BOOK OUTLINE (Suman Gupta, Milena Katsarska, Miguel Vicente Mariño, Mike Hajimichael, Theodoros Spyros)
Title: Suicide Notes: Crisis, Protest and the Individual
This book analyses individual acts of suicide which appeared to have a collective political resonance in the period 2010-2014, in locations where social and economic pressures were of paramount public interest. Four main chapters revolve around particular cases in their social contexts to open discussion to issues of broader import: respectively, acts of suicide associated with the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, the beginning of the financial crisis and protests in Greece in 2011-2012, the recession and evictions in Spain since 2011, and the so-called “poverty suicides” in Bulgaria in 2013-2014. These discussions are not about the psychology of suicide (which is not taken up here) and nor about suicides on behalf of specific ideological alignments (these cases are not such). The choice of cases and contexts here are made precisely because they are not amenable to rigorous analysis in terms of individual psychology or ideological allegiance. The focus of this study is on the reception of such acts and their consequent political implications. It particularly examines: circumstances of specific acts of suicide so that their collective significance become apparent; media and other narratives following such acts; the broad consequences of the act (e.g. instrumentalized in collective protest actions, co-opted to serve specific vested interests); and, the implications for sociological/ political/ media/ cultural theory. The Introduction and Conclusion consider how these acts challenge, at the least at a symbolic level, the underlying principles of the dominant liberal order of the present. The method of social criticism assumed here, focused on the reception of individual suicide, makes this an unusual intervention in the field of suicide studies which usually foregrounds suicide rates or psychological impetuses.
As far as the authors are aware, there is no book currently available which takes a similar approach to this one or brings together a similar range of material. There are several areas of publications that are relevant to and are discussed in this.
Though no book-length study of the 2008-onwards financial crisis in relation to suicide has been produced, several influential scholarly papers are available: notably, with a cross-country view, Gunnell et al (2009) and Chang et al (2013), and with country specific foci, e.g., Bernal et al (2013) for Spain, Fountoulakis et al (2013) for Greece. These have been noted in news media. These are all undertaken from the perspective of public health concern and based on suicide rates, which this study departs from – however, the media and (particularly in Greece and Spain) political interest in these are significant to our approach.
The obvious kind of publication that this one is akin to has to do with suicide as protest (“protest suicides” as they are increasingly dubbed). Insofar as this is distinguished from suicide bombings (or, more generally, “suicide as instrument of war” or “life as weapon”), this continues to be an under-researched area. The main book-length studies here are Banu Bargu’s Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (2014) and Simanti Lahiri’s Suicide Protest in South Asia (2014), which, like this one, examine specific cases. However, the kind of cases we focus on are different and not definably by persons connected to social movements with specific outcomes in mind, and therefore their “success” or “failure” cannot be measured. A few paper-length studies of suicide protests in general, distinguished from suicide bombings, are relevant here: e.g. Michael Biggs (2005 and 2013).
Of the numerous books on suicide bombings, some touch upon the receptive and theoretical dimensions that are relevant to our book (especially Farhad Khosrokhavar 2005, Talal Asad 2007, Riaz Hassan 2011, Rosemary Skain 2013). Of particular interest for us are the media constructions of suicide in these, which received specific and sustained attention in David Cook and Olivia Allison’s Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks (2007). Chapters on media constructions of suicides -- e.g. Cheng and Yip (2015), Marsh (2010) -- are relevant here too.
In some instances, protests suicides such as Mohamed Bouazizi’s (addressed in Ch.1 here) have been considered alongside suicide bombings in ways which are valuable for this study. Of especial interest here is Hamid Dabashi’s book Corpus Anarchicum (2012), and the argument threaded around a concept of the posthuman body. Though this concept is not centred in our study, it will feature prominently in the Conclusion. Theoretical precepts which inform our study (and especially Chapter 1) are also variously found in a special issue of the journal Globalizations on “Occupying Subjectivity” – especially in Michelson (2015) and Zevnik (2015). However, the connections that are extended from the so-called Arab Spring to the financial crisis in Europe in our study gives the conceptual underpinnings of such publications a quite distinctive turn, especially by focusing on a concept of liberal individuality in political and economic terms.
