Symbol, Solidarity, Synecdoche

Curator's Note

The raised fist has been used by Black power and Civil Rights activists, by neo-Marxians, by the students of May 1968, by Syrian up-risers, by food sovereignty activists and Earth First!ers, and of course by the Occupy movement [here is a nice brief history of the raised fist symbol:]. With its suggestion of anger, empowerment, force and context of past use the fist lends a more polemic radicalism to the visual media that it decorates and the social media that it pervades. Recognizable and malleable, both clear and abstract the widely applicable fist morphs with each use and carries historic import for a new generation of activists. It creates a kinetic reaction or meaning in a literal way where protestors are called to physically mimic, yet also in an abstract way as if it were protesting merely by being displayed. The immediate impact and recognisability of a raised fist affects individuals who may be sharing images on social media or including them on their own event and protest signs or posters. But at what point does a ‘like’ share’ ‘retweet’ or addition of a fist make an event or image or individual ‘radical’? How much critical thought occurs between eyes-brain-fingertip reactions? How often does the armchair act of reposting and sharing translate to real action or speech on an issue? Does it necessarily need to? It may be suggested that the simple act of sharing is a performative: an identity attachment to the idea of protest and radical action. The raised fist is a quick and potent jab at the public, the audience, to be almost immediately aware of the author/movement or individual’s intent. What's more, the message is spread quickly through networks of individuals, constituting an occupation itself in its pervasion of the internet! Yet if there is no further action from an individual, does this quick spread and act of solidarity aid the real, active activism? Does it help the cause in question? How far does a visual protest take us in the age of activism and social media?


Jackie- My apologies for posting a response so late to your curated piece. The raised fist is a great example of visual activism. I agree with your assessment that it is recognizable and clear, yet also malleable enough to be applied in many contexts. I had an interesting experience a few years ago in Nicaragua that I think speaks to this. I brought several students down there for a month long class connected to social justice. At one point, we had a great talk from Dora María Téllez, the first female comandante in the Sandanista's revolution to overthrown the Somoza regime. She led the liberation of León, one of the major cities in Nicaragua and was later a member of the cabinet in the first Sandanista government. Anyway, at this point in time, she's a primary opposition figure in the Nicaraguan government and clearly on the left. After her talk, we were taking photos with her. She posed with a student of mine and I, and my student raised his first so Sra. Téllez does too, and so do I. Perhaps it was because my student is African-American, but Sra. Téllez responded by saying "black power" (the only English she spoke the whole time). To me this speaks to that malleability and clarity. In the one hand, the sign was clearly recognizable to her despite the cross-cultural divide of Nicaragua and the US. On the other hand, it also clearly signified for her as a statement of the radicalism of the black power movement (via the Panthers I imagine). It makes me wonder if the potency of this sign has become more tied up with some usages of it than others? Does it always reference black power? In what situations does it shrug off that reference? I think you're on the right track here when you note the raised first is an invitational sign. It states, and asks those witnessing that statement for a response, inviting them to join in by raising their fist as well. There is something powerful about a visual that evokes a kinetic, embodied, performative response like that. It is also worthy of questioning the effect and effectiveness of the raised fist once it has morphed into a (socially) mediated sign, but it seems to me that the answer to some of your questions lies in the loss of the performative and invitational quality of the fist. We definitely seem less drawn to action, even if that action is simply the raising of the first in solidarity, when that sign comes in a mediated form. I wonder too if we might not productively read this shift through Benjamin's oft quoted "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Though not a work of art per se, does the raised fist have an aura that is lost in the process of mechanical and digital reproduction? As I understand Benjamin, he is celebrating this loss as a form of radical populist (or more accurately perhaps, socialist) distribution of the value of a work of art in contrast to the more Fascist and elitist concentration and control of that value. In this sense, the ubiquity and distribution of the raised fist might be its very strength as a sign--the more people can pick it up and add it as a symbol to their struggle, the more it will accrue value as a symbol of protest. Good topic for discussion, Jackie, thank you.

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