Dangerous Bodies, Matter, and Emotions: Public Assemblies and Embodied Resistance - Resistance and Emotions

Constructive Resistance: Repetitions, Emotions, and Time - Mona Lilja 2021

Dangerous Bodies, Matter, and Emotions: Public Assemblies and Embodied Resistance
Resistance and Emotions

Across the globe, people gather to carry out resistance against different manifestations of neoliberalism. By analyzing these assemblies as plural forms of performative action, Butler broadens the theory of performativity beyond speech acts to include the concerted actions of bodies. Hereby, Butler makes a distinction between forms of linguistic performativity and forms of bodily performativity: “They overlap; they are not altogether distinct; they are not, however, identical with one another” (Butler 2015, 8—9).

This chapter explores why extra-cultural meaning is attached to resisting bodies that are involved in demonstrating assemblies by departing from, and adding to, Butler’s theories of bodies and signification. Why do resisting bodies and assemblies signify something that is in excess of what is being expressed with words at demonstrations? At political gatherings, the bodies are also participating in various emotional processes. Angry, frustrated, or sad bodies come together to struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment (Butler 2015). What role do these emotions play in processes of signification?

This chapter attempts to shed some light upon processes of meaning-making by discussing matter and emotions in relation to constructive resistance. By doing so, a number of patterns will be displayed that explain how/why bodily performativity exceeds the linguistic performativity, and how the gatherings themselves signify something that is in excess of what is being said.

In order to discuss the distinction between forms of linguistic performativity and forms of bodily performativity, I will start off with a section that discusses resistance, bodies, and emotions. Thereafter, I will depart from the assemblage that these concepts constitute, in order to further interrogate how bodies and different forms of assemblies signify something that is over and above, but still interweaved with, their linguistic demands.


Butler (2015) focuses on bodies and how they are vocalizing their opposition to the legitimacy of the state. By virtue of occupying public spaces, bodies “speak” politically; it is not only resistance expressed vocally or in written language:

The enactment of “we the people!” may or may not take linguistic form; speech and silence, movement and immobility, are all political enactments; the hunger strike is precisely the inverse of the fed body standing freely in the public domain and speaking—it marks and resist the deprivation of that right, and it enacts and exposes the deprivation that prison populations undergo. (Butler 2015, 172)

Resistance often challenges a lack of rights, such as the denial of the right of bodies to speak in the public domain. Still, resistance practices, such as hunger strikes, while being a kind of non-cooperative resistance, could also be considered as a constructive form of resistance—by producing new activities or advancing subjugated knowledge.

In order to form assemblies, bodies must be able to move across a range of public spaces and embody forms of action and mobility. The bodies, which appear in the public spaces, are facilitated, hindered, and/or informed by the very space where the resistance is happening. Consider, for example, Tahrir Square in Cairo, which has become a well-known symbol of the “Arab Spring.” The material conditions of the square, its location, openness, and grandness affect how the resistance emerges in-between the protesters and the square. The protesters’ bodies are adjusted to a range of material conditions—the square’s generous surface area, its flatness, its structure, and its central location. The material forces of the area’s architecture, infrastructure, and cityscape interact with the bodies and minds of the protesters. The material forces of the square provide the protesters with the material conditions that they have to either work with or against. Overall, the space itself becomes a condition for the emergence of resistance (Lenz Taguchi 2011; Lilja 2016).

There are a number of connections between political assemblies and subjects, which become explicable and visible in the light of the “affective turn.” In Ahmed’s (2004) work on emotions, she indicates that emotions do things and we need to consider how they work; how emotions, for instance, mediate the relationship between the individual and the collective. Since our love or hate for something is not dependent upon whether the thing is good or bad, but on whether it seems agreeable or hurtful to us, our emotions partake in the construction of objects (Ahmed 2009, 32). While issues, political institutions, and/or their practices are attributed emotional value, such as hate or frustration, this sometimes forms the very base for political activities. It directs bodies and makes them connect to, or perform political practices. The adhesiveness of the emotions makes people stick to resistance movements and to others who are aligned with the movement. Emotions become an engine that creates subjective reactions, motivations, various resisting practices, and communities of belonging. Thus, emotions are performative—they do things and they direct bodies and create practices. Subjects embrace, forward, and construct subject positions and discourses from different interpretations that are entangled in emotions.

With the above in mind, not only are the relationship between bodies and bodies, central when discussing emotions, but the relationship between bodies and representations is crucial. This is because the repetition of signs is what allows others and objects to be attributed with meaning and emotional value—a process that is dependent on histories of association. How we come to emotionally experience representations depend upon the historical development of narratives. Feelings such as anger, fear or trust depend upon what emotions that the specific cultural context renders both meaningful and acceptable (Hutchinson and Bleiker 2014, 504).

