Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Loyalism at The Margin
Steve McQueen’s full-length feature film debut Hunger (2008) dramatizes the events at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland leading up to the death of Bobby Sands as part of the second Provisional IRA hunger strike in 1981. The feature provides an important point of reference for understanding the representation of Loyalism on film, as well as for under understanding more widely the predicament Loyalism face in relation to representation. Starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the feature pays significant attention to how the human body is both acted on and deployed in the prison. Bodily fluids and functions – hair, excrement, urine, vomit, blood and sores – also play a central role in the feature, as do the methods used by prison authorities to maintain hygiene and cleanliness, with their representation and function changing at different junctures. The film also engages fleetingly, but importantly with the monstrous and spectral, particularly in the third part of the film – the brief and significant appearance of the Loyalist prison orderly and Bobby Sands’ hallucinations of himself as a young boy as he lies dying.
Before engaging with these it is worth providing some overview of the feature – which is based around three main parts or movements – if only to provide a better understanding of the relevance of the representation of the Loyalist prison orderly. The first part of the feature deals with the dirty protests, where Republicans refuse to wear prison clothes and cover the walls of their cells in excrement, pour their urine under the cell doors and don’t shave or cut their hair. The authorities respond to this with acts of violence (beatings), humiliation (cutting hair, bodily examinations, and providing old fashioned clothing) and hygiene (power washing the cells and cleaning the floors with disinfectant). The second part of the film is one long scene (including an unbroken 17-minute shot) where Bobby Sands talks to priest Father Moran about his plans to go on hunger strike, while the third part deals with Bobby Sands on hunger strike and his eventual death.
While the film is principally about Bobby Sands it is careful to allow other voices and perspectives within it. For example, prison officer Raymond Lohan is given a home life, seen joking, bleeding, smoking on his own and driving to work. He is murdered by a Provisional IRA gunman as he visits his sick mother in a care home, in what is quite a shocking scene – the cold execution through a shot to the back of the head in stark contrast to the surroundings. In another scene, while the Republican prisoners are being beaten by riot officers, one of the officers is seen crying at the margins, presumably upset and uncomfortable at what he is seeing and being asked to do. Similarly, the perspective of the British State is incorporated through radio excerpts of Margaret Thatcher talking about how she won’t give in to the “men of violence”. Obviously, the Republican perspective is best demonstrated through Sands’ conversation with Father Moran, as well as at several other junctures where the prisoners’ anger is shown with the authorities’ behaviour.
In contrast, the Loyalist prison orderly – who appears in the third part of the film when Sands is on hunger strike – is both silent and menacing. A thin and weak Sands, covered in sores, is taking a bath and is being watched by another orderly who appears at various points throughout the film. The shift changes and the orderly is replaced by the Loyalist orderly, who draws his chair closer to the bath, leaning over so Sands can clearly see the UDA tattooed on his knuckles. As Sands stands to climb out of the bath both stare at each other face-to-face, before Sands collapses and the Loyalist orderly carries him out. The presence of the Loyalist orderly can be no coincidence as he was deliberately brought into the plot, replacing someone else, yet unlike the others in the film he was given no opportunity to explain/have explained his perspective and actions. In this sense, the representation of loyalism in the feature was limited or reduced to a set of tattooed knuckles.
It is important to stress that the argument isn’t that the Loyalist has a right to be represented differently, simply that he hasn’t been afforded the opportunity – as the others have – to have his perspective incorporated (regardless of his representation) into the narrative. This scene will be interrogated in more detail later, however, before doing so it is worthwhile exploring how the wider feature engages with signification, power, the abject and the spectral. Allen Feldman (1991) pays particular attention to the prison regime and the resistive practices of Republican prisoners in the Maze at the time of the dirty protests and hunger strikes. He argues:
In a situation where language compensated for the immobilised and contaminated body, any purification of the linguistic domain was bound up with the impurities of the corporeal domain. The biological separatism of the scatological body was the ground upon which a variety of techniques and discourses were founded. In the H-Blocks, the cultural separation of the linguistic domain has first to be understood in the cultural separatism of the fecal body. [Author’s italics] (Feldman, 1991, pp. 215 – 216)
Here Feldman highlights that there is both a separation (“domain”) and interdependence (“bound up with”) between the linguistic and corporeal, particularly in the context of acts of resistance.
In Hunger, it is the purging of the corporeal body from impurity – faeces and urine – that enables the prisoners to inscribe their resistance and protest on the clean surfaces of the prison. In this sense, the abject, “the jettisoned object”, what has been “radically excluded” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 2) by the body has been redeployed. The “jettisoned object”, the signified, becomes signifier – marking out protest, objection, resistance – but retains a trace of its original signified, that is the smell and mess defiling the space. This signifier with trace of signified reinforces and reaffirms the relationship between the “linguistic domain” and the “corporal domain”, disrupting the prison authorities’ own system of signification which aims to control and act on the prisoners. The efforts of the authorities to cleanse the space – whether through power washing the walls or cleansing the floors – is to rub out the trace of the signified within the signifier, undermining the potential of the abject.
