There is, after all, still air to breathe in hell | Part 2

by Noah Brehmer |

Social death and the suicideational demand

You can read the first part of this essay here.


The shortcomings of the suicidal are then likely to usher a preventative-therapeutic response, or an organizational path aligned with the union and political party. Yet, as the situation at French Telecom came to show, neither course managed, in the end, to do more than mitigate the popular will toward individual self-death. This is the case insofar as the therapeutic (however benevolent) is essentially a capitalist managerial science designed to ameliorate the most symptomatic effects of the current social crisis without advancing the kind of transformative and abolitionist politics that would offer a solution to their causes. Whereas the union – although surmounting the latter’s absolute complacency by at least framing matters from a class standpoint – points towards the secrete abode of social misery (capitalist political-economy) but has nothing more to promise, to those that join its rank, than a longer leash and a better cage. On the other hand, the mass party puts forward a transformative program for dealing with the causes of the crisis – collective discipline, common futurities, political morality, revolutionary strategy – while remaining an essentially conservative operation in its function as a recuperator of the social powers forged during cycles of insurrectionary outburst.

“one can disconnect suicide from the teleological end of literal self-murder”

To overcome the noted contradictions of suicidal agency while staying true to the sucidal’s desire for self-constituted acts and real exits within the daunting closures of capitalist reality, I argue that suicide should not be reified as an isolatable pathology but generalized as a tactic of both literal and symbolic detachment. Starting from here, one can disconnect suicide from the teleological end of literal self-murder and engage with its multivalent connotations – as suicideation: “not only the foreclosing act of finitude”,[1] but the broadly defined practice of inhabiting depersonalized time. In other words, the speculative leaning towards non-belonging as a zone for the articulation and prefiguration of other possible worlds.

Lauren Berlant’s work on the concept of detachment is useful, here, for developing a theory of suicideational agency. For her, detachment can be intentional or unintentional. It can be physical sickness, exhaustion, depression, but also secession, excessive eating, taking narcotics, aloofness, coasting, strike. Importantly, Berlant is careful to question the concept’s hasty incorporation into narratives of resistance. Reflecting on detachment’s relation to depression she notes how it varies, producing

“the prisonhouse or the lightness of not caring; or the freedom or vertigo from detaching and seeing multiple horizons; or the excited scanning or dark melancholy that might saturate everywhere when desire no longer has an object to give living on a discrete shape.”[2]

Detachment is not conceived here as the elimination of attachment, but rather as a suspension, and at times reshuffling, of roles and responsibilities, e.g., being sick doesn’t eliminate work but temporarily suspends the relation. Suicideation should be thought on a similar plane, I think. The agency I find in suicideational practices – in contrast with suicidal practices – inhere in their capacity to demonstrate power’s immanence: its instability to those that believe they may hold it over others. For an oppressed subject to threaten their own extermination is also to threaten the oppressor, as the true source of their power is held by those they dominate. Simone Weil, reflecting on the kind of agency that could be mustered on the eve of Fascism’s historical triumph in Europe, explores this tension:

“Every victory won over men contains within itself a possible defeat, unless it goes so far as extermination. But extermination abolishes power by abolishing its object. Thus, there is in the very essence of power, a fundamental contradiction that prevents it from existing in the true sense of the word; those who are called the masters, ceaselessly compelled to reinforce their power for fear of seeing it snatched away from them are forever seeking a dominion essentially impossible to attain. […] Consequently all power is unstable.”[3]

So, the threat of self-extermination on the part of the dominated becomes a kind of leveraging position for the reconfiguration of dependencies. Think here of the actual mechanisms of the wildcat strike: the strike is on the one hand a self-inflicted injury, given that strikers don’t get paid, while, on the other hand, it shows the employer the true threat that awaits them if this profitable relationship ends. Foxconn workers seemed to have taken this tactic to its most precise expression in their successful collective action of 2012 in which 200 people went to the roof and threatened to jump if wages and conditions were not bettered.[4]

“Do suicideational demands risk complicity in the system of domination?”

