Knuckles to Fists


Knuckle tattoos, a raised fist in the air, fisting, fighting, flexing, the grip of the hand. The knuckles’ power comes from the space between the hand and the outside world, a way of considering the mutual contingency of individual and collective, subjective and universal, personal and political, symbolic and material. I love knuckles. I especially appreciate the formal constraints of the knuckle tattoo of typically two, four-letter words.  Despite the fact that knuckles never go flaccid, my knuckle tats read “LIMP DICK.”  It’s not the irony that I’m after, it’s about insisting on forms and symbols that cannot be reduced to sloganeering. My round and knobby knuckle mountains become smooth, flat plateaus–launch pads for disaster and desire. They’re perfect for drawing lines. There are invisible geometries – the trajectory of the punch or the fist thrust into the air. The slow push of your fist inside of me. Lines of force and connection, trajectories of affinities and enemies. There are visible geometries, too – blue veins travel from the inked lines down over my soft, bony hands and up my arms.  It is the landscape of my hand. It contains various kinds of touching. Guy Ben-Ari, Demonstrating Protest, 2011, Acrylic and ink on paper, Courtesy of the artist and Artis The raised fist is a common image, symbol, and action of strength, resilience, opposition, and solidarity. It literally means as much in sign language. Even though it’s an appendage known for its ability to extend, it is often depicted as a disembodied form, cut off at the wrist. Seeing Sharon Hayes’ grid of 600 flyers reminded me how copiously this image has been used in recent U.S. history.  This work, titled Join Us, takes up the majority of a large wall in Hayes’ current show There’s so much I want to say to you on view at the Whitney Museum.  It is comprised of letter-sized flyers reproduced from various protests and organizations working over the past 40 years. The flyers, organized thematically in clusters, flow seamlessly one into the next. Images promoting strikes sit beside calls against war, then into anti-colonialism, queer liberation, police violence, black liberation, and on and on.  Raised fists are one prevalent motif depicted throughout the various clusters-Black power fists, May Day fists, student strike fists, divestment from South Africa fists-making visible the U.S. history of this icon, its use in distinct yet interconnected movements and moments.  The collection of photocopied, often handmade flyers, testifies to the accumulation of diverse experiences. Sharon Hayes, An Ear to the Sounds of our History (Longest Day), 2011.  Collection of the artist; courtesy Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin At this year’s May Day march, I found myself putting my fist not only in the air, but also in my mouth, in disagreement and listening. I was also happy to be a body and to be able, if only temporarily, to weave slowly in and out of streets, feeling the rush of my body taking up space and squeezing it between other bodies.  I moved from park to park, from blockaded street corners to sanctioned street protests, and from gatherings of small group discussions at the Free University to the large numbers of people on the more popular route of the main march. I felt myself inhabiting more kinds of space than usual. I walked around with a handful of questions. What does it mean for the individual body to take up space? How can an individual claim territory? How have individuals joined other bodies to enact something symbolically or physically? With what means and with whom do we take up space? Of course, I was thinking of Judith Butler.  In Bodies In Alliance and the Politics of the Streets she writes: Human action depends upon all sorts of supports – it is always supported action. But in the case of public assemblies, we see quite clearly not only that there is a struggle over what will be public space, but a struggle as well over those basic ways in which we are, as bodies, supported in the world – a struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment.  Of course, this produces a quandary. We cannot act without supports, and yet we must struggle for the supports that allow us to act. Yes, what about support? What about the rest of the body that holds that fist up (again, both literally in terms of the physical body and figuratively in terms of the social body)? A similar quandary was recently brought up at We Who Feel Differently (Carlos Motta’s project represented not by a fist, but an open palm). For the kick-off symposium at the New Museum, a panel of academics, activists, and artists, was brought together to discuss difference as a queer strategy in art, politics, and society. A question was posed, at the very end, after hours of talking about the brilliant force and many forms of feeling differently:  How can we “opt out” and still make our presence known? Opting out is to reject any number of obvious forms of recognition. On the one hand, we must each make our presence known in our demand for support, human rights and dignity. We deserve to be safe. We deserve simple acts of being. But what if we don’t have the support needed to act or to make our presence known and our opinions heard? What if the support we have as individuals goes against greater collective desires?  