The jettisoning of the object – faeces, urine and other bodily fluids – allows the body itself to become active in this process of resistance to what Foucault calls a “site of constraint” (Foucault, 2001, p.54). Feldman makes the case:
The political capacities of the body were not limited to the fecal. Various other sectors and sensory capacities of the body were reorganised into politicised zones. This vectoring of the body was the dialogical product of disciplinary interventions. The body and cell had both been subjected to continuous assaults that had attempted to reduce these spaces to one dimensional disciplinary texts. The creation of a scatological ecology of the body and cell recoded these interconnected appendages; from pure externalities, they became cavities that harboured opaque and resistant depths. (1991, pp. 198 – 199)
What Feldman is referring to is that the (empty) bodily orifices and cavities – spaces where fluids are jettisoned from – become spaces where texts and inscriptions can be smuggled out and messages received by the prisoners further disrupting the “instance of order” (Foucault, 2001, p. 37) within the prison. Hunger pays particular attention to this, through the visit of relatives to prison, however, in this sense the act of disruption is not grounded in the signifier with trace of signified but rather in destabilising and challenging the inside-outside binary. This relates both to the binary as it relates to inside and outside the body, but also inside and outside the prison in particular – for one of the purposes of confinement is to isolate the prisoner from the outside space, preventing communication.
The body then is a site of contest, but not always involving physical violence (as in a beating) but also as a space where different systems of meaning are played out and challenge one another, where traces of the corporal and linguistic co-exist. Foucault describes the “political technology of the body” maintaining that:
the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organised, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use of neither weapons nor of terror and yet remain of the physical order. (1991, p. 26)
The purpose of resistance then is to de-subject the body, re-instigate the “I” through reinstating its relation to the political narratives in which it was grounded in the first place, desegregating it from forces of the prison and State authorities. The redeployment of faeces and urine (maintaining the trace of the original signified), as well as the disruption of the boundaries of inside and outside – contaminating the inside (which must be kept clean) with textual traces of the outside – provide a resistive context in which the body can be reclaimed by the subject. In this way, the resistive act reclaims the body as a space where, in the first instance “meaning collapses [and] the abject does not cease challenging its master” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 2).
The function of the body as a site of inscription and resistance, as well as the use and form of bodily fluids changes once Bobby Sands goes on hunger strike in the third part of McQueen’s narrative. Previously in the feature, Sands had covered his cell wall in faeces as part of the dirty protest. He had also trashed the replaced furniture in the cell once it had been power washed clean and comically old-fashioned clothes placed on the bed, which he was expected to wear. Clothing was also deployed as part of the process of segregating the prisoners from their political narrative and undermining their sense of identity and subjectivity. It is important to bear in mind that Sands has moved from his cell to the hospital wing of the prison. Here we see untouched food on the bedside table, while his body is covered in sores, his bedclothes stained in blood, while he also vomits into a bowl and passes blood into the toilet. There is no faeces, urine or mashed up food.
The scene, where a very thin and dying Sands uses the bath contrasts starkly with the forced bath and wash with a yard brush at the hands of the prison officer Raymond Lohan. Here Sands lies passive and when he does stand uses all his strength to face down the Loyalist orderly before collapsing. The sores on his body, rather being inflicted by a beating, come through a process of his body shutting down and eating itself away, and they are treated with ointment from another orderly. Rather than the outside crossing the boundary into the prison through smuggled messages concealed in bodily orifices, his parents visit and are able to stay overnight. This part of the feature is notable for its silence as opposed to the noisy scenes from the prison wings, and violence is less apparent. This is reinforced by the opening image of the part, an out of focus Sands lies in bed, while a foregrounded white feather floats at the front of the frame.
The colour white is prominent during Sands’ hunger strike, from the contrast between his white skin and the red sores, through to the colour of his sheets and room, and the white coats of the prison orderlies. Drawing on Foucault, Feldman argues that the hunger strike should be viewed as a “political technology of the body” and “within the general framework of the cultural construction of violence” (Feldman, 1991, p. 221). He also argues (1991, p. 220) the hunger strike was an act of “self-directed violence” (like the dirty protests he suggests) and that “this sacrifice both presupposed and demonstrated the same technologies of the body that had been forged through years of resistance and institutional violence, and survival in a scatological environment. The conversion of social consciousness was, as in other matters, founded on the conversion of the body and the self through ascetic principles” (1991, p. 226). I want to argue that Hunger challenges this assumption and that the use of the colour white is significant in this challenge.
