Kathy Walker

Bodies on the line


It was a cold January morning and the Shoreham line had run out of firewood.  Jonnie and I, we volunteered to go scout around in the woods and try to find some dead branches for burning.  There was some snow, some garbage and some good burnable wood.  We made a bit of a pile.  Meandering through the leafless trees my eye landed on a good-find branch, partly buried under some snow and dead leaves.  I yanked at the branch, tried to get it loose.  I managed to get the branch, but my struggle rearranged things.  There was a bit of movement, iced over snow broke apart, leaves resettled and branches that my branch had been leaning on fell into a new places.  Something rolled towards me and stopped at my feet.

At first I couldn't make out what it was.  Then I could make it out but couldn't believe what I was seeing.  A penis!  A white, kind of translucent hollow mold of a penis.  The edges at the base of the penis were uneven and it was clear that this was not a professional penis relica. Besides had it been a pro-penis copy I suspect it would have offered some Barbie-plastic hyperbole, instead it was just regular size.

At first I was shocked and then laughing I called Jonnie over.  He agreed that it was a penis then, he agreed that it was funny.  And we, the two of us, we stood there in the dead woods, near the picket line, in the cold mean winter morning, in that low on the horizon light, laughing at a white, kind of transclucent thick-latex penis replica.  And we laughed hard -tears streamed down my face. 



I didn't really want to touch the penis but I felt compelled to bring it back to the line.  With a bit of a gloved-hand-struggle I eventually I managed to wriggle the penis onto the end of a stick.  I brought it over to the line and showed my comrades.  I stood by the empty fire barrel and as people circled by with their picket-line placards, I showed them my-penis-on-a-stick. First circle past the penis most people were a little bit shocked. Second circle past the penis, people were mainly laughing --at the penis and likely at me. Third circle past the penis, some people were still laughing others were beginning to find the joke tiring. Fourth circle past the penis, women for the most part were still laughing--making jokes about size and castration complexes, and men were looking a little fed-up. Fifth circle past the penis, some guy asked "Are you going to stand there with that all day?".

I was infinitely amused and really I think I could have stood there all day parading my penis-on-a-stick. Looking around I noticed that most people were no longer interested in my penis and that now I was the only person still laughing. By this time Jonnie had gone back to the woods to collect our pile of firewood. The fire-barrel fire was raging. Feeling embarrassed that my joke had ended without me, I threw my penis into the fire. I watched as it sizzled, burned and melted away.    

      First of all, I have to swear that this really, really happened…"not a word of a lie", "cross my heart" etc.  (Note: immediately I am here invoking and insisting on a certain real).  What makes this real-penis-imitation so phenomenal is on one hand its relationship to the symbolic: Why a penis? Why not a finger?. And on the other hand itse relationship to the body: "Gross, icky! An unknown penis. I don't want to touch it.  Use gloves. Put it on a stick". Reflecting back on the strike this penis-in-the-woods stands out.  It was for me one of the most startling, most hilarious, most impressive strike moments.  And it has led me to question the relationship between the symbolic and the body and how this relationship was played out in the York University CUPE strike. 



2. In this "the summer of protest", it was a typical protest.  It is terrible to say such things -to liquidate meaning and specifics from the activism.  Nonetheless, it was a typical protest.  We the people were in the street.  We had our causes, our speakers, our drums and our bodies.  And they the cops, they had their brawn, their bullet-proof vests, their horses and their guns.  They came and they asked us to move.  We refused.  They insisted that we move and threatened us with "trouble".  We shifted but didn't move.  They, the cops they started pushing us.  We pushed back.  A few of us, accompanied by a few of them, went to jail.  Mainly though, we the people, we went home and they the cops, they went home.     

Although I have said that this protest was not unlike other protests, there were some specifics that inspired me to think about what really happens at protests and demos. 

Right before the police showed up at this early evening late summer protest, I ran into my friend J.  I know J from a certain Toronto party-scene and he's the kind of guy that I would expect to see at some dark-early-morning-loud-techno-chemically-charged affair.  I was surprised to see him out protesting.  We talked a bit.  He seemed to have some vague sense of the issues at hand.  He gave me a flyer for some party and then we each meandered our own ways.

The police showed up and tensions started rising.  The crowd of people, shoved by the police, was retreating.  Walking ahead of me there was a woman, dressed all in white, white shirt, white ballerina skirt, white legs, white shoes.  She was small and I thought that she was about the same size as me and that she kind of looked like a fairy.  Admist the crowd of colorful protestors she -fluttering- stood out.  Suddenly she began running and two cops ran after her.  I rushed to see what was happening.  I couldn't really tell what was going on --well actually in one sense it was completely clear, she was being arrested.  What wasn't clear was why, why she ran, why they wanted her, why her fairy-girl body was surrounded?  Why this small same-size-as-me girl was being pushed up against a wall by big-man-machine cops with guns and horses.  


