Bulgarians in flames: on the current wave of self-immolation

jana tsonevaIn one of his essays, Zygmunt Bauman (1999) deals with the existential terror induced from having knowledge about the finiteness of our existence. According to Bauman, the pre-modern world could deal with the fear of death by firmly weaving individual existence into the eternity of the afterlife. Two pillars assumed this role in the modern world: the nation and the family. Both offered a safe and unproblematic conversion of individual mortality into collective immortality, in addition to meaning and telos to one’s life. Our contemporary world is marked by the dissolution of these two pillars with the concomitant rise of existential insecurity. The latter is dealt with by slicing and tranching the big fear into smaller, manageable packages of fear indexed with the safety and integrity of the (mortal) body. This strategy of autonomous coping with the inevitable disappearance of the subject enables the individual to engage in obsessive activities (such as weigh loss) precisely to avoid the real issue. Our obsessions repress the traumatic knowledge about dying while supplying us with a surrogate community of similarly distressed individuals abandoned to their own autonomous “being-toward-death”.

In another influential essay, Bauman (2006) links the emergence of the social state itself with the vexing problem of the management of fear that had become all the more acute with the decomposition of pre-modern kinship/organic embedding of the individual. Here the same logic as before obtains: the disintegration of the social state naturally leads to the increase of fear, in any conceivable form: from terror, natural catastrophes, etc. All this sounds very plausible, yet the Bulgarian case points to a possible limitation of the analysis. Namely, what if it is the dissolution of fear itself that is triggered by the undoing of the welfare state and the concomitant demise of its fear-management capabilities? The recent epidemic of suicides, the most dramatic of which have been the seven cases of public self-immolation (four have been fatal) seem to suggest that contrary to Bauman’s expectations, when abandoned to him or herself, the autonomous self-help individual suddenly loses the chains of fear and leaps into the Void.

On March, 12th the first man who set himself on fire died, bringing the protest-related self-immolation casualty ratio to 50%. The day after, which is the day when the new expert-led government of Bulgaria that was appointed by the president took office, there was a fourth self-immolation, exactly in front of the presidency. Three more followed soon after, bringing the total number of self-immolations to seven[1]. The last man who set himself on fire ran 300 meters burning. On March, 24th he passed away after days of battling the coma induced by having burned 95% of the surface of his skin[2]… The same day a 73 year old man attempted to set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace but the guards stopped him at the last moment[3]. He was rushed to the psychiatric hospital but I believe this is the wrong address. A psychiatrist cannot explain the sinister series of suicides, and neither can a sociologist. Perhaps, this is the job of the political economists but they are (still) silent.

 

***

 

In my previous article about the protests in Bulgaria[4], I tried to deal somewhat extensively with the languages of the protests (the synthetic new liberal-nationalist speak behind the empty signifier of the “people’s civil society”) but these acts of self-immolation as well as the numerous other acts that involved fire and burning, showed that we need also to address the limits of “speech” properly so-called. And what is a statement such as public self-immolation if not the ultimate breakdown of language yet precisely because of this, the most radical means available for conveying one’s message? We have been propelled away from the empty signifiers of the protests (=signifiers without a signified) to the paradoxical signfields of death dominated by signified without signifiers. It seems that the experience of the transition has been so nonsensical that it defies reason. The mismatch between the master signifiers of transition which try to organize our understanding of it and people’s actual experience thereof is insurmountable. So the people who set themselves on fire answered the traumatic nonsensical core of “life” after 1989 with the only answer possible: death.

Fire seems to have become a conspicuous symbol of the movement.. the protests began under the heading “Let’s burn down the monopolies” and people flocked the streets burning utility bills to aestheticize their demands for nationalization of the energy providers. This was followed by public burning of the Constitution, the torching of the headquarters of one of the energy providers and the most radical acts were of course the public self-immolations. If we stick to some kind of an elementary, ad hoc understanding of the cathartic symbolic function of fire, the question begs itself: What is Bulgarian society trying to cleanse itself from? My answer was that people try to get rid of politics. What I have tried to argue is that the main operative logic that I see is foreclosure of symbolic mediation. This logic enabled the unproblematic transition from a protest against the foreign mediators between the producer of electricity and the end consumer, to a protest that put radically in question the entire teleology of 1989. Thus, within a weak, the movement changed its objectives: from nationalization of the electricity companies, to a “Revision of the entire transition”, abolition of the political party system, radical diminishing of the members of parliament, etc. The interesting thing is that these demands are put in the language of the transition people are revolting against.