To better understand this some consideration must be given to the second part of the film where Sands speaks to Father Moran about the intention of the prisoners to undertake a hunger strike, with Sands being the first to do so. Father Moran argues with Sands that he wants to go down in history with other Republicans like McSwiney, who also died on hunger strike over sixty years before. Sands rebukes Father Moran and as the conversation develops, he grounds his justification, in some part, through a story of a visit to Donegal as a child as part of a cross community trip. As the film draws to a close, Sands is visited by his younger self in the room, perhaps as an hallucination, alternatively as a spectre or ghost. As he lies in bed dying, he has flashbacks to the trip, the breaking down of his body giving rise to haunting by a memory of his younger self. The use of compositing in the film breaks down the distinction between the dying body and this memory which haunts it.
As McQueen’s Hunger draws towards its conclusion, its beautifully rendered social realist depiction of the prison breaks down to be replaced by what could be characterised as an equally striking ghost story. Avery F. Gordon in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination states that, “To get to the ghost and the ghost’s story, it is necessary to understand how the past, even if it is just the past that flickered by a moment before, can be seized in an instant” (1997, p. 164). It is this flickering past, combined with Sand’s disintegrating body, composited in the feature to form a kind of palimpsest that creates Sands’ spectrality, reforming him as a ghost. With the dirty protests, while faeces and urine are jettisoned and repurposed, the body remains intact. With Sands’ hunger strike the body itself breaks down – the blood from the sores of on the white sheets, the blood on the white toilet, the vomit in the white bowl – combining with memory to mark the sterile environment in a different way.
Gordon argues that “the relationship between subjection and subjectivity is an old problem, but not any less prevalent for being so persistent” (1997, p. 171) and it is through the abjection of his own body in Hunger that Sands regains his subjectivity, through a form of suture (Stephen Heath’s notion of subjectivity and suture in Questions of Cinema, 1981 is explored elsewhere) with memories of his past. Recognising the limitations of the body as a site of resistance, Sands jettisons his own body, casting off the surface of subjection and initiating a new resistance that is spectral in form. Jacques Derrida, in an interview with Bernard Steigler states, “The spectre is not simply someone we see coming back, it is someone by whom we feel ourselves watched, observed, surveyed as if by the law” (The Spectralities Reader, 2013, p. 40). In this respect, by becoming spectre Sands reconfigures the relationship with the prison authorities, subjecting them to his gaze – a “spectral interrogation”.
Colin Davis (2013, p. 53) in discussing Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994) points out that the spectre replaces, “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive”. He also argues that “the ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and it’s haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events” (2013, p. 63). To use Avery F. Gordon’s form of words, “The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening (1997, p. 8). In Hunger Father Moran rejects Sands’ reading of the situation, his version of events and his motivations, and through rejecting his body and embracing memory Sands sets in motion a process of becoming ghost and releasing the potential of an alternative account of what has “happened”.
However, it is not simply enough to provide an alternative account or release “an untold story”. For Del Pilar Blanco and Peeren (2013, p. 9) Derrida “uses the figure of the ghost to pursue (without ever fully apprehending) that which haunts like a ghost and, by way of this haunting, demands justice, or at least a response”. The gaze of the ghost then is not passive or one that only observes, rather it is one that asks questions, interrogates and disrupts. In the scene where Sands stands face-to-face with the Loyalist prison orderly, perhaps we see the beginning of this gaze and demand for justice. However, the gaze is incomplete and fleeting as the weak and dying Sands collapses, indicating that he hasn’t fully jettisoned his body and become spectre. It is worth noting that the film concludes with Sands’ dead body being wheeled out and put in a prison van only after one final composited image of him and his memory – completing the suture.
The dead body is surplus – unnecessary and excluded from the spectral interrogation. The blood on the white sheets and ejected from the anus into the white toilet bowl is enough to mark the in-betweenness, “neither dead nor alive”, the transition to spectre, the whiteness of beyond life, the blood of life. In this way the sheets, like the composited frame, become a palimpsest marking out a new form of resistance beyond the form of the body. The in-betweenness of the spectre disrupts the prison regime of control based on the body as a site of meaning, undermining the ‘otherness’ of the prisoner, an ‘otherness which is redundant – the dead body disposed of and removed in the back of the van. The spectre cannot be marked, for it is “neither present nor absent” but rather appears and disappears marking out “a something-to-be-done” (Gordon, 1997, p. xvi) – that is marking out a demand for justice, or at least a response.
