-state; the end of truth; the end of the individual and of the collective; the end of the social; the end of human decency, however fleeting it may have been.

When the end comes, however it comes, I’m not sure we need novel art; we need to survive.


“The problem is that capitalism represents itself as synonymous with democracy. That is what George Bush is talking about when he calls for the defense of democracy against terror. That is the democracy that the U.S. military is fighting to protect in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not democracy, it’s capitalism, or it’s a democracy that uses capitalism as its model, that sees the free market as the paradigm for freedom.”
Angela Y. Davis. “The Meaning of Freedom.” The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012. 145-146. ↩︎

Melissa Block and David Gonyea. “Analysis: President Bush Discounts Impact of Anti-War Protest Marches Around the World.” All Things Considered, NPR. February 18, 2003.  http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/transcripts/2003/feb/030218.gonyea.html ↩︎

Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht. ”Introduction.” The World Says No to War: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq. Edited by Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. xiii. https://web.archive.org/web/20160215153519/http://uahost.uantwerpen.be/m2p/publications/1267098151.pdf#page=13 ↩︎

“Precisely that kind of picture — the kind that speaks only for itself — is nothing other than an icon of the world of consumerism. When the narrative framework of a picture is removed such that the picture becomes fully autonomous, the meaning of that picture becomes wholly indeterminate — it stands as a sign for nothing and everything. And, as such, it becomes a consumer item in its own right, and we see that the boundaries of Western consumerism also demarcate a culture that values and admires a fully autonomous, isolated picture.”
Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment. London: Afterall Books, 2006. 24. ↩︎

“Community is the best we can hope for, and community for most people means touch: the touch of your hand against the other’s hand, the job done together, the sledge hauled together, the dance danced together, the child conceived together. We have only one body apiece, and two hands. We can form a circle, but we cannot be a circle. The circle, the true society, is formed of single bodies and single souls. If not, it is not formed at all. Only a mechanical, insensate imitation of true society, true community, is made up out of objectified, quantified, persons—a social class, a nation-state, an army, a corporation, a power bloc. There is no more hope in that direction. We have followed it to the end.”

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2005. 134. ↩︎