So, on the one hand people deploy the liberal language of civil society, transparency and so on. On the other, they mix it with the nationalist register and aesthetics: the protests are dominated by the national flag, 19th century national-liberation songs and images of national heroes, and so on. In a way, people have preserved the liberal shell of their discourse but have evacuated its anti-etatist content. In fact, they are very etatist: the demands for the government to nationalize and finally organize itself in such a way as to provide the conditions for a “decent life” point to their etatism. (This organization happens more and more to be envisaged as a function of direct civil society take over of the state.) The deployment of the anti-political synthetic liberal-nationalist language is not just a matter of habit and immanent availability. The language of the national and civil society contain an efficacy of their own: they have an unmistakably post-political charge which feeds into the protesters’ own vision for a post-political, conflict-free harmony. The national language contains an ontology of “we are beyond left and right, we are all Bulgarians!”. The (neo)liberal is anti-political due to 1980s dissidents’ conceptualization of “civil society” as a safe haven from the overly politico-ideological pressures of the totalitarian state.

Let us recall that both Masters and Slaves share the universal values of civil society, transparency, anti-mafia, national development, and so on. The symbolic register they use is virtually identical and there is a complete overlap.  Nevertheless, communication fails absolutely. The protesters say “experts and civil society!” and the president who appointed the new government answers “but of course, here are the experts who will serve civil society’s interests, not party interests.” And yet, at this precise moment, another self-immolation happened exactly in front of the presidency. Communication thus fails. Something eludes it. What is this something? I hypothesize it is an excess unsymbolizable by the languages and ideology stabilizing the post-1989 situation. It is the political economy which, having been purged from all political content, is left intact to exert the effects that provoked the protest in the first place. What provides this clue is the following piece of protester propaganda:

 

New Picture-png

 

The picture reads “For 45 years only one party ruled Bulgaria. Back then, the bread used to cost 30 stotinki, the bus ticket – 6, yogurt – 23, the cooking oil: only 1 lev. More than 20 years have passed and today there are many political parties but bread costs over 1 lev, the bus ticket is 1 lev and the oil – 3 leva. Conclusion: it’s cheaper to maintain one parasite, rather than tens of them…”

This picture condenses a particularly widespread opinion today that it is the great number of parties and members of parliament who suck the resources that otherwise should be spent on the nation. Don’t we see the contours of a competitive struggle over the debris of the welfare state? An article in the influential newspaper “24 hours,” published in relation to the protests, openly praises the non-partisan regime established with the fascist coup d’etat in 1934 because instead of wasting time in meaningless debates in parliament, the political leaders of the country could focus all their pragmatic efforts for the development of the economy.[5] I thus take the whole anti-political “people’s civil society” discourse as pointing to something that is beyond itself: the political economy is the hidden void around which the desire of “civil society” protests circulates but does not quite reach. Subjected to a logic of permanent displacement, the anti-party rhetoric functions a little bit the way anti-Semitism did in Nazi rhetoric: it personifies the abstract “iron laws” of capital by substituting concrete individual substances (literally, concrete political leaders) for the abstract, impersonal form of capital accumulation. In the process, of course, the anti-capitalist struggle is displaced yet sometimes the phantasmatic distortion is the only entry to the unsymbolizable Real of the capitalist antagonism..

The synthetic post-political “people’s civil society” aims at nipping all sources of disunity in the bud. The biggest such source is capitalism itself, even if direct references to it are not present in the protesters’ rhetoric. Nevertheless, there are signs that the protests can be radicalized towards a more explicit anti-capitalist agenda: for example, their firm grounding of all evil in “1989” rather than before that, the conspicuous lack of anti-communist rhetoric, the incorporation of the struggle against the privatization of the national railways into the movement..

That’s why we should not be dismissive of the protests’ (structurally necessary) ideological inconsistency but radicalize their intolerance towards social antagonism and encourage their utopian-totalitarian impulse to achieve a conflict-free society. Even if it signs the death sentence of the political properly so-called.

To conclude, we are clearly facing here not just an instance of the redescription of the concept of “civil society” but the intermediary sphere itself, with full self-consciousness of itself as a civil society, that paradoxically tries to cancel all mediation. In this way, it tends to self-cancellation. People want an order free of all antagonism and representation. An order where everyone stands for himself and in perfect harmony with others. This is what people want: an order free of the elementary two conditions with make the political as such. If we assume that the political is ontincally expressed through structures of mediation like parties, parliaments, etc which channel the fundamental structural antagonisms in modern capitalist society, then the demands of the protesters aim at the heart of the political itself but also of capitalism (potentially). If by some impossible stroke of luck they get what they want, can we still call the new social configuration civil society? I think that by engineering the desperate push to cleanse the political system once and for all of its constitutive excess the protests’ potentially radical anti-systemic nature is actualized. Should they remove the anomalous excess which annoys them so much, but which sustains the system, they will disintegrate the system itself. What is an attempt at reforming the system, i.e. “authentic civil society after the fake one” may well result in the sublation of that system. They might not be happy with the result: i.e. no civil society at all, instead of just a better one but the risk is totally worth taking.