Protestors ran to her rescue and chanted. "Shame!, Shame!, Shame!"  I chanted too.  The horses came and cleared the protestors away.  And when the crowd dispersed the fairy-girl was gone.  I felt winded, felt shocked, horrified.  Something about seeing a body --a body that I could identify with, an about-the-same-size-as-mine body-- assaulted.  I asked some cops what happened. Where was she?  Why did you take her?  What did she do?  They shrugged and said they knew nothing. 

      The protest dwindled.  Most people went home, some went to the police station to protest the arrest of the fairy-girl.  (For the record, there were in fact several people arrested --apparently for vandalism with side-walk chalk).  I, still startled, lingered.  I wasn't quite sure what to do.  Then I noticed a crowd of protesters gathered together.  I approached.  I was surprised to find that the crowd was gathered around J who was talking to a cop.  J was insisting that things were not right.  He was looking for answers and insisting that what had happened did not cohere with what he thought was fair. 

Later reflecting back on the event, in particular on J, I began to formulate what really happens as protests -people become politicized.  J  that particular evening was politicized.  He was at the protest for fuzzy reasons, maybe only to hand out party-flyers, but the course of events, the arrest of the fairy-girl inspired him to articulate what he though was fair and right, what he thought was acceptable and what he though was unacceptable. 

Ultimately police bullying, the arrest of the fairy-girl, or QC tear-gas has a phenomenal power to politicize.  There is something about seeing a body assaulted, having your body assaulted, being pushed around or getting poisoned that really wakes people up, makes them mad and makes them articulate what they need and want.






I was ten and it was the dawn of the eighties, in California.  My family had moved from a downtown east-coast urban to the land of sunshine and luxury cars.  It was the early days of the computer revolution, the real heyday of Silicon Valley opulence. 

We lived on the Stanford Campus where my father was teaching.  My sisters and I went to the campus school and our classmates were the children of professors and also from the surrounding neighborhoods, from Palo Alto and the well-heeled "Hills".  They were rich, richer that I could really understand.  Their parents had voted for Reagan and they all lived in homes with tennis courts, swimming pools, and horses.   

The new-girl at school I was the outsider.  I lied and made up stories that I thought would make me popular -told tall tales about smoking, sneaking-out at night and kissing boys.  But despite my descriptive ingenuity I couldn't make up for my never-the-right-brand clothes, for my hippie mom who drove a bicycle not a Mercedes, and for my lame no-swimming-pool, no-horseback-riding, macaroni-collage-making birthday party.

It was this year, this tenth year, this California sunshine year that I became a Marxist.  It was a babysitter night and we were up past bedtime watching television -a movie, a James Bond movie.  The movie, faster and sexier than my typical television diet, was exciting.  I was particularly taken by the villain, a cunning, sexy, Russian spy woman.  My parents came home sometime before the movie ended, so I never got to see her inevitable demise. 

That night I dreamt that I was the Russian spy girl.  I could ski, could shoot a gun, could speak ten languages, and with a slight hike of my skirt, get 007 crawling.  The next morning before school I woke up a bit early and with paper scissors, trying to fashion the sassy bob of my spy-herione, I cut my hair.  I did a lousy job; it was uneven and the bangs were too short.  But I didn't care, head held high, that day at school I announced my new politics:  "I am a communist".  My Reagan-family classmates drew back in horror.  I was no longer an unpopular girl.  Now I was a bad-girl, a crazy-girl, a wrong-girl, a commie-girl. 



It was in this moment, where I took politics on to my body and where politics emotionally protected me from playground failures, when I was first politicized.  What I would like to suggest here then is that moment of political awakening need not be based on a rational, well thought out, analyzed, mature, responsiable decision.  Becoming politicized can, happen accidentally, happen for ostensibly silly childish reasons, happen because of playground dynamics and bad hair cuts that linger.  Theoretical determinations are not present in moments of political awakening.  Theory happens afterwards.  Politics is first something that happens to your body and to your non-rational self. 

I have carried my Marxist politics with me since this first ten-year-old political awakening.  I have read, written and talked Marx.  But it wasn't until this past year, this new millennium year, this strike year, this Quebec City tear gas year that I felt really political.  Here then, like the ten-year-old-bad-hair-cut me, I was not just talking the talk, now again I was walking the walk.  And this political awakening was again something that happened to my body and to my emotional self. 



One of the most memorable experiences of being on strike was the physical discomfort of the strike.  The fatigue.  The cold.  Recognizing that as strikers we were involved in a very real experience of bodily pain, the role of the body in the structure of the labour strike incites some questioning.  Was it really necessary to be out there picketing?  Was the picket-line merely symbolic?  Could we have achieved the same results if we had just not gone to work? 

Elaine Scarry in The Body In Pain considers that role that the body and language play in the "making" and "unmaking" of civilization.  Considering the unmakings, she describes the way in which the body is situated within the structures of torture and war. Then, examining civilization's makings, Scarry turns to Biblical and Marxists texts. Here then, Scarry's arguments regarding the body, pain, and civilization's unmakings and makings, can provided interesting insights into the role played by the striking-body.

