The Gesture of Tank Man

What is a gesture?

According Giorgio Agamben, a gesture has a specific meaning in Kafka’s writings. It is a self-contained physical event, a means without an end, a non-action action where there is no division between actor and act. That may sound abstract, but Anke Snoek gives a concrete example (Agamben’s Joyful Kafka, Kindle Locations 2192-2200):

“An example of a gesture is the student who faced down a tank on Tiananmen Square. He had no clear goal, he did not shout any slogans, he simply stood there alone in front of the tank. Physically he could never have stopped a tank, so his act had a different meaning . And this gesture confused the political power. This image, which travelled over the whole world, is somewhat more anonymous than, for example , the revolutionary icon Che Guevara. This image has no author, no proclamations.

“For Agamben, gesture plays an important role in the dismantling of sovereign power. Gesture is an opportunity for life to throw sand into the cogs of the machinery of law and politics. Crucial to understanding gesture, it is important to realize that in Agamben this ‘throwing sand’ is gestural and hence is not at all a matter of political activism, of overthrowing power – which always threatens to become stuck in the same structure as that which it fights. Nor is it a matter of using the law or sovereign power in the right way. Rather, it is a matter of playing with the law, confusing it in a way that renders it inoperative.”

This is a great example.

Even when I was younger, I sensed how unusual that incident was. It was so simple and yet so perplexing. It didn’t fit expectations. I suspect even that guy standing there didn’t know what to expect. Surely, that wasn’t how he expected his day would turn out, confronting a tank armed with nothing but his body.

This lone man before a tank wasn’t hoping for freedom in that unplanned and unpredictable moment. He was looking not for escape or freedom, but for a way out.

As Snoek explains (Kindle Locations 358-375):

“Kafka’s ideas on imprisonment, catastrophe, freedom and ways out are not as simple as they might seem on the first reading of, for example, The Trial . The short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ provides further insight into the type of freedom that Kafka had in mind. The hunting expedition of the Hagenbeck Company captured an ape. To train him, they put him in a very small cage on the company’s steamboat, a cage that was too low for him to stand up and too small for him to sit down. At the same time the sailors tormented him. The ape realizes that if he wants to live he has to find a way out. But he does not contrast his distressing situation with freedom: ‘No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever ; I made no other demands ’. 24 The way out is not directed so much to a specific goal, i.e. freedom or return, but is simply a way out. The ape continues his story:

“I am afraid that what I mean by ‘a way out’ will not be clearly understood. I am using it in the most common and also the fullest sense of the word. I deliberately do not say ‘freedom’. I do not mean that great feeling of freedom on all sides. Perhaps I knew it as an ape and I have known human beings who long for it. But as far as I am concerned, I did not ask for freedom either then or now. 25

“What kind of hope does Kafka have in mind when claiming that hope exists? It is not freedom, ‘that great feeling of freedom on all sides’. Kafka has something more modest in mind: a way out. But how can this way out be found? In any case, the ape Red Peter concludes: ‘I no longer know whether escape was possible, but I believe it was; it ought always to be possible for an ape to escape. … I did not do it. What good would it have done me anyway?’ 26 After all, he could be captured again and put in an even smaller cage or be eaten by other animals that are on the boat, such as the large snakes. He could also jump overboard, but then he would probably drown. Flight only means new forms of imprisonment or death.

“Kafka’s characters do not flee.”

That Chinese guy looked so small before that tank. He posed no physical threat. He wasn’t in the tank’s way. No, the tank was in his way. Tank man was not taking action as an activist or a revolutionary. He was going about his day when he found himself before a tank.

He unintentionally found himself in the role of trickster figure, of holy fool. His action could have no purpose or meaning. It could accomplish nothing. The very idea of accomplishing something in that moment by anyone suddenly became moot. It was an action that disallowed action. It wasn’t rational and so did not allow a rational response. It just made no sense. It was crazy.

We refer to him as tank man. No one knows who he was. He became identified with a gesture, the most defiant of symbols.

From the vantage of the viewer, he is seen as a lone figure. The area is clear of all other people. It is just him and the tanks.