There are other more tangentially related publications which our study calls upon, some of which are mentioned in the extended outline below. However, we don’t think the above can be regarded as competition for our book, and even less so those mentioned later – these are more current sources that inform our study than competition for it.
A person appears in a public space, perhaps facing a government office or in a piazza, and commits suicide before onlookers. Owing to contextual circumstances or possibly a statement by the suicide this individual act comes to be regarded as symptomatic of collective disaffection – expressive of a social crisis and political protest. That could also occur for a private act of suicide, if there is a statement or there are circumstances to guide the public perception that way. This book analyses the political implications of such acts in the period 2010-2014 in locations where social and economic pressures appeared to be of paramount public interest.
The first point to register about this study is that it is not about the psychology of suicide and not about the mindset that may be invoked (or retrospectively constructed) to explain individual suicides. What particular individual dispositions may cause a person to commit suicide are of little interest here. Since “suicidology” has become, from the 1960s, an area of intensive research (with journals like Crisis and several professional associations devoted to it), this delimitation is of some significance. A great many researches in this area are devoted to understanding suicide as a matter of social and psychological well-being, with a view to prevention – broadly led by the two thrusts of Edwin Schneidman’s Definition of Suicide (1984): as a “multifaceted event” and, more importantly, in its “essential element [being] a psychological one; each suicide drama occurs in the mind of a unique individual. Suicide is purposive” (p.202). This study does not speculate on the mind-set or purposes of the suicide cases considered here. There are other delimitations from dominant academic approaches to suicide, especially sociological approaches, which characterise our take – those are briefly elaborated later below.
The emphasis here is on the perception of such an act of suicide as having a collective and broader resonance, of being indicative of some larger-than-individual social malaise. In other words, the focus of this study is on the reception of such acts rather than on their particular and distinctive causes. Each chapter (there are four) after the Introduction starts by focusing on/highlighting specific cases of such suicides, but only so as to trace the path of its social reception, the manner in which such an act came to regarded as of collective interest, as socially indicative, and was mediatized and managed or escalated into collective action. These chapters focus specifically on acts of suicide associated with the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, the financial crisis and protests in Greece since 2011-2012, the reaction against public sector cuts in Spain since 2011, especially the so-called “eviction suicides”, and the so-called “poverty suicides” in Bulgaria since 2013-2014.
Each of these chapters then has the following shared points of interest:
A Conclusion draws the threads of the argument together – more on this below.
Apart from the distinction made above apropos “suicidological” research, there are a couple of further deliberate delimitations in this study which, in a way, are constructive of its approach rather than merely an elision of other approaches.
First, the analysis here does not extend to suicides which are explicitly enacted as a statement or gesture from a political or ideological organization, or undertaken on behalf of such an organization as a weapon of war. A great many suicides which are regarded as being political acts are such – e.g. to attain martyrdom or in terrorist suicide bombings – and have received extensive media and scholarly attention of late. Some significant points in the debate on these may have a tangential bearing on the area of this study: some of the scholarship we will call upon are outlined in the “Competition” section above (Farhad Khosrokhavar 2005, Talal Asad 2007, David Cook and Olivia Allison 2007, Riaz Hassan 2011, Rosemary Skain 2013, Hamid Dabashi 2012), and will be discussed in the Introduction and Conclusion. But the focus of this book is on individual suicides with political resonance which cannot be pinned on particular ideological formations and political organizations, in which the individuality of the act is also that which enables its collective purchase. It has been the case that after the fact certain alignments and organizations have tried to recruit the suicide to their ends, by conferring martyrdom or attributing a party-political symbolism. That is naturally examined here; but these cases, so to speak, entered the public domain without such immediate signification.