This leads me to the book In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India, which details a current suicide epidemic in Kerala, a southern region of India that has in recent decades taken a turn toward market liberalization. The writer, Jocelyn Chua, observes how suicide has been integrated in social life as a tool for the negotiation of power relations. She tells the story of Shaila who, after cutting her arm, gained leverage over her abusive husband. Threatened with her absence, Shaila’s husband became more accommodating and assumed greater responsibility for household activities.[5]

The sucideational demand is thus particular to scenarios where a subject is used as an object for the other. In an earlier account of the family domain as a site of sucideational agency, Marx emphasized the prevalence of suicide among married women in his annotated translation of Jacques Peuchet’s archive of suicide obituaries in Paris. In a system which conceives of women as property, Marx suggested, their suicide is theft. The following illustrates the predicament:

“The unfortunate wife was sentenced to the most intolerable slavery, and this slavery was only enforced by Monsieur de M… on the basis of the Code civil and the right of property, on the basis of social conditions which render love independent of the free sentiments of the lovers and allow the jealous husband to surround his wife with locks as the miser does his coffers; for she is only a part of his inventory.”[6]

Here, we find the wife as subject inscribed, by law, under the authority of another. She chooses to upend her dependency as property (or threaten such an upending) through self-destruction. Notably, Marx saw in these women’s gruesome exits from captivity a revolt against the cowardly paternal masculinity of their husbands:  

“Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce, willingly or unwillingly.”[7]

Contrasted with these cowardly expressions of masculine sovereignty, sucideational agency concerns immanent maneuvers within the crisis of everydayness of it all.  As Chua argues, Shaila’s act defies norms of agency associated with the liberal subject. She is neither the autonomous hero who leaves the marriage nor the tragic-hero who is murdered or pauperized in her attempt. Instead, there is a type of agency which Chua, referring to Berlant, calls lateral: a reshuffling of power without grandiosity, a release of desire without full intentionality; a grappling toward life without virility.[8]

Suicideational demand practices are useful leveraging tools in the face of adverse power relations. Yet, in pivoting on the recognition of the dominator as the source of a possible concession, do they risk complicity in the system of domination?  



In grounding a politics on the idea of death as a leveraging position, suicideational practices seem to confront their own impasse, namely: the threat of death only seems audible as a threat insofar as the subject making it is not already deemed ‘socially dead (that is, superfluous to the maintenance of social bonds). Here, the question arises of how one goes about conceptualizing agency, or political existence for those who do not bear the status of human beings. To explore such  a question is to also ask how priorities are set in political processes and in turn how such priorities impact the direction and form of emancipatory political strategies.

Developing a method for approaching this question through the analytics of exploitability and disposability, the theorist Jackie Wang frames non-humanness as one’s proximity to the latter. Whereas exploitability concerns the standpoint of labor, the citizen, and the bio-political operation of power as investment in life; disposability speaks to the standpoint of the non-subject, of the racialized, of those that have been marked off for elimination, organized state-abandonment and exposure to necro-political operations of power.[10]

“the threat of the loss of life is only a threat to the extent that this life is deemed worthy of empathy in the first place.”

As Wang wrote shortly before the latest cycle of urban uprisings began in the US, we must understand this problem in terms of the politics of recognition. Taking into consideration cases of police violence that were and were not incorporated into national political campaigns, Wang shows how subjects must be seen as innocent before they become worthy of public empathy. The same holds for suicideational acts insofar as here the threat of the loss of life is only a threat to the extent that this life is deemed worthy of empathy in the first place.

Wang directs our attention toward the radically different public responses to the cases of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen shot in cold blood by a racist vigilante, and of CeCe Mcdonald, the black trans woman convicted of second degree manslaughter for defending herself from a group of transphobic, racist, white men. What if Trayvon had a gun and was able to defend himself? Would anyone have made a public note of the case? Referring back to CeCe’s situation, the answer is clear enough: no. Evidenced here is that once a subject is established as a threat to the state or as a non-productive asset to capital, their status can rapidly flip from that of a hyper-exploited subject to that of a disposable one. In some sense, the threat of disposability is latent blackmail by the state used to maintain populations in the precarious status of hyper-exploitability: ‘comply with the norms of the productive citizen or you will be targeted for elimination.’

Applying her findings in the sphere of sexual violence, Wang digs up what some may find to be a startling picture of the extent to which the foundations of social non-kill-ability – as innocence – are also the edifice for the seemingly sturdier status of being a human being, as such:

“In southern California during the 1980s and 1990s, police officers would close all reports of rape and violence made by sex workers, gang members, and addicts by placing them in a file stamped “NHI”: No Human Involved. This police practice draws attention to the way that rapeability is also simultaneously unrapeability in that the rape of someone who is not considered human does not register as rape. Only those considered “human” can be raped.”[11]

Whereas suicideational power pivots on its positionality as an exploitable asset and is hence dependent on being recognized as such an asset under the calculations of a higher power, those marked disposable are left searching for other avenues – to receive power’s benevolent hand, one must, in the end, be deemed worthy of empathy in the eyes of empire.