What if we opt out of the known forms of support? What if our presence takes an oppositional form? How do we balance our individual and collective desires when they are divergent? It is risky to be irreducible – to stand strong with a limp wrist, to not know how to package yourself into a delectable ham-fist. This is to be somewhere on an outer borderland, to risk invisibility. It is the risk of being cut off, mere digit, a lone Vienna sausage. The tight closing of the knuckles into a fist may represent a real threat of violence for many of us. It may also look like consensual play.  While fisting can be done alone, it typically involves at least two people in what Bert Herman calls “sensual and spiritual art of handballing.”  In his work, Trust – the Hand book, fisting activates the energy that moves between people with trust as a form of flow requiring patience, humility, empathy, and sophisticated communication.  All parties involved in fisting are agents of power; receiving a fist in your ass, while possibly a form of submission, is also an active form of power.  Sometimes your greatest power is your willingness to be nervous, scared, uncertain, or in pain. Pain can become pleasure or simply be pleasure. In thinking of this flow of power between people, the private has political import as my understanding of myself is blurred between your fist and my ass, between within and without. Angela Beallor, Fingers & Fists #6 and #13, 2009 The willingness to share power so that we cannot be seen as isolated beings is to understand one of the things the Surrealists got right – that the body fragmented is a body that gets to be rearranged with new juxtapositions, but not one that gets to isolate the interior from the exterior.  The dismembered body is also an image of potential anxiety (as in Freud’s fear of his willy getting cut off) or in Gérard de Nerval’s Le Main Enchantée (The Enchanted Hand), where a hand takes on a life of its own and brutally kills its opponent in a duel.  The hand lives on, even after the body has been hanged. I see the raised fist as similar: potential threat of violence or solidarity, it moves in and out of different potentialities. I am a person who finds isolation both anxiety producing and full of potential. I also find gatherings of people full of potential and anxiety producing. As we stood in the gathering of the protest rally, I was mouthing the chant, but my mind was somewhere else. I held my fist in the air when everyone else did, but I was not sure that I meant it. Or what it would mean to mean it. This happens quite frequently in protests. I participated as one of several thousand people in the Father’s Day Silent March against Racial Profiling and Stop and Frisk. I went alone without a friend or an organizational affiliation. Aside from the union with which my dad works, I ran into very few people I knew. I was surprised not to see more familiar faces. I was disappointed in myself that I did not know more people there. The silence of the march as we shuffled down 5th Avenue was potent. I focused on listening to the shuffling feet around me, to people breathing, people whispering, to my own breath. I paid attention to my feet marching on the ground. I thought about what it means to listen – how powerful it can be and how we are so fixated on action that we dismiss listening as simply passive. When so many people are deliberately kept out of the national dialogue, those with privilege of access (the privilege of seeming legitimate, of being taken seriously, of speaking in ways that will be heard without disparagement, of being able to speak at all) need to think deeply about listening – and about the deep listening inside oneself. The disembodied wrist could be a signifier for internal disintegration or isolation. What is the power of the fist without the mind, without the heart, or without those with which we are intertwined? Alternately, as a disembodied referent, can the fist also be seen as a prosthetic, a place for making new meanings? Can that same floating fist be a dildo, used for new kinds of connection or pleasure, or building new kinds of bodies and alliances? The myriad forms of protest and organizing happening today can’t all be seen. There are quiet hands, unknown hands, invisible hands, ghost hands. Small groups are creating space and time to do the hard work of listening and fighting back; coming together to belong and to disagree, to dialogue, to protest. We are gathering up the random fists, the spare knuckles, the missing parts. We are building new bodies. We are altering our bodies. We are working hard to accept our current bodies. We are working on new social bodies. I reach inside myself, feel around, and face myself alone. I crack my knuckles, flex my fingers, and stretch out my hands.   Works Cited Bate, Dave. Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent; 2004

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