February 25, 2020
Chop chop: the liberatory militancy of guillotine memes
By Tim Bruno
activist, teacher and scholar who researches the symbolic power of rebellious violence in American literatures
Guillotine memes, as a form of imaginative militant discourse, encompass new cultural and political possibilities for anti-authoritarian organizing in the US.
They dropped suddenly. Anarchists tattooed guillotines down their arms. Outside the office of Virginia Governor and sometimes blackface performer Ralph Northam, protesters chanted lyrics by hip-hop group The Coup: “We got the guillotine, / you better run.” Edgy internet posters memed portraits of history’s great fools and losers next to images of the “choppy boi,” asking, “Who would win?” In colonized Puerto Rico, activists errected a full-scale replica guillotine in the streets. Even Jane Fonda approved of this new symbol of radical discontent.
But the most shocking instance came in early 2019, when none other than the reformist AFL-CIO responded to Delta Airline’s union-busting campaign with an image of a guillotine, done up in the blocky efficiency of emergency landing instructions; it read, “A Guillotine only costs $1200 to build.” Suddenly even mainstream unions began cutting to the point: people want to put the rich and the powerful on the chopping block.
Somehow 2019 became the year of the guillotine in the US. True, our guillotines have been discursive ones — they are spoken, written or symbolically performed rather than built in reality. Militant discourses like this have always circulated, even in the US, ranging from the abolitionists who swore “Death to Kidnappers,” to all the radicals who, inspired by Amiri Baraka’s “magic words,” threatened motherfuckers with the wall, to the insurgent queers of Bash Back!
So no one can say that 2019 represented an unprecedented moment. Still, the surge in guillotine rhetoric feels different from earlier years. After all, how many marchers against the Iraq War chanted that they would behead Bush?
Whatever the guillotine has meant in the long history of popular rebellions and revolutions, in our dire present it is coming to mean something else. The current guillotine discourse in all its memes, chants and protest puppetry encompasses new cultural and political possibilities for US activists and radicals. These symbolic guillotines are an opening up, an expansion of possibilities. They respond to the police executions, the cages and concentration camps, the dispossession of entire peoples, and the destruction of our only world. They say, “We’ve had enough, we’re coming for you — now.”
In short, the guillotine has become a kind of language or shorthand within the US left. It figures new, or newly voiced, political feelings in the midst of ecological collapse, capitalist crisis and the fascist international. But it also enables people to imagine increasingly militant ways forward. We miss this speculative power if we read the guillotine only as a literal machine with a bloody history.
Worse yet, attacks on guillotine rhetoric risk derailing the revolutionary momentum building now by proscribing how people can speak or imagine resistance. A recent Crimethinc. essay embodies the problem: although its authors attempt a radical critique of guillotine imagery, their reaction against the new discourse threatens to shore up existing regimes of domination.
In order to really understand the guillotine’s threatening yet promising image as it looms over our cultural landscape, and in order to answer its critics, we have to interpret the guillotine’s cultural work.
THE AFTERLIFE OF THE GUILLOTINE
The guillotine has had its detractors no less than its partisans. Best known in your high school history classes as the tool of French Revolutionary Terror, the guillotine maintains a brutal history as an instrument of the state’s most cherished prerogative: premature death. Preceded by devices like the Halifax Gibbet, the guillotine itself was devised in 1789 and put to extensive use during the Reign of Terror as an ostensibly enlightened and humane method of execution. The machine’s mechanical efficiency proved all too effective. Executions proliferated, and the guillotine eventually beheaded aristocrats, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries and anyone else unfortunate enough to be swept into its maw.
Since then, states around the world have killed thousands using the device, well into the twentieth century. The freedom fighter Sofie Scholl was executed by guillotine by the Nazis in 1943, while the last official death by guillotine occurred in living memory, in France, in 1977. Regardless, then, of how we interpret the politics of the French Revolution, we must acknowledge that the guillotine long served as a tool of statist violence, which is to say the violent enforcement of oppressive social regimes.
Given this gruesome history, it is no wonder that the guillotine was burned by the Paris Commune. Behind their barricades in 1871, Paris Communards sought to remake society, free and equal for all. As part of their revolution, they abolished the death penalty, seizing and setting fire to the state’s death machine. The Communards recognized — rightly — that the death penalty embodied the authoritarian function of the state laid bare. In the guillotine they saw an immediate instance of “necropower,” what Achille Mbembe posited as the state’s control over the lives and deaths of its subjects. If there would be dancing at Emma Goldman’s revolution, there would be no guillotines at the Communards’.
Just as the machine’s image has suddenly returned in our present, so has the Communard’s radical critique. Recently Crimethinc. — a longstanding collective of anarchist insurrectionaries, a leftist cultural outlet and a revolutionary ethos — published an anonymous essay arguing that the guillotine’s discursive revival also revives the authoritarianism enacted through the machine and through the death penalty writ large.
