Accepted paper:

The afterlife of martyrs

Authors:

Katherine Borland (University of Helsinki)

Paper short abstract:

This presentation explores the potent figure of the martyr as both “the one who is made an example of” and the one who, in being resurrected through vigils, die-ins and other gestures of remembrance, enrolls the living in his/her struggle for dignity and social justice.

Paper long abstract:

The potent figure of the martyr is both "the one who is made an example of" and the one who, in being resurrected through vigils, die-ins and other gestures of remembrance, enrolls the living in his/her struggle for dignity and social justice. To what degree does the martyr sustain grassroots movements against state-sanctioned violence at home and elsewhere? "Hands Up!" "Don't Shoot!" The call-and-response gesture at a recent solidarity vigil folds Black American teenager, Michael Brown, into a long list of Latin American martyrs who died confronting militarism run-amok. "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" As the assembled crowd raises hands high, participants feel the innocence of the absent subject as their own innocence and represent the situation as innocence criminalized. All the messy details and particularities of the original encounter drop away and are clarified through an embodied abstraction that simultaneously transforms a gesture of fear to one of righteous anger. By December 8th groups in cities across the United States are staging die-ins, lying in streets and lobbies for 4 minutes in remembrance of Brown, Eric Garner, and a mounting list of specific Black men and youth killed by police. Drawing on these and other examples, I examine the conditions that transform a victim into a martyr and a martyr into an exemplar who provokes symbolic mimesis and/or commemoration. How does having one's own martyr sustain a group that forms in solidarity with a distant struggle? Under what conditions do these performances of solidarity lead to substantive social change?

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Gesturing toward utopia: the politics of exemplarity