Needless to say, the crucial question is how to actualize the revolutionary transformation? Let us go back to the self-immolation cases. In self-immolation the subject and object of violence coincide while the moment of “divine” violence against the system is yet to come… Even though the acts are a sign of total desperation rather than revolutionary zeal, they are still poignant acts of protest and are thus in the situation.. The upshot is that people have stopped fearing and this is the most dangerous moment for any status quo. The crucial question is how to convert the loss of private fear of death into a fearless collective annihilation of the situation? How to externalize the auto-destructive impulse? Perhaps the answer is already coded in the question. Heraclitus thought that fire is the primordial element because it transforms one substance into another without being a substance itself. Can we perhaps think of fire as a peculiar catalyst that facilitates a reaction and then disappears? Fire mediates between the potenz and actuality of collective fearlessness but in the process cancels itself, vanishes. Naturally, this is not just a question of fire but of a subject on fire who is about to die.. The subject undoes himself but the flame of his private death will sign the death sentence of the situation.

 



[1]     6 by some counts because one of the cases, of a middle-aged woman, was dismissed as the culmination of a series of suicide-attempts related to the woman’s mental health and not related to the protest. However, I think the timing of the act indicates that we should count it among the protest-related suicides. In addition, the very fact that she set herself on fire as against other ways of putting end to her life indexes her suicide to the other cases..

[5]        http://www.24chasa.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=1838046&fb_action_ids=589158544445033&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={%22589158544445033%22%3A278409285624559}&action_type_map={%22589158544445033%22%3A%22og.likes%22}&action_ref_map=[]

 

8 Responses to Bulgarians in flames: on the current wave of self-immolation

  1. Ioan Ț Mortuar says:

    horrible! horrible! it starts with 2 references to Bauman and then go on to talk about the language of the protests????

    1. do you ppl get out of your seminar rooms?
    2. do you ppl have an intuitive understanding of the theoretical framework/conceptual apparatus that you work with? if yes, why dafaq don’t you write such that someone with no higher education in humanities/social sciences can understand what you are saying? for ex. someone like the ppl setting themselves on fire…. or their families, friends, colleagues…
    3. who is your audience? other ppl in seminar rooms?
    4. if you go out on the streets, is there anything that you can say to the ppl protesting such that they understand what you say and it gives them a better (and novel?) perspective of the problems that they are confronting?
    5. if you write like this, do you really wonder that the extreme right wing tells a more successful story?

  2. jana says:

    you seem to hold a pretty low opinion about “the people from the protests”. it transpires from your comment that the protesters are a bunch of idiots, susceptible to neo-nazi manipulation because they cannot understand a sentence longer than 5 words.
    please, have more faith in the people you support. they are not so stupid.

  3. Ioan Ț Mortuar says:

    jana,
    who is your audience?

    i don’t have a low opinion about the protestors. nor did i say that they’re not able to understand ‘sentences of more than 5 words’.
    but with full honesty do you expect anyone with no high education in social-sciences/humanities to understand these things in the very same words? “Zygmunt Bauman (1999) deals with the existential terror induced from having knowledge about the finiteness of our existence. According to Bauman, the pre-modern world could deal with the fear of death by firmly weaving individual existence into the eternity of the afterlife. Two pillars assumed this role in the modern world: the nation and the family. Both offered a safe and unproblematic conversion of individual mortality into collective immortality, in addition to meaning and telos to one’s life. Our contemporary world is marked by the dissolution of these two pillars with the concomitant rise of existential insecurity. The latter is dealt with by slicing and tranching the big fear into smaller, manageable packages of fear indexed with the safety and integrity of the (mortal) body. This strategy of autonomous coping with the inevitable disappearance of the subject enables the individual to engage in obsessive activities (such as weigh loss) precisely to avoid the real issue. Our obsessions repress the traumatic knowledge about dying while supplying us with a surrogate community of similarly distressed individuals abandoned to their own autonomous “being-toward-death”. “Subjected to a logic of permanent displacement, the anti-party rhetoric functions a little bit the way anti-Semitism did in Nazi rhetoric: it personifies the abstract “iron laws” of capital by substituting concrete individual substances (literally, concrete political leaders) for the abstract, impersonal form of capital accumulation. In the process, of course, the anti-capitalist struggle is displaced yet sometimes the phantasmatic distortion is the only entry to the unsymbolizable Real of the capitalist antagonism..

