hunger strikers and hunger artists:


Ejecting and ingesting the other1

Costas Douzinas


1.The hunger strikers

Athens, January 2011. While the Egyptian revolution was in full flow, 300 sans papiers immigrants from the Maghreb took refuge in Hepatia, a neoclassical building in central Athens and staged a hunger strike. They had lived and worked in Greece for up to ten years, doing the jobs the Greeks didn’t want to do, for a fraction of the minimum wage and without social security. When the crisis struck, they were unceremoniously kicked out. They had no Greek documents, work or residence permits and were liable to immediate deportation. They were the double victims of boom and bust. During the period of fake growth, their underpaid, uninsured labour involved the necessary ‘dirty’ jobs the locals would not do. With the onset of the economic crisis, they became surplus to requirement, to be disposed like refuse. After 40 days, with several strikers in hospital with irreversible organ failure that would lead to death, the government accepted the bulk of their demands. 

The hunger strikers were demanding the minimum recognition of the fellow human. Identity is built through the reciprocal recognition of self and other. The absence of basic rights to work and life deprived them of all recognition, making them less than human. They were homines sacri, persons legally nonexistent and therefore nonhuman.

Athens, November 2014. Syrian refugees start a hunger strike in Syntagma Square, Athens. They came to Greece fleeing the wars in the Middle East. Without travel documents or political asylum, they are ‘imprisoned’ in Greece. They ask for travel documents to travel to Western Europe and for emergency accommodation, food and healthcare until such passage from Greece becomes possible. Again without documents, the strikers find themselves in that grey zone between human existence and official inexistence.

Athens, December 9, 2014. The young anarchist Nikos Romanos is on the 30th day of a hunger strike. Romanos was a close friend of Alexis Grigoropoulos who was murdered in central Athens by the police on December 6, 2008. The murder led to 2-week insurrection by Greek youth, the first case of militant resistance and a preparation for the sequence of protests and insurrections of the Greek people against structural unemployment and brutal austerity over the last six years. Alexis died in the hands of his friends Nikos Romanos, whose life has been marked by the death of his best mate. Nikos was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2012 when, with anarchist comrades, he robbed a bank in Northern Greece. No evidence linking Romanos with an armed organization was presented in court. While in prison, Nikos took University entry exams and was admitted to the Athens School of Business and Economics. However following the escape of another prisoner during a home visit leave, all entitlement to leave was cancelled. Romanos writes from the hospital where he was taken when his health deteriorated seriously: “Last spring, I sat university entrance exams from inside the prison and got admitted to a faculty in Athens. According to their laws, since September 2014, I am eligible for educational leave to regularly attend classes from the beginning of the term.” His hunger strike is a protest against the deprivation of his right to education. Three of his comrades have joined him in and a huge solidarity movement in Greece and overseas has been insistently asking that Romanos’s right to education be respected and his life spared. 


2. The hunger artist

Kafka’s sort story A Hunger Artist takes place when fasting was an art performed in public to large audiences. Kafka’s artist carries out his starvation act in a cage. The act is very popular, lots of spectators come to see the artist and the public’s excitement increases with every passing hour. Full-time watchers, usually butchers, keep a continuous watch to ensure he does not cheat. Suspicion and intense inspection kept the eyes transfixed on the wilting body, creating the attention necessary for the performance. But the artist is not satisfied. People do not believe him when he says that it is easy not to eat. Even worse, his manager limits his fast to 40 days believing that the public will get bored after that. As a result, the artist is not able to display his virtuosity fully. 

But interest in the art of fasting diminishes, the crowds thin and eventually disappear. The artist joins a circus but his cage is placed in a quiet corner. Here he undertakes his most audacious fast. But spectators scarcely glance at him as they walk past him on the way to the cage of wild animals nearby. Forgotten, the artist soldiers on, losing track of the days he has fasted. One day a passerby asks the guards why the cage is empty and unused. When they enter and poke at the dirty straw, they discover the famished remains of the artist. After his death, the attendants place a young panther in his cage, well-fed, lively and happy. The excited crowds return to view the new resident in the artist’s cage. 


