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March 15, 2012

In 1955, in spite of the sheriff’s opposition, Mamie Till Bradley, opened the casket of her son Emmet Till as soon as it arrived in Illinois Central Terminal in Chicago. Bradley announced that she was going to hold an open casket funeral so that everyone could “see what they did to my boy.” Ten thousand people saw the casket of the lynching victim the first day that it was open for viewing and later on the funeral day about two thousand mourners stood outside the church. Despite the controversial court case—the accused were acquitted and protected by double jeopardy— Till’s case is considered among the transformative moments that motivated the Civil Rights Movement. Bradley wanted to share the truth with her community and in order for them to see the victim’s body, she opened the casket for viewing. It was not enough for her to tell the story, testify in court, and to leave her son’s body as a piece of evidence for the proceedings, but rather she wanted to put the truth on display for everyone to see. Here the visualization of truth, the making visible of the victim’s body, proved the act of showing as integral to truth itself.

On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc stepped out of a car at a central intersection in Saigon, sat in the lotus position on a cushion and set himself ablaze. His self-immolation was an act of protest against oppressive measures set by President Ngo Dinh Diem against the Buddhist population of South Vietnam. It is widely believed that his act of self-sacrifice was a turning point in a series of incidents that lead to the fall of Diem in November of the same year. A similar incident occurred in 2010, when on December 17th, Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, triggered a wave of uprisings in the Middle East, now known as the Arab Springs.

Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Centre where Bouazizi died

When all the avenues of discussion are closed and language ceases to communicate, self-immolation is the ultimate visualization of death as communication. It is at this moment when the word and the image become one entity conjugated in death. If parrhesia is concerned with the duty of telling the truth for the good of the community despite all the dangers and risks involved, political self-immolation is the ultimate parrhesiastic act in its utmost visualization.

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