This chapter embraces the emotions that move between bodies and bodies, and bodies and signs. When repeated, the representations evoke emotional processes. However, the subjects’ reflections upon the emotions must be added to this. To hate, desire, or love are relational reactions that are embedded in social contexts, which create the possibility for us to communicate, share, and circulate emotions, while still having an individual attachment to them.


As stated above, resisting bodies, whether they are individual or in assemblies, represent something more than what is expressed with words. Butler states, “Forms of assembly already signify prior to, and apart from, any particular demands they make. Silent gatherings, including vigils or funerals, often signify in excess of any particular written or vocalized account of what they are about” (Butler 2015, 8). The heavy load of the extra-cultural meaning that is attached to resisting bodies has a number of explanations. In this chapter, it is argued that emotions must be included in the analytical framework in order to explain the assemblage of material, emotional, and symbolic dimensions of gatherings. Angry, frustrated, touched, or sad bodies gather together to struggle against the effects of neoliberalism (Butler 2015). It is bodies that forward emotions to other bodies while receiving and forwarding intensities (emotions) themselves. The surplus of meaning that is attached to the bodies of those involved in demonstrating assemblies, among others, depends on their emotional expressions and how they forward emotions to others. By articulating emotions with their bodies, these bodies express more than what is being said with words.

Emotions do things. They align individuals with communities (Ahmed 2004). Emotions are about movement; they move us in different directions, informing our actions (Ahmed 2004). In the moment of a demonstration, emotions do not only circulate but also find a clear direction with a sender (the assembly) and a receiver. The emotions make masses move in a direction against others, and against political institutions and their embodied figurations. The intensity of the emotions that are directed toward concrete bodies, units, or state apparatus is frightening for the receivers of the bodily performativity, which exceeds the linguistic performativity. Resisting bodies disturb the normality of public spaces and create non-normalized, non-disciplined movements, thus shaking and unsettling the order, and challenging technologies of power that are centered on life.

Resisting bodies are not tamed or docile, but by displaying themselves at public venues at different gatherings, they indicate agency and a mode of resistance, subversive standpoints, and eruptive views. By challenging the logic of the governing bodies, the resisting bodies become threatening. Or, as Grosz states, “the body has been regarded as a source of interference in, and a danger to, the operations of reason” (Grosz 1994, 5). Angry bodies are frightening and a threat to the nation-state and the order of democratic states; there is a risk that these bodies, which are out of place, can put the state order out of play. The resisting bodies, and emotions expressed in the moment of resistance, are in themselves a representation of a vibrant, political sphere (Mouffe 2005), which is not the sphere of normalization, homogenization, and standardization. By displaying themselves as concrete, precarious, or suffering bodies, they destabilize the public by their presence. While linguistic performativity cannot directly cause chaos, violence, or the assassination of people, bodies are able to cause physical damage, expose people to violence, and remove commissioners. The knowledge of what (material) bodies can do also adds to the representations of resisting bodies that become “dangerous.” This mode of signification is a “concerted bodily enactment, a plural form of performativity” (Butler 2015, 8).

Moreover, emotions have the tendency to become stronger when as circulate. When emotionally loaded representations (images of violence, precarious bodies, etc.) are repeatedly displayed and seen, emotional discourses are strengthened. As we read emotional representations, sometimes we forward these too others by sharing on Facebook or Twitter, or simply by telling others what we have seen or heard. Thus, emotions intensify as emotional representations, that are read and forwarded, circulate at gatherings, on social media or in meetings between people. This implies that, in some situations, emotional representations, which are repeatedly displayed, give rise to increased emotional intensity and escalating resistance. Departing from this, one might speculate that when resistance moves from everyday and individual resistance to larger gatherings and assemblies that this might be due to emotions being intensified through strategies of representation. Or in other words, resistance is sometimes being accelerated or “up-scaled”—it is being practiced by larger assemblies as the result of an affective intensification. Emotions evoked by representations are then important for the production of meaning and for our understandings of constructive resistance.

Movement’s resistance is informed by context-specific practices of discipline within the movement itself. How movement occurs and what political messages are displayed are issues that are settled between those who constitute the assembly. Within the movement, the resisters might be disciplined and normalized according to the norms of the movement. There is an interplay between discipline and dissent at work within resisting assemblies. Thus, one may say that power (discipline) and the fear of punishments, in this way, are a precondition for resistance and indiscipline.

Moreover, bodies are often more disjointed and ambiguous than the posters that are used at various demonstrations in public spaces. Bodies move in their own ways, but still in relation to others. This implies that bodies are ambiguous, which is crucial for how we theorize constructive resistance.

