Naked Protest

A History of Provocation between a Gain in the Process of Civilization and a Loss of Shame

Few things would seem to be easier than tearing off one’s clothes in a (public) show of nudity. After all, everyone always has their body with them, as American sociologist Erving Goffmann once observed. But what appears to be so simple is anything but commonplace. A person who is prepared to display his or her own body, in all its vulnerability and immediacy, enters a complex area loaded with taboos and prejudices, indeed a veritable minefield―that of nakedness as a whole. And if this initially so simple, ostensibly “natural” phenomenon is linked to a protest action, then such an act intensifies the situation and heightens its drama. The concept of naked protest and the underlying phenomenon of nudity itself are in this respect extremely dependent on preconditions. To develop an adequate understanding of this protest phenomenon, which is in some respects quite novel, we need to work out in more detail its implications in terms of aesthetics and theories of civilization as well the history of mentality and of society.

At the latest since the well-calculated appearances of the Ukrainian women’s group Femen garnered audience appeal, news reports on protest actions by nude people have enjoyed a kind of instant success in the mass media. Although this phenomenon is generally associated with the recent modern era, there is in fact evidence of it even in the Old Testament. It is by no means a coincidence that naked protests are relevant to fundamental issues in the history of religion and civilization. Every society has to clarify for itself, again and again, the relationship between nudity and shame. But what happens when the sense of shame in our consumer- and media-dominated society dramatically diminishes? Is this really a gain in individual freedom, as is so often claimed? And will protest actions by naked people ultimately become obsolete because they lose most of their provocative character?

To discuss these questions adequately, the history of naked protest will be situated in the context of the controversy between ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr and sociologist Norbert Elias over the theory of civilization. For Elias, who describes the process of civilization as a concurrent alteration in personality and social structures over centuries, thresholds of shame and embarrassment keep rising as emotional control increases in societies and self-discipline takes form. In contrast, Duerr believes that embarrassment and shame were already strongly developed during the Middle Ages. His theory is exactly the opposite, namely, that a low threshold of shame presupposes a particularly high level of civilization. He concludes therefore that an increasing loss of shame corresponds to an increase in options for individual freedom.

In the tension between these two opposing lines of interpretation, the project will discuss the pros and cons of the most recent nude protests and their seismographic importance for an understanding of contemporary society.

(Last modified March 2014)


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