Inspired by the Paris Commune, the authors of “Against the Logic of the Guillotine” level a damning abolitionist indictment, writing that,
As a tool, the guillotine takes for granted that it is impossible to transform one’s relations with the enemy, only to abolish them. What’s more, the guillotine assumes that the victim is already completely within the power of the people who employ it. By contrast with the feats of collective courage we have seen people achieve against tremendous odds in popular uprisings, the guillotine is a weapon for cowards.
Put differently, the guillotine extends the carceral state’s project wherein people can be rendered unwanted and therefore disposable. Not restorative justice but retribution. The machine itself — efficient, distancing, spectacular — comes to embody and enact the state’s dehumanizing and necrotic function, no matter who uses it or why. Herein lies the guillotine’s “logic,” according to the essay.
Like the Paris Communards, we must burn our guillotines. Against the state’s violent enforcement of social hierarchies, the Crimethinc. essay poses a powerful anti-authoritarian dream of freedom. The essay tells us that there can be no liberation without abolishing executions and the death-dealing, statist logic that underwrites them. As abolitionist critique, the essay is apt: whatever the demands of liberation struggle, revolutionaries must not mimic the oppressors’ dehumanizing, authoritarian violence.
But there are also partisans against the guillotine’s very image, even on the left. The Crimethinc. essay reads discursive guillotines — all the cutting memes and chants that you have perhaps enjoyed — as reinscribing the historical device’s authoritarianism. In this reading there is no difference between the guillotines we erect and the ones we depict. The guillotine, according to the essay, simply “represents the idea that the violence of the state could be a good thing if only the right people were in charge,” and its recent appearances in popular culture embody that longing among frustrated, even dispossessed people eager to goosestep their way into power.
The memes themselves perpetuate the machine’s logic. Even the mere “image of the guillotine is propaganda for the kind of authoritarian organization that can avail itself of that particular tool.” Whether sung by The Coup, memed by the AFL-CIO or built in papier-mâché for protests, the guillotine’s image “fetishiz[es] the violence of the state.” Indeed, it is both aspirational and propositional, according to the Crimethinc. essay: “Those who take their own powerlessness for granted assume that they can promote gruesome revenge fantasies without consequences. But if we are serious about changing the world, we owe it to ourselves to make sure that our proposals are not equally gruesome.”
“BURN THE GUILLOTINE IN YOUR HEADS,” AS IT WERE.
We do need an abolitionist, anti-authoritarian rejection of actual guillotines and the state violence they embody. We need, too, to commit to radically imagining freedom. We can always dream more wildly. But the Crimethinc. essay misreads the figurative guillotines currently looming over our discursive commons. It is true that the guillotine cannot be an “instrument of liberation.” But where are the actual guillotines?
What the Crimethinc. essay overlooks is that the guillotine has emerged as a symbolic figure for the militancy of the moment. This means that we need to interpret how the guillotine operates in discourse, what cultural work it performs for the people who speak it or hear it. This is the guillotine’s cultural afterlife — the way its idea or image “lives on” in the popular imagination. The distance between a historical subject and that subject’s cultural memory can be both vast and circuitous.
When we share, talk or write about figures like Sojourner Truth, Frida Kahlo or Martin Luther King, Jr., we seldom deal with the nuanced realities of their lives and more often traffic in their status as symbols — that is, their cultural afterlives. Never mind that Truth only became a representative figure for black feminism a century after her death, partly on the basis of words that she likely never spoke: “Ain’t I a woman?” Nor that Kahlo was a Communist; we commemorate her in wall calendars and children’s books as a liberal, multicultural feminist icon rather than as a revolutionary.
And, until recently, we had revised King’s radicalism — dangerous enough to provoke the FBI — into a sanitary and unobjectionable protest. These all represent afterlives: living, changing understandings of a subject. Changing, of course, because we constantly contest their meaning and truthfulness.
Although not a human subject, the guillotine, too, has its cultural afterlife. Perhaps we can say this because of its long “life” that ended with its “death” in ’77; everything since its disuse has been remembrance. Or maybe we have lived with its memory since the French Revolutionary Terror, from Dickens’s Carton to the Paris Communards. Regardless, in critiquing the new guillotine discourse as inherently authoritarian, the Crimethinc. essay neglects the weird, sometimes uncomfortable ways that culture works. The essay thus proceeds ahistorically and anachronistically. It collapses the lived reality of the guillotine’s violence with what its memory actually does in our present.
The question, though, is whose memory? Critiquing guillotine memes for reinscribing the real machine’s logic takes for granted that the idea of the guillotine is consistent over time and space — that it is the same in the US as in France as in the rest of the world. But how could this be the case when the guillotine has no extensive history in the United States or even so-called North America? Maybe that cultural distance enables US radicals to so easily meme such a bloody machine. We can find that gross, of course. But to grapple with the recent crop of guillotine images, we have to work in the realm of culture and memory. Whatever the political reality of the historical guillotine, it has come to mean something different now, in the US.