    The synthetic post-political “people’s civil society” aims at” bla bla…. in fact 90% of your article is like that.

    i’m one of the idiots who doesn’t understand any of the things above… (nor do i understand 90% of your article).

    can you explain in layman’s terms what you just wrote?

  4. Bulgarian says:

    I was protesting too and I appreciate various radical perspectives on what is going on. We don’t need only slogans, we need also empowerment via knowing. I think the article is amazing as much of the rest on that website! Indeed there is no universal language. For instance, here we communicate in English. A language that is not shared by all, but that is no reason to stop using it, as abandoning language for its lack of universality would mean to abandon any communication and be silent.

  5. Jana, I’ve read both of your pieces, and I’ve found no message. What is it that you wish to convey to your readers? What is your conclusion from the plethora of facts that you report? Give us your take; we’re not interested in the deliberations of a remote philosopher who is concealing his own fear of mortality behind sophisticated rhetoric – the guy is irrelevant.

    I was redirected to this site because I’ve commented to an article entitled “Self-immolation is not as new to Bulgaria as you might think.” The message being contained in the title, the author cites research from which – incorrectly – she derives an average expectancy of 7.4 cases of self-immolation per annum! In other words, the – non specified – subtitle would read along the lines of “Well, nothing to worry about, until the count exceeds the average.”

    Because I find this a deliberate attempt (by the publisher, Foreign Policy Magazine) to deceive the external world – otherwise it would qualify for a morbid mockery – I’ve written an essay of my own (http://zaedno.mobi/Zaedno/NEWSLETTERS_files/On%20reading%20the%20signs%20of%20Vox%20Populi.pdf).

    The conclusions in it are as well the conclusions you failed to provide here: the wave of self-immolations is just a component of the revolution that has started in Bulgaria, a drive that inevitably – after a couple of more pushes – will bring about system change.

    Some years back I’ve authored a book, “Bulgaria, terra europeansis incognita,” in which I’ve suggested that Nomenklaturocracy (the degenerated representative democracy) is inevitably going to be replaced by direct democracy. One of the chapters therein is entitled “The basic economic considerations underpinning the upcoming revolution in Bulgaria.” The other forecast concerns the integrity of the EU – I’ve presented the case that it can not possibly continue for too long in its original concept and form. Just a few years later, today the beginning of the disintegration of EU is a fact, and so is the revolution in Bulgaria. Accordingly, this is the significance of your reports to me: the wave of self-immolations, along with the protest marches, marks the end of individual passive resentment and the beginning of formation of groups and clusters. This time around the masses will be cheated upon, by the Nomenklatura, no doubt, and a “new” Government will emerge, just to keep the Nomenklatura’s business as usual. However, a year or two later, wave after wave, the moment will come, to pay for the crime of robbing the majority of Bulgarians from their future, marginalizing them and pushing them to the brink.

  6. Virginia Curry says:

    The remarks of Ivan Daraktchiev regarding the tragedy of the human suffering of the Bulgarian (BG) peoples being exposed now in revolution is the only clear thing in these posts. The deep poverty and degradation of the BG people is being explosively revealed and is at the crux of the matter which should not be obfusicated by sophomoric drivel from the main author here. The population of BG are net contributors to the EU – not net recipients as Ivan D. proves in his other writings. Tragically, BG was not a beneficariary under capitalistic “democracy” in 1989. The same continuing oligarchs (Nomens in his words) maintained and solidified power and profit viz-a-viz the citizens through such as rapes of prime timber and “energy investments”, and more, which line only their pockets and made the poor poorer. All natural resource wealth of the nation ss being raped. Intellectuals have fled. People are freezing, starving and dying via self-immolation. Read Ivan D.! V. Curry, JD,MIM

  7. Pingback: Procreation and Protest: Bulgarian Capitalism’s Children | LeftEast

LeftEast is a platform that supports free expression in a climate of equally free speech for all persons that want to participate. This is why we shall moderate any comments that engage in discrimination, fighting words, or lead to an obstruction of dialogue and we shall ban the involved user from our community. Unless signed by the editorial board, articles do not necessarily express the opinion of the editorial board as a whole, but are positions within larger debates we would like to bring to the attention of our readers.