Gordon reminds us of this presence and function of the ghost, arguing that, “The ghost as, I understand it, is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and it demands its due, your attention. Haunting and the appearance of spectres or ghosts is one way [. . .] we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present, interfering precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed towards us.” (Gordon, 1997, p. xvi). Because Hunger ends at the point where the body is marked as surplus and the process of Sands becoming spectre (as “whole essence”) is completed, we are only provided with some clues as to the disruptive force of the haunting. The end credits tell us that Sands – the man-becoming-spectre – was elected to parliament, while the hunger strikes eventually came to an end with the prisoners demands effectively, if not officially, being met.
Returning then to the Loyalist orderly it appears that his treatment is wholly different from the other characters in Hunger, depicted as silent, threatening, monstrous and without any form of grounding. While we get some sense of the other characters having a life – driving to work, prison visits by relatives, political narrative and so on – we get none of this with the Loyalist orderly, he just appears. He is at the margins of the film yet is marked out for attention by the tattooed UDA on his knuckles – this is apparently all we need to know about him. His carrying of Sands’ body is in some way reminiscent of a monster or vampire in a movie bringing home its prey before eating it or drinking its blood. The markings (tattoo) on his body contrast with those on the prisoners which are brought about by beatings, or the sores on Sands’ body through the effects of starvation, or the bleeding knuckles or gunshot wound to the head of the prison officer Raymond Lohan.
Some attention has been paid previously to “the jettisoned object” and the demarcation and interdependence between the “linguistic domain” and the “corporeal domain” as regards the resistance of the prisoners. This has included both the redeployment of “the jettisoned object” – faeces and urine – as well as the bodily orifices and both depend on the inside/outside binary, whether in terms of the body or the prison itself. The marking (tattoo) on the body of the Loyalist orderly is through ink and is not given meaning and status through an inside/outside binary, it signifies differently. What is interesting about this is that the marking is given no explanation within the film and unless the viewer knows what the UDA is, the marking is meaningless outside of the wider context of intimidation that is contained within the frame. The Loyalist orderly, in this sense, is just an orderly, someone working for the British State, reinforcing the State’s hostility to Bobby Sands as an Irish Republican.
This recalls Finlayson’s assertion, in relation to Republican attitudes to loyalism, that, “All effort is made to reduce any Protestant activity to simply a part of the British State. The actions of Loyalist paramilitaries have been interpreted as merely an extension of the British State while the British State’s actions against Loyalist paramilitaries are either ignored or dismissed as insignificant” (1997, p. 75). The permanence of the tattoo, therefore, inscribes the Loyalist in a way that is fixed, he cannot signify differently or jettison and redeploy – he has no acts of resistance. This necessitates the need for a reinterpretation of the face-to-face confrontation with Sands – the Loyalist orderly continues to stand not because he is more powerful or victorious, but rather because he is fixed in place and cannot change. Sands’ fall, to the contrary represents a stage in his move to the spectral. In carrying Sands’ dying body the Loyalist orderly is pointing towards its status as redundant body – rather than holding something of value, he is left holding something meaningless.
Hunger therefore highlights the necessity of the first act of resistance for the Loyalist as being with the British State itself, developing an identity beyond its relationship to the state. Loyalism is not so much pushed to the margins of the film but is rather seen inhabiting a marginal and thuggish territory in the signified of the British State. It has no need to speak in the feature as it is already spoken for, its perspective is taken for granted. However, the body of the Loyalist is subjected to the forces of the “political technology of the body”, forces that permanently inscribe it and contain it within the boundaries of the State, as an actor of the State. Adamson and Kelly argue, “Mary Douglas asserts that ‘all margins are dangerous’ as they are where systems are most vulnerable.” (2013, p.21). The Loyalist is both part of the state and acted on by the state and it is in this contradiction – through its marginal status within the signified – that it can begin its own form of resistance.
In this respect, Paul Gilroy’s remarks regarding bodies and resistance are worth considering:
Whether it is anti-racist universality or spurious racial classification, which is being invoked, the black body bears some potent meanings. However, a similar concern and fascination has been expressed by the women’s movement, the gay movement and sections of the peace movement where the body has become, in various ways, a cultural locus of resistances and desires. A sense of the body’s place in the alternative rationality that articulate a cultural and moral challenge to the exploitation and domination of “the nature within us and without us”. (2002, p. 309)
Through the dirty protests and the prison regime, we get a sense of how the prisoners’ bodies are acted on and deployed and how they are configured as sites of meaning and sites of resistance. Sands’ abjection of his own body in favour of the spectral configures this resistance and marking differently, focusing on the beyond – the un-constituted space of death – which is itself part marked by both his body and his past, a reversal. It is looking to beyond the margin – in this case of the margin of life – that Sands’ activates the danger of the margin, where the system is “vulnerable” and can begin to break down. To erase the permanent marking of the tattoo, the Loyalist orderly must also stage this reversal, where the body is no longer marked but rather marks the beyond as part of a process of initiating a spectral interrogation at the margins – challenging the “political technology of the body”, which marked the abjected body in the first place.