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.