However, there are more reasons for why resisting bodies signify more than what is expressed with words. According to Butler, we have to rethink the act of speech in order to understand what is done with bodily enactments. Demonstrating bodies say “we are not disposable” even if they stand silently (Butler 2015, 18). Over and above this, I would like to argue that bodies do not only signify separately from vocalized messages, but bodily and linguistic performativity interacts while different representations support each other and bring forward the same message. Different representations (bodies, vocalized messages, posters) repeat a similar standpoint, but by slightly different means and expressions. It is an establishment of patterns and a steady return to what is already stated but with a new kind of representation. Mixing different kinds of representations strengthens the message but also adds complexity to the political message that is being forwarded. Butler states:

To act on concert does not mean to act in conformity; it may be that people are moving or speaking in several different directions at once, even at cross-purposes. And it does not mean they speak the exact same words, though sometimes that happens in a chant or in a verbal relay as in Occupy public assemblies. And sometimes “the people” act by way of their collective silence or their ironic use of language: their humour and even their mockery take up and take over a language they seek to derail from its usual ends. (Butler 2015, 157)

Thus, assemblies often express themselves in ambivalent ways, including by way of humor and laughing, which makes the receiver concentrate more on the message. The mixing of different representation, then, makes the resistance more effective.

However, and more importantly, different kinds of representations, both bodily and linguistic, do not only support each other but the former makes the linguistic representation more concrete. Butler discusses specific bodies in regard to demonstrations and media coverage, stating that it is important to show that “it is this body, and these bodies, that require employment, shelter, health care, and food” (Butler 2015, 10). But how can we understand the importance of these specific bodies? I would like to argue that the concreteness displayed by the bodies signifies something that is in excess of what is being said. Some representations are experienced as more applicable, understandable, detailed, or practical, that is, more concrete than others. These distinct representations, by their visible and material expressions, make complex matters more graspable and illuminate complex issues to the readers. One example of this is how broad and diffuse historical time epochs can be made understandable by concrete narratives and personal memories by those who experienced these times. By giving the historical “then,” a face thereby makes and strengthens “real” histories of past times. The body, which embodies and concretizes the narrative, then signifies more than what is said. The account is strengthened through concrete bodies and “personal” memories. The “concreteness” of the material bodies is probably because they are material, touchable, and visible—not only audible (Lilja 2013, 2016; Trenter 2000, 50—63). As Kress and van Leeuwen suggests, “More generally, and with particular relevance to the visual, we regard our sense of sight as more reliable than our sense of hearing, ’I saw it with my own eyes’ as more reliable evidence than ’I heard it with my own ears’ ” (Kress and van Leeuwen 1996, 154).

In the case of demonstrations, it is the bodily representations of suffering, frustration, and anger that support more theoretical claims of, for example, precariousness. Thus, desperate, precarious bodies add to illustrate different written or vocalized accounts of neoliberalism and what is going on at a global level. These bodies, which are frustrated, poor, or acting on the behalf of others (proxy resistance), concretize the linguistic politics of precarious bodies. Together linguistic and bodily performativity serve as dense moral points that create discourses, emotions, subject position, and politics. Visible representations prevail as effective means of constructive resistance.


The aim of this chapter has been to discuss—in relation to constructive resistance—how the gathering of bodies (or bodies themselves) signifies something that is in excess of what is being said. I have argued that it is possible to shed some light on the gatherings, and what they signify, by bringing in the concept of emotions.

First of all, I propose that bodies, which move across a range of public spaces, embody not only forms of action and mobility but also prevail as ambiguous, untamed, or non-disciplined. By displaying themselves at public venues in different gatherings, the bodies indicate agency and a mode of resistance, subversive standpoints, and eruptive views, thereby challenging the logic and technologies of the governing bodies (Grosz 1994, 5). Still, this resistance is made possible through disciplinary processes within movements. Thus, resistance emerges from various relations of power.

Secondly, at the moment of gathering, bodily and linguistic performativity interacts in the forwarding of emotionally loaded political messages. Different linguistic and material representations support each other and bring forward the same message. One representation resembles the others, thereby repeating the very same message but by different means. The linguistic and bodily representations support each other, thereby clarifying and strengthening the political message. Mixing different kinds of representations also adds complexity to the political message. This probably slows down the decoding process, which, in turn, makes the message more effective.

Thirdly, the gatherings in themselves tend to strengthen the resistance as emotional representations are performed and reperformed. The more that the emotional representations reappear—such as posters, spoken slogans, and angry bodies—the more intense the emotions become. Public assemblies unite humans, and they are places where resistance becomes increasingly scaled up and emotional.

Finally, the specific bodies that require employment, shelter, health care, and food, by their visible, emotional, and material expressions, make complex matters of precarization more graspable for the reader. The body, which concretizes and embodies the narrative, then signifies more than what is said by illustrating what is being said. The image of suffering, frustration and anger supports more theoretical or abstract claims of precariousness.


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