In both torture and war it is the body's relationship to voice that is essential.  In pain, Scarry argues, one can discern the relationship between the body and voice.  Pain more than any other bodily phenomenon defies language.  Try to describe your headache, your menstrual cramps, your back ache, your frost-bite. It's not easy.  It is in this sense that pain can be understood to break down the voice.  Pain because it resists so strongly against being articulated can be understood in terms of its ability to destroy the voice.  This relationship between the body in pain and the voice can be mapped out in the structures of torture and war.  The torturer destroys the voice of the tortured.  War is a fight for an international voice -the victor's voice becomes the true and the voice of the defeated is destroyed.


Now clearly, there is a body involved in the labour strike, the workers body.  And this body experiences varying degrees of pain and discomfort.  Picket-line can be deathly cold, sun-stroke hot. Picket-line feet get blistered-sore and frost-bite-cold, picket-line lungs get congested and picket-line throats becomes infected.  Following Scarry's argument then the structure of the labour strike can be understood in terms of the voice, the body and pain.  One can discern in the labour strike some elements that are similar to the structure of torture and others that are similar to the structure of war. 

In terms of the voice torture is characterized by a monologism.  The torturer through pain destroys the tortured's voice, literally "gouges it out of him'.  In torture there is one voice --the interrogator's questioning.   

In terms of the body, the structure of torture is such that there is only one body in play -the body in pain, the body of the tortured. 

The labour strike is structurally similar to torture in so far as there is only one body, i.e, the body of the striker.  The body of adminstration, the capilatist, the owner of the means of production, sitting back warm in comfortable chairs, does experience pain.  The body of administration is, like the body of the torturer, not in play. 


As with torture the labour strike is a battle over voice.  The adminstration battles to annihilate the worker's voice.  There is however a very important difference between the strike and torture.  With torture there is no agreement or consent whereas with the labour strike there is a consential agreement to enter into the labour contest.  In this sense the labour strike is more like war than it is like torture.      

War, Scarry notes, is premised on a mutual agreement to enter into a contest in which the prize is the voice.  In this sense the strike and the war bear similarities.  In both situations there is an agreement to enter into the struggle and in both situations the victor wins language.  However the fact that in the strike there is only one body in play, i.e., the collective-body of the strikers, resists against equating the strike with war. 

Scarry further argues that while torture is morally intolerable, war is morally amibiguous.  She suggests that the structure of war is such that it is possible -though not certain- that the element of injury could be replaced.  Torture, according to Scarry is evil's dead-end.  War on the other hand, bears the potential of being reworked into a non-violent contest.   Does the fact that the strike bears affinities with torture, mean that the strike -morally speaking- is even worse than war?  Does this then insist that in order for the strike to escape being torture-like it must engage the body of the administration. Or similarly, revoke the body of the striker?


What is crucial here is the recognition that the striker's body is involved not in the acute pain of torture but in a prolonged discomfort --a discomfort not unlike that of work.  Thus while the pain experienced in torture serves to destroy the voice, the bodily discomfort of the picket line presents a qualitatively different situation.   

Scarry remarks that while pain destroying the voice functions as an unmaking --the tortured's world is unmade through pain (consider 1984, Winston's world view that 2+2=4 is deconstructed through the torture)-- the discomfort of work is quite the opposite, i.e. work makes a world. In fact it is precisely through the prolonged discomfort experienced in work that humanity has created its civilization.   

 Thus the situation is this: the administrator wields pain against the body of the worker and in so doing attempts to destroy the workers voice.  The worker simulataneously through the embodied discomfort of the picket-line work resists against this destructive assault of the adminstrator.  The discomfort of the picket-line work serves as a making which sustains and nourishes the workers voice. 

Nourishing words: there were the union meetings where big-political discourses and collective barginning gesticulation were wound up, impassioned festivals of language: all of us saying important things really meaning it all. But also there were the less important, though no less important line-conversations and picket-banter. Anna and I, the two of were eleven-year-old girls making-up hopscotch rhymes about people we thought to be sexy. And there were the 20-question-style-killing-time games. And the explain-your-dissertation-before-the-coffee-truck-returns chats. And the chanting, the (infamous) shoreham stretch up up upp with wages, down down down with tution. strettttttcccccchh the budget (to the left) stretttttccchhh the budget (to the right) feel the burn...lorna, feel the burn ...lorna" : This is the crux of the whole thing: while we were out there cold, a bit miserable, and tired, we were all talking. The discomfort of the picket-line, unlike the pain of torture, did not destroy our voice. On the contrary, being out there with our bodies, all together, commiserating, nutured a really important social, political, and personal loquaciousness.



  I have presented here a series of politically situation body-language collisions: the penis-replica as both material and symbolic, protests as an ideological articulation and as a physical knee-jerk to police aggression, an originary embodied political mimesis and the relationship between picket-line discomfort and a political voice. Through these considerations it becomes clear that politics is about language, voice, ideology and politics is about bodies.