3. Autonomy

What brings the hunger striker and the hunger artist together? Freedom as autonomy. They both confirm Rousseau as much as Freud and Sartre. 

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in the First Discourse: ‘A pigeon would die of hunger near a basin filled with the best meats. And a cat upon heaps of fruits or grain, although each could very well nourish itself on the food it disdains, if it made up its mind to try some.’ Compare the pigeon and the cat with the suicide, the martyr, the hunger striker. ‘[The beast] chooses or rejects by instinct and [man] by an act of freedom, so that a beast cannot deviate from the rule that is prescribed to it even when it would be advantageous for it to do so, and a man deviates from it often to his detriment.’2

Animals follow the law; they cannot break it. Man, on the contrary, is free to die of freedom. Autonomy is to create your own law and go against nature’s law telling the striker eat, drink, survive. What differentiates humanity is Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’, which before his death became ‘I prefer not to dine would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners’. Antinaturalism is the morality of modernity. For Kant, moral action is motivated exclusively by respect for a law which demands that the law of needs, passions and interests is set aside. Freud argued that civilisation is an attempt to negate sexual desires and drives while for Lacan modernity iis exemplified in Kant’s sadistic renunciation of the flesh.

Life is worth living only for values it is worth dying for. ‘Freedom or death’ has been inscribed on the banners of warriors for religion, nation or ideology. The motto of Terence MacSwinney, the lord mayor of Cork who died in Brixton prison in 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike, was ‘it is not those who can inflict the most, but whose who can suffer the most who will conquer’. It has been echoed through the ages. Nikos Romanos’s hunger strike belongs to the same trajectory. He is prepared to go to death if he is not allowed the rich life education offers. The right to life and to education come into conflict with the strictness of the law. The judicial system all the way to Areios Pagos, the highest court, however rejected his application to be given leave to follow University lectures. The courts placed the strict enforcement of the law above the most basic human entitlements and needs. This is law without justice, an indictment of a legal system that follows the letter and violates the spirit of legality.

From Samson to the Christian martyrs, from suffragettes to anticolonial fighters and Irish hunger strikers, martyrs have argued that man’s essence is not to have an essence, his nature to distance himself from natural or social codes and start ex nihilo or in search of the nihil. Humanity’s essence is nothingness, autonomy as the highest moral achievement of modernity. This is why Bartleby is the most sacred modern saint. 


4. Desire

Suicide and martyrdom are as ancient as Socrates and Jesus and as modern as Emmeline Pankhurst and Bobby Sands. In the arsenal of sacrificial self-harm, hunger or self-starvation has pride of place. Why is that? 

Eating is indispensable to life. Life cannot be sustained without nutrition. Stopping to eat is the simplest negation of life’s demands. There is more. For Hegel, Marx and Freud, eating lies at the origin of subjectivity. Hunger discloses a constitutive lack in the ego. Hunger reveals a fundamental lack in the subject. This emptiness in the self leads rise to desire. Desire is met, the lack is filled through the overcoming of the external world.

Desire belongs to a subject; my desire makes me aware of myself and of my difference and dependence on the not-I. The I depends for survival on the not-I, the object and the other person. Desire initially negates the not-I as object, the otherness of the foodstuff as the self devours and assimilates the object.

But this devouring negation is not enough for subjectivity. It abolishes the object and throws the subject back to his illusory self-identity. Desire is displaced from food, the object towards another subject. The other’s desire and recognition gives rise to the full self, who sees himself reflected in the other’s desire. The other is a substitute for food, partly introjected through the constitutive action of her desire but surviving. So food gets sacralised, every encounter with the other is raised to a Eucharistic meal.

Hegel’s phenomenology is a huge restaurant in which the subject negates the reality of objects by digesting them in his consciousness. But this is also a romantic dinner. It is precisely when I realise that I cannot fully enjoy the food without a companion, a friendly critic, praising and criticising the cuisine and each other, that I become who I am. The ego is a digestive economy and a weight watchers meeting. Consciousness incorporates the object, transforming it into thought and then excreting it back into material existence in the company of men.