The situation of the Kasserine Thirteen hunger strike in Tunisia is a case in point. Taking place in  the aftermath of the Dignity Revolution (2011), the strike began with protests against the exclusion of a young man from the employment lists for participation in a student union. After the event of his suicide, protests proliferated, which eventually led to the occupation of a prefecture in the city of Kasserine by two hundred unemployed citizens, thirteen of which began a hunger strike demanding public employment. Yet, the strikers and their local supporters were represented by national media as terrorists and  inciters of disorder. On these grounds the trade unions and other political organizations did not show solidarity, the protests dissolved and the demands of the striking bodies were dismissed – they were rendered disposable.[12] This goes to show that from a position of disposability there is not a recognizable identity through which interests can be leveraged. Entering struggles from this limit-point, Wang vividly criticizes the inscription of political strategy into compromised positions of allyship with the state: “The desire for recognition compels us to be allies with, rather than enemies of the State, to sacrifice ourselves in order to meet the standards of victimhood, to throw our bodies into traffic to prove that the car will hit us rather than calling for the execution of all motorists.”[13]



What do we make of the flowering vine that uses as its trellis the walls of a prison?

-Jackie Wang

As exit strategies, both suicidal and sucideational practices are, then, quite limited: the former confounded by the vacuous freedoms of the other-worldly; the latter too complicit with the hellish (but breathable) finitudes of our present conjuncture. On what grounds may we then affirm an existence neither subservient to prevailing hegemonies of ‘life’ nor reliant on the deathly eternities of the beyond?

For Wang, the first step would imply rejecting the politics of innocence, incumbent as it is on passive acts of self-sacrifice and display of hapless victimhood. In turn, one is also called to reject the humanitarian imaginary, incumbent as it is on a world made up of sacred civilian populations and violent, disposable, threats.

“real exits are constantly appearing before us”

In refusing the moral guarantees of the stance, one enters the imaginary of the socially dead and their forsaken, illegitimate, unrecognized worlds. Think of the Great Dismal Swamp commune, which offered another form-of-life – irrespective of dominant social codes and legal frames – for thousands of runaway slaves and indigenous peoples for more than a century between early 1600 and 1860.[14] It is from these worlds – and I suspect there are many such worlds among us today – that an exit strategy is being lived as an embodied, communal, transcendence.

Our gloomy divided lives – replete with work, family debt, war, and fatigue – don’t readily give issue to such exits as desirable paths. However, those that take them anyway – by dint of grave circumstance – are the bearers of a form-of-life that truly espouses the epistemological undoing of the present state of things. From the Decemberists of Russia who conjured the first visions of Eastern anti-authoritarian communism from their plight in Tsarist gulags, to the Turkish prison communes which propagated new visions of earth’s inhabitation from the very core of the modern carceral state, to the colonial-era Nairobi watembezi [street based] women who abolished the hegemony of the family in their communalization of resources and formation of women’s self-defense networks, real exits are constantly appearing before us. Let’s embrace them – together.




[1] Lauren Berlant very loosely sketches the idea of suicideation in the following lecture, but the term seems to never have been developed. See here: “On Being in Life Without Wanting the World: Living in Ellipsis” available here: (13:48).

[2] Lauren Berlant, “Do You Intend to Die?: Lauren Berlant on intimacy after suicide”, King’s Review Magazine, 2015.

[3] Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty (1955), London: Routledge, 2001.

[4] People & Nature, “China: collective resistance against iSlavery”, 2016.

[5] Jocelyn Lim Chua, In Pursuit of the Good Life: aspiration and suicide in globalizing south India, California: University of California Press, 2014. p.130.

[6] Karl Marx, ‘Peuchet on Suicide’ in Marx on Suicide, (ed. Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Anderson), Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999. p.58.

[7] Ibid, pp.53-54.

[8] Chua 2014, p.130.

[9] This concept is from the tradition of afro-pessimist thought. I’m very grateful to Marina Vishmidt for raising the problematic of social death after reading an early draft of this essay.

[10] Jackie Wang, ‘Racialized Accumulation by Dispossession in the Age of Finance Capital: notes on the debt economy’, in Carceral Capitalism, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018. p.101

[11] Jackie Wang, ‘Against Innocence’, Lies Journal, 2012.

[12] Thanks to Oana Parvan drawing attention to this case in her essay “Unruly Life: Subverting ‘surplus’ existence in Tunisia”, Mute, 2017.

[13] Wang 2012, ‘Against Innocence’.

[14] 99% Invisible, ‘The Great Dismal Swamp’.


One thought on “There is, after all, still air to breathe in hell | Part 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s