But critiques of the new guillotine imagery elide something more important. In skipping over the realms of culture and memory, the Crimethinc. essay also skips over the difference between discourse and action. To be sure, words not only matter but actually shape our social world. Anytime we decry language for being ableist or transantagonist, for example, we are recognizing language’s power to make and remake social realities. Antifascists know this. For decades antifascist activists have organized to stop fascists from spreading their ideas in the form of speeches, Nazi punk shows, marches and now memes. Unopposed fascist discourse makes their movement that much stronger.
Activists understand that language matters, but in offering a straightforward, superficial reading of the new guillotine discourse, the Crimethinc. essay equates words with works. Liberals make the same mistake when glorifying “speaking truth to power,” “making your voice heard” or signing the next online petition. All of these things, including choppy boi memes, might matter in various ways, but they are not the same thing as taking action. They are not guillotines.
Despite its radically anti-authoritarian appearance, the Crimethinc. essay ultimately spirals back into a liberal logic in which there is no difference between what we say and what we do. Dubbing memes, bad jokes or chants as “proposals” only conflates talking about it with being about it. Such critiques reduce very different types of language into a single genre that somehow gives an unobstructed view into someone’s politics. But sometimes people do not mean exactly what they say.
I mean, you are not really going to eat the rich, are you?
This is a way of saying that words are seldom enough, but they can be something. Writing about black antislavery activists, historian Kellie Carter Jackson argues that, following the failure of antislavery’s non-violent campaign, “violence became a way of communicating and provoking political and social change.” Physical rebellion against the slavery regime took the form of fugitive slaves’ armed self-defense, for example, or, eventually, John Brown’s guerrilla tactics. Unlike the state violence that brutally enforces social hierarchy, this liberatory violence “from below” instead sought to defend black lives and overturn an oppressive order.
In whatever form it took, the use of force by abolitionists made possible increasingly radical ideas about freedom. Over the course of the nineteenth century, challenges to chattel slavery had been rendered literally unspeakable. Black and white abolitionists were mobbed and murdered for their activism, while at various times a pro-slavery bloc in Congress enforced a gag rule barring any legislative debate over slavery. Slowly, abolitionism’s dangerous ideas became more thinkable and sayable as “the enslaved and black leaders used force to engage and expand a political agenda.”
For Jackson, militant struggle could be discursive. She writes that “violence became a political language for African American abolitionists.” To Jackson’s argument we can add a corollary: that, like militant acts, militant discourse helped advance and expand the abolitionist movement’s fight against slavery. The radical freedom dreams represented by John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, or enslaved people’s general strike from Southern plantations, or the North’s black liberation army all resulted from years of a rebellious and primarily black discourse that could no longer be controlled.
But militant abolitionist slogans like “Death to Kidnappers” did not produce reactionary, authoritarian violence, even when the Reconstruction government occupied the former Confederacy and momentarily elevated black people and Radical Republicans to significant state power. Rather such militant language made possible the revolutionary overthrow of chattel slavery, racial capitalism’s paradigmatic institution.
We can say, then, that the militant language of liberatory social movements, from antislavery to the present, is speculative. This represents something more than just making proposals, as when the Crimethinc. essay asserts that a choppy boi meme is nothing but a plan for specific action. Rather, to consider guillotine memes as “speculative” is to recognize their power to expand the horizons of what could be. It is to see militant discourse as imaginative and perhaps even utopian.
THIS, I ARGUE, IS WHAT THE GUILLOTINE MEANS NOW.
For all the edgy jokes, memes and, yes, the machine’s authoritarian history, the emergent guillotine discourse hints at new possibilities for popular social justice movements in the US. There is nothing preordaining about the symbols that radicals use, and there is no reason to read in guillotine memes an augur of authoritarian violence. On the contrary, turning to the revolutionary past in the US reveals that militant discourse can help radicals imagine and enact emancipatory forms of violence that overthrow rather than enforce oppressive regimes. We have needed such forms before.
For some, the guillotine’s speculative power might come as a revelation, either frightening or freeing. For others, this might confirm that what they have long understood has finally become publicly sayable and legible: that those caging and killing the world deserve none of our civility or patience — that they deserve nothing other than to be stopped. More important than figuring popular discontent, the current guillotine discourse, and others like it, might expand what is actually sayable, doable, possible while we struggle for freedom. I hope it will.
To cut off this discourse and the feelings that inspire it would risk cutting off an organic way for social justice movements to grow and radicalize. It would foreclose the militant speculation that has already begun, thereby benefiting the oppressive systems that currently have us trapped. Instead of prescriptively denouncing how struggling people figure the world and their place in it, why not nurture the speculative and utopian impulses that motivate them to speak, chant, meme? Why not hear what they really mean in their own words and on their own terms?
We need to work with people as they are, with their feelings that may be just despite being routed through received ideas or cultural symbols that are not. People do not always have a precise language for what they mean, so they make do with what they have at hand. We can learn to speak new languages together. But we must not delay by dismissing this new militancy. It is already late, and we have let new borders, new commodities, new rules and new forest fires be made from the stuff of black and brown and red death. We need a rhetoric for the hour.