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Bodies at the gates

Bodies are not just simply tools or targets in practices of state violence but also crucial in the resistance of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms trade fair.

Some of the collages created by participants at the workshop. On the morning of Friday, September 8, we assembled outside one of the main entrances to the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms trade fair at the ExCel centre in London to talk about the body politics of the arms trade.

As part of a wider Week of Action to Stop the Arms Trade, organized by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), we were invited to deliver a workshop exploring bodies, feminism, queerness and militarism for Conference at the Gates, an open air conference-action that aims to build solidarity between academics, students, activists and artists.

The following are some of our reflections on the conversations we had at the conference. While the views expressed in this article are those of the convenors, they are informed by the thought- provoking and generous contributions of the participants who took part in the workshop. 

Why the body?

Depending on where you are coming from the body might seem to some an odd place to start a discussion about the politics of the arms trade. But as feminist scholars strongly committed to thinking through ideas of the body and embodiment, it came on the back of important political and theoretical commitments.

Long ignored and much maligned within western thought as an unruly messy feminine object, the body has much to teach us about the slick running of the global arms trade industry that profits from the death and destruction of human beings. But even prior to the specificities of the arms trade and its role in injuring bodies, the workshop built from an idea that centering bodies in our work teaches us about the ways in which power operates and functions. 

Numerous feminist philosophers have worked to challenge and destabilize our common-sense understandings of the body, sex and gender, and show us that these all relate to questions of politics, power and resistance. This workshop drew inspiration from specific applications of a broad school of body theory to questions of militarism and violence, work which has found a space in critical and feminist international relations literature – such as Swati Parashar's work on war bodies, Laura Brigg's writings on the production of the Arab body, and Tina Vaittinen's work on the power of the vulnerable body. The wealth of work that feminist international relations in particular has to offer on this topic is too vast to summarise neatly here.

While feminist scholarship suggests that the body has much to teach us about the contours and consequences of the global arms trade, feminist activists have also long drawn attention to the significance of bodies for challenging practices of war and militarisation.

From members of Meira Paibi Women’s Movement who stripped naked outside the historic Kangla Fort to protest the brutal rape of Thangjam Manorama by the Indian Army to Sisters Against the Arms Trade who chained themselves to MDBA’s missile factory in Henlow Bedfordshire to protest their deadly use in Syria, feminist activists have repeatedly shown that bodies are sites where the personal and international most painfully come into contact. They have shown that bodies are crucial in both the production and resistance of war and militarism.

Closing your eyes and imagining the DSEI arms fair immediately sums up how powerful bodies are in the organization of the global arms trade. From the masculinized soldiering bodies who interface with weapons technology; the hypersexualized bodies of female sales assistants; the latent eroticism of (mainly male) trade delegations touching new weapons or 'playing' in war simulations; to the racialized and absent wounded and dead bodies (of both civilians and bodies labelled as 'troublesome' or dangerous by military forces) that, whilst absent within the halls of DSEI, haunt the spectacle of the arms exhibition – the invisible bodies who are the very target, subject and object of organised violence.

To respond to this variety of bodies, we chose to explore these questions through the making of zines, rather than replicating an academic panel discussion.  Zines, small self-published magazines, have a long history in activist traditions. Drawing from numerous radical traditions of self-publishing they provide a different way to grapple with the politics of DSEI. In particular the use of collage gave us an opportunity to engage differently with the movements and deployments of differentiated bodies that support and oppose militarism.

What do bodies do at the DSEI arms fair?

Participants reflected on how modalities of sight worked to structure which bodies were visible at the DSEI arms fair, drawing attention to those who were absent from the floor of the centre although potentially present in other ways.

Reflecting the absence of female and trans bodies from DSEI, as well as recent efforts by the DSEI organizers to diversify recruitment into the industry, several contributors wrestled with the issue of how to respond to governments, militaries, security agencies and industry players that take up the embodied struggles of marginalized groups and gut them of their radical politics in order to make them profitable.

Participants also brought up the issue of touch, in relation specifically to the practices of massage booths where attendees can receive back massages from female masseuses. There were suggestions that a gendered economy of touch and sensation was important in understanding global arms fairs, and the ways in which the labour of women’s bodies played a vital role in (re)producing the arms fair and rendering it an enjoyable sensual experience.

The discussion of touch also brought us to issues of bodily textures and interiors, as we struggled to make sense of the surprisingly gory and bloody demonstrations of medical technology. The presence of white soldiering bodies, mocked up as bleedy/dying/missing limbs etc. was, for us, a surprising display of violence, slipperiness and leakiness in an environment we had (evidently wrongly) expected to be devoid of such representations. This raised questions around which wounds, and whose wounds, were allowed to be seen at DSEI.

How do bodies resist the DSEI arms fair?

lead A protestor lifted away by police officers during a march against the Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEi) event at the ExCel Centre, London, September 2017. All rights reserved.Oddly what did not come up in conversation was how bodies are not just simply tools or targets in practices of state violence but also crucial in the resistance of DSEI. This seemed strange given our location. Outside the packed corridors and neatly organised zones of the arms fair, bodies were equally hard at work resisting militarism; locking themselves into concrete tubes in the middle of the road, dancing in front of delivery lorries, abseiling from bridges to block access, attempting in a multitude of ways to prevent the arms fair from taking place.

Yet perhaps one of the reasons for this strange absence of resisting bodies was because it felt so obvious. The constant police presence encircling the temporary shelter we were using to conduct our workshop, listening into our conversations about state violence, made it hard to ignore our own collective bodily presence at DSEI.

Little things like remembering not to use each other’s names in front of the police made us conscious of how we acted around each other. This sense of embodied relationality however did not just stop at those gathered to protest DSEI. The reason we had collectively assembled outside the arms fair was to enact solidarity with those people most directly affected by weapons being traded in the UK. Our coming together in this form of embodied solidarity was therefore an acknowledgement of our proximity and complicity in the arms trade that profits from the destruction of life and an effort to try to assert another kind of politics that disrupts its smooth and efficient running.

Looking back at the workshop we as conveners were reminded of the slipperiness of bodies. While some bodies we encountered felt sadly familiar, such as the largely male trade delegations playing and posing with the latest military technologies, others took us by surprise. Specifically the injured and bleeding bodies on display in the 'Medical Engagement Zone' was for us an important reminder of the ability of the industry to embody multiple contradictions and to profit from the destruction of flesh.

Reflecting on our efforts to centre bodies in our discussion of the DSEI arms fair we were reminded, however, that to think about bodies is not just to think about them as objects but also to think about our own embodiment. Gathered together outside the entrance to the fair we were reminded of our embodied connection to others who are directly affected by the global arms trade across the world. Our choice to gather in this way was both an acknowledgement that war starts here with us and that it is something we can take a stand against. 

Conference programme 2017.

About the authors

Rachel Massey is a lecturer in International Security at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on gender and wartime sexual violence.

Jennifer Hobbs is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on bodily fluids and gender within international security.

Read On

See also Academics Against the Arms Fair: An Open Letter, September 18, 2017.

More On

See Stop The Arms Fair website.


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