On the U-Bahn in Berlin a young woman reading a book drops and begins to convulse. All of us, everyone in my peripheral vision, reacts. Some gasp while others move nearer—touching her body. A man lifts her limp limbs up, cradles her pale body in his.
When the train arrives at the next station, people run off, yelling “Polizei” while others pull out their cellphones, dialing for help. I am standing outside the car yelling “Hilfe, Hilfe!” And then, out of nowhere, the woman, who appeared just moments before lifeless, death-like, walks out of the car, and into the crowd who form a path for her to enter.
What happened has changed us—all of us riders on the train. We watched as a young woman, alive, and filled with energy, dropped to the ground, her body emptied, made limp. The event animated us—we lost ourselves, becoming a community. A web of hands and arms, of bodies in desperate need to find a solution.
As the train left the station, now emptied of the woman, I remained in shock.
What happened. And why was her face in a mask of disgust as she hurried out of the train?
Maybe, I thought, she was ashamed at her loss of control; that her body had betrayed her, leaving her powerless.
The event that occurred, the shift in her body, changed the structure of the bodies surrendering hers. In that moment, the moment in which she lost agency, experiencing a small death—we were drawn in. We, too, lost agency—we were pulled away from our own small lives—the tiny moment we were focused in (texting, talking, lost in thought) and were brought to life when we saw the light go out in the stranger’s body.
How is one body separate from others? And how are our bodies not separate? And what is it about our bodies that can bring about so much strife in strangers. Abortion, for instance, has to do with a woman’s body, the body of a stranger, theorized and made political by those who don't know that woman. Why are the bodies of the oppressed broken and beaten, then displayed by those who wish them gone? In hate crimes, for instance: Lynchings and gay bashing—it isn't enough to kill or nearly kill the victim but then their body is often displayed for public consumption.
My body is mine—I can do with it what I want—feed it or not, medicate it or not—and yet—it is also not solely mine. It belongs also to the state, of course, a body that rules over my body but also—and this is what I am getting at—it belongs, in a sense, to everyone else. When I walk down the street, strangers do, not often but sometimes, comment on my body. People stare or comment on my clothing, my hair, how I adorn my body. People, strangers even, advise me—I ought to, they tell me, wear make up, dress more feminine, get a tan. And so our bodies are ours and yet they are not. What I am most interested in is the power our bodies wield upon strangers and the power our bodies have over others.
Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish how power is wielded by controlling the bodies of the people. Through disciplinary mechanisms such as schools, prisons, hospitals and the military the state is able to control its people by controlling the bodies and behaviors of the people. In the United States, for instance, when I visit a doctor, if I say I have anxiety or I have been feeling fearful that doctor is more inclined to send me to a psychiatrist or to prescribe me medications. Either of these options will include an assessment (most likely brief and superficial based on my stating that I have been experiencing anxiety and fear) and then a plan to normalize me vis a vis prescriptions for meds. What will not be discussed are issues related to the culture or possible repercussions thereof. This is just one example. Of course, there are many more.
The body, in other words, is of extreme importance. When it is seen, it is remarked upon—“called into being”—this pressing up against along with the other many ways one’s body, one’s being, is formed by outside forces pushes up against the ways one’s own internal experience inside the body informs their body and how that body moves through space. In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler writes:
The space between one’s own experience and understanding of one’s own body and the external pressure that pushes up against one’s own self and body is extremely important. In a culture in which being busy, working as much as possible, and erasing traits and characteristics that might possibly hinder one’s acceleration toward what is deemed successful, conformism is rampant. This conformity, this need for uniformity, pushes up against everyone. In order to succeed, to be seen, one must subsume large parts of who they are, beneath the uniformity demanded by one’s culture.
What happens when one is caught between how one experiences their body moving through the world and how the world reads them? And what about when one cannot be discerned as one succinct body? In The Woman, The Orphan, and The Tiger, Jane Jin Kaisen and Guston Sondin-Kung’s 2010, single-channel, 72 minute film, this question is taken up. In the small, beautiful program booklet dispensed by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, where I saw the film, the curators describe the work as follows:
The film is gorgeous, a collage-like presentation of various disparate voices—those of the “comfort” women, subjected to sex slavery by the Japanese during the two world wars, and women who worked as sex-workers during the US occupation since the 1950s and the transitional women who left South Korea for “adoption” in the West. The film is constructed from oral testimony, poetry, and a myriad of footage from the lives of the different women.
The opening of the film addresses the complexities inherent in the narrative—the oppression and slavery of women, the US and Japanese occupation, the ongoing US military presence in South Korea, the experience of being multi-racial and of having the blood of the US military vis a vis one’s father, inside of them. These and other additional factors make for a complexity that renders the speaker mute.
The idea of ghosting and the ghost appears throughout the film: the idea that when the dead die with secrets inside of them, the secrets are carried into the bodies of future generations via ghosts. These ghosts, then, take up a third space, one that cannot be easily articulated. But until these secrets are spoken, the ghosting will continue.
In addition, the film speaks of the strangeness of being neither South Korean not American, being at home in neither world, and being seen as an outsider in both worlds. Where, then, does such a body go? Where can she feel at home? One answer is: in the space between experience and telling. For instance, in the making of the film but also, quite literally, in speaking, in whatever way that occurrence manifests. In giving voice, letting go of the ghost, one finds a place, a home. Perhaps not in any particular nation but at least in one’s own body. The film addresses, too, the sense of being embodied with the effects of colonization and/or the presence of military occupation. If one is a war baby, there is never a way to escape this fact. The violence of the occupation, of what that military did and continues to do, lives on inside the body. And, also, the secret, until it is set down and spoken, of how exactly the child was conceived—remains.