This is the dialectic that Freud and Lacan make theirs with little recognition. Sexual desire is a displacement of the desire for food, of the demand for and pleasure from the mother’s breast. The ego comes to existence by identifying with another. We assimilate the object we long for by both eating and preserving it. ‘No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile,’ writes Freud, ‘can escape the reflection that this picture persists as the prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life.’ It is the picture that persists and props sexual desire.

For Lacan, this will become the equation: desire is demand minus need. The baby asks the breast for nourishment, but on top he asks for the mother’s unreserved love, opening the vista of the desire for the other over and above the need for the object. There is hunger in desire and insatiability and this goes back to the desperate need for the breast.


5. Political hunger

The resistance of the contemporary homines sacri takes the form of exodus or martyrdom. Suicide, self-mutilation and immolation, starving, boarding the floating coffins that sink daily in the Mediterranean – more than 3,000 migrants have died crossing it this year – are the responses of those treated as expendable, redundant, economically useless. The Arab spring started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. The Athens hunger strikers realised that in a biopolitical world, life exists as registered life; undocumented life without birth certificates and IDs, visas and work permits is not recognised. Minimum humanity is created through what the immigrants lacked: papiers, documents, files. To retrieve their life from this administrative void, they had to come to the threshold of death. 

The hunger strikers were martyrs in the double meaning of the word: witnesses and sacrificial victims. As witnesses, they stated that there are higher truths than life; life is worth living for values worth dying for. Demanding martyrdom and sacrificing his subjects and enemies is the prerogative of the sovereign. He negotiates the link between secular and holy by making sacred (sacer facere): war, the death penalty, mercy, the rituals of sacrifice and consecration are ways through which the transcendent is both acknowledged and kept at a distance. 

The hunger strikers took a wager with mortality. They reminded that the theologico-political order, based on the ability to take life and let live, can be disrupted by removing the power of life and death from the sovereign. In Hegel’s master and slave dialectic, the master achieves his position by going all the way in his struggle for recognition, prepared even to die. At that point the slave, fearing for his life, capitulates and accepts servitude. The strikers reversed the dialectic. Servants and quasislaves legally, without any formal recognition, they faced death in order to remove the power to kill from the master. In doing so collectively, they traced the promise of a new type of power not based on imposed or voluntary sacrifice. A type of power that goes to the edge of finitude and touches it but does not pierce or transcend it, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it. Their gift to the immigrants all over Europe was to tell them that they can take their lives in their hands against the iniquities and humiliations of governments, authorities and human rights fanatics. They are the only immigrants who, against legal orthodoxy, achieved through their collective action a political resolution of their abject condition. 


6. Food and words

Food and words are eternally competing. ‘Don’t speak with your mouth full!’ my mother used to say. Why, I wondered, eating and speaking are two greatest pleasures, so why not have them together. But she had a point, both food and speech engage the same orifice. They compete for mouth, tongue, saliva; when one takes over, the other withdraws. Words replace food, as Deuteronomy puts it: ‘Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the lord doth man live’ (8:3). The Book of Revelation takes it further. The anger of the Lord tells man  to ‘take it [the sacred book], and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey’ (10:9).

Eating silences words. Starving, on the other hand, hungers for sense and craves for meaning. Starvation may be involuntary, the result of lack of food as in Gaza, the failure of crops or anorexia. Or voluntary. But religious fasting differs from dieting or a hunger strike. Hunger has its histories and cadences, its symbolism and purpose. Medieval saints fasted to control sexual desire, to cleanse and mortify the body. Contemporary dieters fast to serve sexual desire, to cleanse and beautify the body. For the striker, hunger is a political speech act.

Political fasting is temporally and spatially situated. René Girard argues that at times of great conflict, the community projects its tensions onto a victim whose sacrifice temporarily pacifies it. A hunger strike is a personal sacrifice that aims to rebuild community. Eating supports subjectivity; starving reassembles the fissured community.

What about the hunger artist? Hunger is socially embedded, a performance however which aims to disembody, to whittle away and eventually deprive the starving of the body. Hunger makes the body depart from itself. Starvation is not just a cleansing or purification, but a disembodiment, a body eating itself away, becoming a pure soul, spirit or air. The striker is inebriate of air, as Emily Dickinson said. 