Of course, he wasn’t really alone. All attention was on him, the viewer’s gaze frozen, absorbed by his embodied gesture. Most importantly, he had the attention of the tank driver. Tank man and tank driver were alone together, locked in an impossible situation that neither could hope to make sense of. The tank driver had had the tank’s controls in his hands, but he was not in control. No one was.

The movements of the two was a dance. It was an interaction, a fleeting moment shared between two human beings. They could have been anyone.

That moment seized them. And so the viewer was seized as well. That captured moment continues to seize the imagination, long after one witnesses it. A frozen moment in time.

That moment was a temporary space of openness, an autonomous zone. A meeting point between powerlessness and power, impossibility and possibility, unknown and known. The gesture was a non-action action (wu wei) that created a liminal space. It expressed something primal and utterly human. It needed no greater significance than that.

Therein lies its power.


5 thoughts on “The Gesture of Tank Man

  1. Given the direction the US is going, some day, there may end up being an American equal to the “tank man”.

    With the increasing militarization of the police, I fear that being a “tank man” in the US could someday have very serious implications.

  2. You know, somebody once said to me that the 0.1% are the ones that really won the Cold War.

    The oligarchs have taken the money in Russia, and the average living standards are not too good still for most people

    Average people in the West by contrast had higher living standards to begin with, but that’s under siege now. There’s also oligarchs here of course.

    The issue is that back in the Cold War, the fear of communism perhaps led to concessions among the very wealthy which helped lead to the creation of a middle class. The realities of living standards of the USSR, combined with their brutal actions (ex: Hungary in 1956) helped distance from the left and workers.

    I think that to an extent, it was inevitable that the top 0.1% would try to fight to get the wealth concentrated. They’ve never really accepted that the middle class has a right to exist. It’s a moral failing.

    The fall of communism never produced a peace dividend with massive declines in military spending, nor did it lead to improved living standards for the middle class (as we now see). If anything, it may have weakened the bargaining power of workers everywhere.

    • “The issue is that back in the Cold War, the fear of communism perhaps led to concessions among the very wealthy which helped lead to the creation of a middle class.”

      Some argue that the Civil Rights movement was so successful for this reason. The economic and political elite in the US were painfully aware of the criticisms made against our society, criticisms often made by Communist countries. We Americans were called hypocrites for preaching freedom and democracy while Jim Crow remained in place in our own country. The American ruling elite were shamed into accepting change.

      “The fall of communism never produced a peace dividend with massive declines in military spending, nor did it lead to improved living standards for the middle class (as we now see). If anything, it may have weakened the bargaining power of workers everywhere.”

      I believe that our society needs a strong left, both globally and within the US. The Cold War was also a Cold Civil War within countries like the US. The Cold War has its origins in the earliest decades of the 20th century, especially following WWI. It was fear of communism and socialism that fueled the entire Progressive Era.

      Theodore Roosevelt wrote about the socialists and argued that Americans should take their complaints and ideas seriously. He saw the strategy of Progressives was to steal the thunder from socialists by doing the very things that socialists were demanding to be done.

      “many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow.”

      Could you imagine a Republican writing that today? Theodore Roosevelt was born into old money. He believed in having a ruling elite, an enlightened aristocracy. But he was living at a time of radicalism when the left was a real threat. He took the left seriously because he knew the consequences of ignoring them.

      The threat was real. Populist protests and marches had been regular events since the Populist Era when radical left-wing politics really took hold. A growing part of this early 20th century populism included communists, socialists, and Marxists. The early civil rights movement involved many black socialists/communists. The Bonus Army of the early 1930s was perceived as being communist, although it wasn’t, but it was part of the civil unrest feeding into radicalism and left-wing politics.

      When that threat from the left is real, then and only then will real change happen. It isn’t just about putting fear into conservatives and right-wingers. The left-wing has always posed the greatest threat to liberals and progressives, and so that is the weak point of the ruling elite who often like to use liberal and progressive rhetoric. Politicians like Obama are used to talking BS and getting away with it, but make the threat real and all of a sudden the ruling elite would begin to take their own BS seriously and start acting on it.

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