The Powerful’s Displayed Body, His Shattered Shirt, and the Fence that Protects Him


Léopold Lambert – Paris on October 15, 2015
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It seems like the October 5, 2015 event at Air France no longer needs an introduction since it has been broadly relayed by the international press. It happened after the company announced that it was going to fire 3,000 employees: during a meeting with the unions, both the director of human resources and the director of the company in Orly airport were stripped off their shirts before they finally escaped from the crowd under the protection of their private security service then relayed by the police. The quasi-totality of politicians (in particular the Prime Minister Manuel Valls) and the main medias have expressed their outrage against what they considered as a violent “unacceptable” assault. The photos and videos of these two semi-naked bodies were nevertheless spread at great speed, which proves well the hypocrisy of the media that, on the one hand, condemned this event, while capitalizing on the spectacle of these two bodies’ humiliation (I have personally preferred to blur the image above to insist on this body’s social position, rather than its identity). Worse, the same politicians and journalists profusely used the term “lynching” to describe the situation in a dismissal of the actual definition of a lynching while the latter is currently manifested on Palestinian bodies living on the Western side of the Apartheid Wall. On the other hand, a few other journalists and thinkers have then reminded us of the equivalence of physical violence and the structural, capitalist one that constitutes the announced 3,000 firings and their individual and familial effects. Rather than repeating these legitimate arguments (that never seem to be fathomed by those who do not experience structural violence) I would like to address two components of this event: the pictorial display of the body stripped from its shirt, and the fence that it attempts to climb up in order to seek protection of the police on the other side.

Last week, at a meeting in Saint Denis preparing the October 31st Paris March for Dignity and Against Racism (Marche de la dignité et contre le racisme), Cameroonian French artist Bams pronounced the following words in the beginning of her speech that made me want to write this article (my translation):

Here we go, today two shirts are torn and it goes on the first page of newspapers because the White dignity, i.e. the dominant body’s dignity, is attacked. But what about when you’re Black in France, when our soiled bodies are continuously displayed to the world, our cadavers, our war victims, our South presidents who are qualified in France as dictators, are dragged in pajama in front of the planet’s cameras if we have not yet beheaded, drown or hanged. What about the dignity of Black people? (see full transcript here)

She then continued her speech by describing her participation to the political fight against the exhibition Exhibit B by white South-African artist Brett Bailey, which displayed live black bodies (some of which naked) in display cases, supposedly to give an incarnated vision of racism (which he provided but not in the way he intended). Going back to the Air France event, when one pays attention to the words used by politicians and journalists to describe this event, we can see the contrast described by Bams. What the terms “shock,” “stupefaction,” “scandal” reveal in the surprise that they all involve, is the extreme rarity of the humiliating display of “the powerful’s” bodies. These words are sincere: these politicians and journalists are indeed, shocked, stupefied and scandalized, because what they see in these images, perhaps for the first time, is their own body, displayed in the fragile nudity of their sudden deprivation of power. We remember similar reactions in France when in May 2011, the American media had showed with great spectacle the handcuffed body that was supposed to be its next President, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

But let’s go back to the shirt itself, since clothing politics is a crucial dimension of the relationship between design and the bodies (and will be the topic of the third issue of The Funambulist Magazine). Usually, we wonder what is the social signification for a body to wear a particular piece of cloth. In this case, on the other hand, we can try to question the political implications of the bare body in the public sphere. Currently, the most recurrent display of white bodies displayed in a politically charged setting are the ones of the FEMEN, a group of women whose voluntary nudity aims to challenge a patriarchal society that has however mutated decades ago and now capitalizes on these canonical bodies’ sexualized imagery, rather than is threaten by it. Such a discrepancy of eras would not be so damaging if it was not reinforced by a loud and narrow vision of feminism characterized by the idea that less (clothes) is more (resistance), thus disqualifying the thousands of women wearing “more clothes” (a hijab for instance) in Western cities, where both personal and structural racism antagonizes them for doing so. What the politicans and journalists that can only identify with the stripped white body of the Air France director of human resources do not understand, is that a woman who is stripped of her hijab, either physically — this kind of islamophobic attacks are spreading in Europe — or administratively (in French middle-school or high-school for instance) is subjected to two forms of violence: a physical and social one that, admittedly, the Air France managers also experienced, and that manifests itself through the sudden and forced display of her undressed body, but also a second one, fundamentally unknown to these managers and the other “powerful”: the intimate knowledge that this undressing violence is backed by the normative, institutional, and sometimes legal processes of marginalization of their bodies.

This is where the fence mentioned in the title intervene in the analysis of this story. In fact, the flight of these two stripped bodies ends after they climb the fence to join the police officers on the other side of it. As my friend Hélène Clemente pointed out when we recently discussed about this event, this fence that ultimately separates the angry unionists and the fearful managers cannot not be interpreted within our current imaginary of walls and fences. When dozens of Subsaharian migrants climb the high fences of the Spanish enclaves of Mellila and Ceuta (see past article) the police that await them on the other side are not here to protect them but, on the contrary, to arrest them in view of their future expulsion. The fence itself remains the same: it separates two milieus and spatially organizes bodies on each of its sides. The border it constitutes can be subverted (by going over it) but the consequences of such subversion vary drastically depending on the bodies that accomplish it: while bodies that belong to the social group that established the fence are granted the latter’s protection, others that do not accept its segregative effects will be socially and/or legally punished for having challenged the political agenda that they compromised when they subverted the architectural violence of the fence. The King might be naked but he’ll be fine as long as he’ll have walls to protect him.