Second, this is not a study of suicide rates. The sociological study of suicides has, since Emile Durkheim’s classic 1897 study (though the focus on suicide rates precedes that, e.g. in Tomas Masaryk 1881), and understandably, tended to disregard individual cases and attend particularly to suicide statistics. Though the sociological study of suicides has become more nuanced in various ways, especially in taking account of cultural contexts and discourses (in ethnomethodological steps such as Jack Douglas 1967 and J.M. Atkinson 1978, through the numerous studies by David Lester, to the social anthropological approach of Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet 2006 ), suicide rates remain its focal point. From 2007/8 onwards the study of suicide rates has been a considerable scholarly occupation and has received some media notice. Eviction suicides in the USA and Spain, suicide rates amidst austerity and growing unemployment in Greece, Ireland and elsewhere, and cross-country studies of suicide rates in the period of the global financial crisis, have all been undertaken and debated numerously (some are cited in the “Competition” section above). This material is briefly outlined in the Introduction, and does bear upon the case studies that follow insofar as they clarify the context of those acts. Suicide rates are considered here as providing context, but suicide rates are not analysed as evidence in itself or foregrounded as evidence. Durkheim’s own justifications for the method of focusing exclusively on suicide statistics are in fact echoed above for this study here: to gauge the social significance of suicide it is expedient to disregard considerations of individually distinctive and aberrant psychology. This study shares that intention but not the method. Durkheim felt that each specific case of suicide presents too many indeterminate and imponderable features to be socially significant. Since the emphasis of this study is on the receptive field, that objection is circumvented. In fact, the method for analysing the individual suicide with collective resonance adopted here presents an unorthodox and, the authors are convinced, productive turn in the social study of suicide. In clarifying this we draw upon recent historicist critiques of the sociological study of suicide: in particular John C. Weaver’s A Sadly Troubled History (2009), which examines how social research methods constructed suicide in different periods, and, more importantly, Ian Marsh’s Foucauldian analysis of “truth regimes” in suicide studies, in Suicide (2010).
At the bottom of this book lies a shared understanding among the authors, which will be articulated clearly in the Introduction and revisited in the Conclusion: such individual suicides and their collective political resonance in the receptive field pose a particularly disturbing symbolic conundrum for the dominant liberal order of the present. This dominant liberal order makes a strong claim on individuality – on protecting individual freedoms, on working for the average person/ the ordinary person/ the man on the street, on representing individuals within the demos/ polity. Such acts of suicide are apt to be received as ultimate and desperate expressions of self-possession and of self-dispossession at the same time, which strike at the heart of liberal ideology. That is especially so if they can’t be immediately pinned to an oppositional ideology or explained away as individual insanity before their collective resonance is perceived. The legitimacy of the liberal order appears to be at stake when these suicides are received as collectively resonant.
The conceptual underpinnings of the liberal order that is interrogated and undermined by such suicides are presented here with reference to three theoretical strands. First, the classical first principles of liberal individuality and, coterminously, freedom are revisited, with reference to the two standard divergent thrusts: rational individuality grounded in a hypothesis of social compact (broadly the left-liberal Rousseau>Rawls line), and inviolable individuality described by minimizing the state (broadly the libertarian Humboldt>Nozick line). Second, contemporary liberal norms of valuing life are examined. This is perhaps most cogently done by considering arguments against taking life in the much-discussed assisted suicide/euthanasia debate, via Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion (1993) and Kevin Yuill’s Assisted Suicide (2013). Third, and perhaps most importantly, the valuation of life (in cost-benefit terms) that obtains in neoliberal governmentality (grounded in Foucault’s understanding of the neoliberal “self” in the 1978/9 lectures The Birth of Biopolitics, 2004) and financialization of everyday life. The latter has been prodigiously theorized after 2000, and especially around the 2008-onwards financial crisis (Marazzi 2008 , Martin 2002, Lazzarato’s 2010, Lordon 2014 , Mirowski 2013, Holborow 2015).
Each of the following chapters, including Introduction and Conclusion, are of approximately 10 – 12,000 words.