The hungering person negates food, the not-I, creating a figure of autarchy and sacrifice, self-sufficiency and auto desire. I don’t need the other, I do not lack, I am full in myself. The hunger artist wanted to go to the end. But he is not interested in sacrificing himself or dying. The artist becomes himself by eating himself up, by showing that he can survive the absence of the other. His purpose is not to die but to perfect his art, to become the best hunger artist, to bring the ejection, the redundancy of the other to completion. He is the absolute figure of sovereignty, greater than his manager, more powerful than the panther. The artist expels himself, spits himself out, in the same movement that establishes himself. The telos is not death but full self-sufficiency, becoming an independent causa sui

The earlier fames interruptus of the hunger artist was stopped at 40 days, the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai before receiving the covenant, or Christ in the wilderness. The hunger artist seeks not sacrifice but deification, self-created by excluding the not self, sustained by ceaseless purification. He succeeds only in part. He rejects the other as object but cannot survive without the other as subject. When the spectators abandon him, passing by without observing and admiring him, he wilts and withers away. Starving is a performance that needs spectators, admiration, commentary. We come to life through the gaze of the other and we survive in her regard. We cannot live on unless seen by the other. Starvation acquires meaning through its spectacularisation. 

Similarly with the hunger striker. He does not want death but victory, he is not suicidal but militant. Romanos repeatedly stated that he does not want to die but to have his right to education granted. The strategy of the striker is to overpower the oppressor with the spectacle of his disempowerment. In the case of the Egyptian and Syrian hunger strikers, the lack of papiers, documents, letters – the institutional recognition by the other person – is complemented by the rejection of food, the other as object. Lack of papers, lack of food, a symmetrical rejection of the other. We find the same behaviour in the common gesture of sewing up the lips in resistance. In the case of Romanos, lack of education, absence of food, education the food for life. 

But these acts of disempowerment must be communicated. The others must be implicated in the performance; they must become martyrs/witnesses to its meaning. The starving body performs only when it communicates. Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers spoke to each other and the outside world by means of minuscule written scrolls – the communications or ‘comms’ as they became known – hidden in body orifices. The Egyptian – and now the Syrian strikers – used press conferences to describe to an initially hostile public and press their predicament, thus creating the conditions that led to the victory. Romanos keeps issuing statements encouraging his supporters, explaining his motives, claiming his right to a civilised life.

This is the main reason why the hunger strike is the preferred mode of sacrificial self-annihilation. Unlike self-immolation or a bullet in the head, it uses temporality to increase interest and anxiety. Its reporting always starts with the number of days the strike has been going on, each day a further nail in the coffin but also a further call to the people to rally around them and on the authorities to meet the demand. Passing time turns the strike from sacri-fice to commu-fice, from making sacred to making community.

The hunger artist, too, lives for the other and by the other. This is why at the end, as he is about to die, the hunger artist finds enough strength to whisper his last words into the ear of the overseer, pursing his lips as in a kiss. ‘you should not admire my fasting,’ the artist says at the end, ‘I cant help it.’ The only reason he starved was that he “couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you and everyone else’. 

The artist had not found the food he needs. This is why it is easy to fast. It is not that he doesnt eat; he eats nothing. He ingests the hole in the midst of existence. Insatiability is the same whether you eat or starve. Only the other can give the nourishment he longs for, by gifting him the desire in her eyes, turning him into a spectacle, an art. In the absence of the other, the artist turned his art into starvation unto death. He is no longer a hunger artist but a hunger striker, a sacrificial victim. His sacrifice allows the crowd to gather again, the community to reassemble. 

Starvation reveals the empty place from which eating and speaking proceed, alternating and mutually exclusive. As a collective performance, voluntary starvation gathers together and creates community in the spectacle of its autarchic self-annihilation. Such a foundation could eventually constitute a community that jettisons sacrifice and retains autarchy. The 300 Hepatia strikers are the only immigrants who, against the atomising tactics of the immigration and refugee law, managed to retrieve their life from the administrative void that had engulfed them. 

Collective anti-naturalism and sacrificial autarchy this is how victories are won. They are collective victories as only collectivities can win political battles. The new community is founded on the disappearing body of the hunger striker/artist. This is how life wins over death.


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 20 (12.2014)