How the Politics of Life Can Be Waged Through a Theatre of Death

By BELLA LAWRENCE

Both our bodies and our lives are subject to political action, and as such they can be used as physical forces for non-violent protest. The “die-in” is a form of protest, much like the more familiar “sit-in,” that uses embodiment to challenge a state of hierarchical inequality.

However, unlike a sit-in, die-ins are political demonstrations during which people play dead.

In a reading and subsequent discussion on Sept. 9, titled “Dying-In: Politics of Life, Theatre of Death,” Dr. Banu Bargu shared her research on, and theoretical understanding of, the impact of die-ins, since their advent in the 1970s anti-nuclear movement.

Bargu is currently a professor of “History of Consciousness and Political Theory” at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She completed both her B.A. and M.A. at Bogazici University, and her Ph.D. at Cornell University. Bargu’s first book, titled “Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons,” was published in 2014 and won the First Book Award FROM the American Political Science Association. She published a second book in 2017, “Feminism, Capitalism, and Critique: Essays in Honor of Nancy Fraser,” and her reading this past week at Colorado College highlighted a chapter she is currently developing for her next work.

The die-in had its inauguration on June 8, 1970, and has since been used to further a number of different activist causes. Bargu cited the Los Angeles based LGBTQ organization “Act Up,” formed in the late 1980s, which staged die-ins to protest government treatment of HIV/AIDS and widespread homophobia. More recently, she recounted, the Black Lives Matter movement has utilized the technique to protest the treatment of “black and brown bodies” within the U.S.

Although the die-in as a form of protest has been around for several decades, Bargu proposed that the theoretical analysis of the visual and theatrical nature of the die-in, through which we would be able to understand the protest’s full implications and societal tension, is not present. She said that her theoretical framework, and her “argument in a nutshell,” revolved around how the die-in serves to convey the deep contradiction within democratic governments that put “human life as [their] supreme value,” while building and sustaining their society on violent biopolitical hierarchies.

Bargu emphasized how the die-iN can bring a visual representation to the“differential distribution” of exposure to death and violence by creating a visual, physical, and theatrical representation of how not only marginalized “lives, but also their deaths do not matter” in current respective societal structures. The audience in this space is the everyday passerby, whose daily life is interrupted both spatially and temporally by the protest, which challenges them to come to terms visually with the violence that underlies the “stability” of these democratic societies. 

Ultimately, Bargu reached the conclusion that while a die-in is powerful in its theory and implications, theatrical non-violent protests such as this are not enough to destabilize systems of hierarchical injustice alone. Rather, they serve to embolden a growing sense of change and awareness.

A full account of Bargu’s work can be found on the University of California Santa Cruz website.

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