The Introduction will present the overall rationale and structure of the book along the lines of the extended outline above. Elaborations of the points made above regarding suicides as explicit statements or instruments of war for a political or ideological organization and regarding suicide rates and psychology/intention will be given. The preconceptions of individuality and life in liberal theory will be discussed, and the implications of the cases to be examined apropos those will be considered. The broad assumptions of media narratives and scholarly studies of such protest suicides, especially insofar as they have a bearing on this book, will be outlined in an initial fashion.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010 at Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, has been prolifically reported and discussed. This chapter focuses on two questions. (1) By what mechanics did this individual act appear to garner the kind of collective response it has become associated with – how was the potency of individual gesture transformed, at least symbolically, into an escalating protesting crowd not just in Tunisia but more widely? (2) What are the implications of Mohamed Bouazizi’s eventual transformation into shahid – a martyr – and for the generation of other martyrs of uprisings in the region? The latter part of this chapter moves from the context of Tunisia to that of Egypt in 2011. To answer the first, a speculative line from individual psychology to the crowd-mind (in Gustave Le Bon’s classical terms) will be outlined, mainly to demonstrate the irrelevance of individual psychological factors in the suicide’s political significations. Contemplating the second question then links Bouazizi’s collectively signified martyr status to other constructions of martyrdom, especially in Egypt -- which, to some degree, activated the Tahrir Square protests (the so-called Revolution of 25 January 2011). In particular, Bouazizi’s martyr status is considered alongside that of Khaled Said in Egypt before 2011 (with the description of martyrdom in Hadith Sahih Bukhari 4.52: 83 as baseline), and with the “revolutionary youth shuhada” after February 2011. A final section will reflect on what is regarded here as the “re-individualization” of Bouazizi in international media and, especially, scholarly texts after 2012.
A discussion of Apostolos Polyzonis’s suicide attempt in Thessaloniki, September 2011, and Dimitris Christoulos’s public suicide in Athens, April 2012, opens this meditation on the experience of austerity in Greece. Socio-cultural attitudes to suicide in the region will frame this chapter, especially with regard to the Orthodox reservations about addressing suicide. The chapter will then gradually broaden its analysis to consider the politics of extreme anti-austerity protests in general. Christoulos’s suicide note memorably underlined the conundrum for liberal governmentality mentioned above, alleging that the “government has annihilated all traces of my survival”, and reportedly his last words were “I am not committing suicide, they are killing me”. The manner in which such acts of suicide and the suicide rate featured in the Greek media and were discussed in the run-up to the 2015 general elections will also be covered. The slippages and inconsistencies between different layers of domestic media, and between domestic and international media, are a particular point of interest in this chapter.
In 2013, as the media were awash with stories of anti-government protests in Bulgaria, there were reports of six cases of public suicides in the international media, and in fact further similar cases of suicide were reported in 2014 in the national media. This chapter examines these cases in the immediate context of the anti-government protests and the broader context of the post-socialist liberal order. In a context that often appears to be marginalized within the European transnational formation, the argument here is that these cases were also studiedly marginalized – the narratives following them were gradually designed to silence or disregard the public gestures, and elide the economic and political factors which they seemed to initially resonate with. The relationship between what are regarded now as two phases of the anti-government protests – the first spurred by inordinate electricity and gas bill rises under the GERB government, and the second by an unpopular appointment under the socialist government – will be complicated here by drawing attention to economic and political continuities across them which are symptomatized by these suicide cases.
After several years of an exacerbating housing and financial bubble, Spain has experienced a dramatic recession since 2009. The erstwhile Spanish economic miracle transformed into cruel hardship for a large part of the population. Individuals and families, suffering from record unemployment rates and asphyxiated by growing private debt, found that the mortgage system places the banks’ interests over those of citizens. A spate of suicides was the evident signal that a significant proportion of the population simply couldn’t resist the pressure of debt and punitive measures for nonpayment over a sustained period of time. Several specific cases of suicide were highlighted in the international and national media – often with the names removed, mentioning only the suicide’s age, (former) profession, location and circumstances, and linking their suicides to threats of eviction. So, though such dramatic individual acts were featured in media platforms and social media, they were usually presented in a remarkably remote and minimalistic manner – perhaps to discourage replication. Social movements such as the Platform of Mortgage Victims represented the interests of these voiceless individuals, leading to partial renewal of the mortgage law in Spain and the popularity of the spokesperson of the Platform, Ada Colau, elected as Major of Barcelona in the local elections in May 2015. This chapter will trace these developments.
The final chapter will draw together connecting threads across the above chapters, and reflect on their implications for contemporary and currently dominant liberalism, especially in terms of liberal concepts of individuality and life. In particular the connections across the chapters in relation to the prevailing neoliberal grip on the self, mentioned at the end of the “Extended Outline” above, will be unpicked.