A YOUNG COUPLE ON A BICYCLE HIDE FROM CHINESE SOLDIERS IN A TANK OVERHEAD DURING THE TIANANMEN SQUARE PROTESTS

'There where there is power, there is resistance’ - Michel Foucault 

 

The first thing that strikes me when I look at this image is the clear differences between the couple waiting anxiously on their bike and the soldiers standing with the tank. The overpass seems to make this distinction clearer: below are the demonstrators, ordinary people prepared to risk everything and with access to only ordinary tools and things; and above are the representatives of the power of the State, trained soldiers with access to firearms and equipment intended for war. The differences in power are obvious, it is as asymmetrical as a power relation can be, yet those who might be considered the weak part in this exchange are fooling the strong just by waiting. This shows us that when it comes to power relations, weak and strong are relative terms, and that what the capacity to resist is what actual strength means.

Theorist Michael Foucault considered that resistance is at the heart of every power relation and it is never external to it, he argues ‘You see, if there was no resistance, there would be no power relations. Because it would simply be a matter of obedience’. He even considers that resistance is ‘the key word’ in any power connection, since it is what makes a change in such relations even possible. In short, resistance is what makes subjects capable of changing the power relations they are embedded in and therefore the capacity to remain free under any circumstance.

If the goal of war is to ‘render the enemy incapable of further resistance’ — as proposed by war theorist general Carl von Clausewitz on his seminal book On War — then maintaining such capacity is what is at stake in an asymmetrical confrontation like the one pictured here, a confrontation that is paradoxical of the encounters between autonomous social networks and hierarchical, repressive formations. Thus, when it comes to asymmetrical conflicts, victory lies not on a decisive blow but on preserving the capacity to resist. 

Of course the dynamics of such endeavour are quite complicated when it comes to the power relation between the state and the people. The picture says it all: the state has violence at its disposal and is prepared to initiate the logic of escalation with very little provocation, deploying tanks against bicycles and weapons against unarmed civilians. The unarmed and unequipped couple cannot match the power of the state, therefore they must find other ways to retain their power and freedom. They are not waiting under the overpass for the decisive strike or the moment of victory, they wait for the chance to keep on fighting, the chance to continue to express their will with their own voice. As long as they wait, they keep on resisting. 

The couple in the picture resists by holding their territory, they stand still yet they hold speed. The weaker part in this asymmetric confrontation is actually the one with both the capacity to wait and the capacity to gather speed without moving. They are like the ‘nomad’ described in the work of theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: ‘the nomad knows how to wait, he has infinite patience’. The nomad that knows when to hold on to a territory and when to sprint to the next. It is here that we must distinguish between speed and movement, because what we see in this picture is also the contrast between speeds: the heavy tank vs the light bicycle, the rigidity of the State vs the flexibility of social networks. Deleuze and Guattari argue one must distinguish between speed and movement: ‘a movement might be very fast, but that does not give it speed; a speed may be very slow, or even immobile, yet it is still speed’, speed is more related to the capacity to spring at any point inside a smooth space than it is to movement. It is in fact the capacity to wait, to work with different speeds, sizes and temporalities, what Deleuze considered as the essence of any active defence.

So the couple in the bike resists and speeds ahead while waiting, they show that their power is not physical but rather social: they can change from a sea of thousands to a single drop in a matter of minutes, they can gather and disperse in a perfect yet unplanned choreography, they are a node in a network that can move in different territories, times and speeds while the mighty state can only look in straight lines. They are a pack of wolves, individuals connected to a flexible whole that moves with variations of speeds, and whose territory extends beyond the rigid lines of the weighty machinery of the state.