In my own case, my father was in the US military in Germany when he met my mother. My mother was only seventeen when they married. Without making any assumptions regarding interpersonal violence or power between my parents and assuming, instead, that both fell in love with one anther regardless of their age differences and the fact of my father being part of an occupation on my mother’s land, the fact still remains that my father was in the US military, a force that was and continues to occupy my mother’s country. This also does not take into account the US Allied forces carpet bombing and the raping of German women by US soldiers during the second world war.
But my father is Mexican-American. So though he was in the military, was in Germany, met my mother under these circumstances still—he was, himself, oppressed. Both within the military and in the general civilian population. And so, it is complicated. I know I am not seen as a Mexican or Mexican-American in the United States. I have been told this on numerous occasions. And yet, I also not German, either. I was raised in the United States, I grew up on military bases—eating at the Club, shopping at the Exchange.
What body am I? Whose body do I live inside? And how does my own experience of not being at home then contradict or match how I am seen by others? And what is the space between?
Black Bloc is a term coined by the German press in the 1980’s for a strategy used by activists demonstrating for the rights of squatters. Black Bloc is not a political organization or a group but a form of action used in protest. The term Black Bloc came about because the participants were wearing all black clothing. Like marching or linking arms before the front doors of a corporation, Black Bloc is a form of protest that can be used by anyone and one can use this form alone or with others.
Activists have used the strategy in Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, the United States and during the Arab Spring. The Black Bloc appeared during the Trump protests destroying a McDonalds in Washington D.C and setting a limousine on fire. It was a Black Bloc participant who punched the white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face on camera.
Black Bloc are composed of an assemblage of individuals from different backgrounds and various affiliations (or no affiliations). The Black Bloc lasts only for the duration of the event or rally. The Black Bloc is interested in spectacle—in drawing attention to can be seen as a kind of highlighting. Also, one can arrive at an event in plain clothes and then change into black clothing and a black hood or mask becoming Black Bloc and then change again into plain clothes. Black Bloc is fluid—ever changing. Individuals come and go—during the space of an event. Because there is no leader, no hierarchy and because Black Bloc is a strategy, it is a kind of body—that appears and disappears during an event and during one’s lifetime. The largest Black Blocs are still found in Germany. If the Black Bloc is fluid, consisting of few and then many bodies, from many disparate backgrounds, what exactly is the Black Bloc? Francis Dupuis-Déri writes in his book Who’s Afraid of the Black Bloc? Anarchy in Action Around the World:
The way the Black Bloc is describe by Dupuis-Déri makes it sound as if it is an amorphous body, one that both belongs to everybody and yet is formed of many disparate, individual, bodies. The black clothing and the concealing of participants’ faces creates anonymity and in doing so allows individuals to take risks they perhaps would not be able, or feel themselves able, to without this veil of anonymity.
This anonymity was also in play in the subway when the woman fainted among strangers. We did not know her and to her, we were a mass of strangers. And yet, we were all one body; we became one body.
This amorphous quality, this ability for a large body of bodies to become one (Black Bloc or when events occur that drive a mass of strangers together), is restricted when cultural binaries become solidified. Participants in Black Bloc actions might also be participants in Black Lives Matter and also be feminists or they might be vegans or environmentalists. They might be one or several or many of these various groups and yet can move effortlessly through the different categories. Also, though the passengers on the U Bahn were of different ages, races and ethnicities, these differences were fluid enough that when the event occurred, when the stranger was in danger, we became one.
In Hamburg, Germany, in July of 2017, thousands of protestors appeared on the streets to protest against the meeting of the G20. How does a Black Bloc work? What difference do bodies on the street make? In this case, the thousands of participants appeared organized into a number of different groups: “Colour the Red Zone Protest” for instance, and a “Zombie Procession performed by 1,000 Gestalten (1,000 figures) collective. In addition to the various factions on the ground, there were many protestors. The spectacle of the Black Bloc techniques which are often, since Trump’s election, taken up by participants from the various Antifa (anti fascist) protestors are good film. The media recognizes this and, thus, tends to cover these actions. In the U.S. images and footage appeared immediately on the broadcast television channels, online and in print newspapers. Spectacle works.
And there is something also about the appearance of large numbers of bodies in the streets. In this case, dancing, walking, standing in lined formations before the heavily armed militarized police and tanks refusing to move—that says something. For one thing, it says resistance. It says, refusal. It says We have had enough. No more. And though the protesters’ actions may not stop the government leaders from meeting and most probably will not affect any political change in terms of the meetings scheduled during the two day G20 summit, their appearance does offer an alternative voice. One can see looking at the images, that people are angry; they feel desperate. The people who risked their lives to put their bodies into the streets of Hamburg may be there for themselves and those they love but they also stand in for the thousands who remain unheard. The bodies on the streets of Hamburg stand in for the thousands who would remain silent and not seen, otherwise.
What the Black Bloc can do or even what any number of bodies can do when they appear in the streets of a city and create some kind of spectacle—whether vis performance, sit in, singing in unison, wearing uniform bright colors,—is to bring awareness to that which is not being stated either by politicians or by the media. What is said in the media and what is said by those in power (politicians or other people with power such as celebrities, artists or musicians) tend to reflect their lives and lifestyles which means a reality formed and kept alive by power and immense wealth. Those without power, without wealth or access to power and wealth, tend, then, to remain in the margins, unseen and unheard: when people put their bodies in danger by putting their bodies in the streets, allowing their bodies to essentially speak for them and on behalf of others, this might be the most profound result.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poetry, including three with Four Way Books: The Glimmering Room (2012), Wunderkammer (2014), and How the End Begins (2016). Cruz has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in writing and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts. Cruz is currently pursuing a PhD in German Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College