The clenched fist: symbol, metaphor, brand

By the dim light of her apartment last autumn, my confidante and I were arguing about the Occupy movement. I am a shameless and hard-lined supporter, so I tend to talk about it in persuasive tones, not always gently and never dispassionately. Eventually she threw up her hands and said, “You know, I just can’t get over the fact that they’re using a clenched fist as their symbol. I mean, isn’t that one of the symbols the Nazis used?”

For sake of clarity, no Fascist group has ever added the fist to their symbolic coterie. Au contraire. The “clenched fist” has been claimed by countless movements, but predominantly left-wing movements. Occasionally, it’s even been employed in rebellious acts against fascism.  That’s not the point. There’s a dangerous stigma attached to the fist (it starts with an “s” and ends in “ocialism”), especially since it figured auspiciously in Russia’s Bolshevik or October Revolution (1917). So the fist, in one facet, is associated with the brutally authoritative tendencies of Lenin and Stalin…and Soviet legacies in turn skewed our understanding of Marx. So it goes.  In Literary Criticism, we come to understand exhaustively how symbols, words, and ideologies interact in this way – always re-interpreted, misinterpreted, and shaped over time. It is to the advantage of one ideology that another is mis-interpreted or “dirtied”, carrying with it a particular set of meanings (however “true” or “untrue”) that undermine its credibility among the public. Ideology reaches out to grasp and claim certain popular images, symbols, and words as a means to broaden its support base. Watch how, in the upcoming presidential election debates, candidates from their respective parties will dispute and lay claim to “democracy” or to “freedom”.

But do we look at the symbol of a fist, raised with whitened knuckles clenched, and think of “socialism”? I don’t think so. Not anymore.

To understand the  history of the clenched fist as a powerful symbol invoked across dozens of social movements is to witness the function of metaphor and of language. We developed the use of metaphor as a way to characterize and describe our experiences. Metaphor allows us to categorize “things” in our world, ascribe qualities or value to them, and simultaneously draw similarities between things while making important distinctions. This was Ferdinand de Saussere’s crucial insight in determining how languages work – we understand the meaning of words in relation to other words, a system of differences. Distinction becomes fundamental – to say something is one thing is to also infer what it is not.  The clenched fist is not compliance. It isn’t passive, it does not seek the status quo, it is not complacency.  But in the technical sense, the clenched fist isn’t a metaphor in the sense that we would write, “my fist is resistance.” But like metaphors, the “clenched fist” is representational and has had the effect of integrating “meanings” into itself.  And when the symbol is revived and recycled, as it has been in our time, it becomes (yet again) bloated with new and old meaning. Positive and negative associations abound. When we see the raised fist, as we did  in Otpor, the April 6 Movement, other Arab Spring movements, and yes even briefly in the Occupy Movement, certainly a set of meanings (words) immediately comes to mind. Among these are: “unity”, “resistance”, “defiance”, “solidarity”,  “revolution”, and perhaps even “democracy”.

How ironic! That our transcendental clenched fist was at once a symbol popularly depicted in ancient Assyria to resist violence, but also claimed by groups violently resisting oppression, by white and black nationalists, and by other groups that have extraordinarily conflicting notions of “freedom” and very different visions for what society and government should look like (e.g. anarchists and socialists). And yet, in the midst of these contradictions that surround one symbol, we nevertheless have a common understanding of what it means and what is intended. Even when its meaning is (especially this past year) shifting and expanding, a global understanding is forged.

What element, contained or conferred by this symbol, seems historically consistent? Well, “clenched fist” has always been a political gesture, usually implying the need for reform or revolution. Most groups/movements that have adopted the fist have used it to politicize an issue; seeking change through government or direct action, demonstrating that the formal institutions and channels for addressing grievances have grown clogged, inadequate, unresponsive. But the fist also confers the compulsion of physicality – a human fist is an appendage of an organic whole, of a body , and a social movement that brandishes the clenched fist is a public appeal to organize whole bodies in protest or solidarity. To make demands for change, the clenched fist necessitates a physical gathering,  beseeching the occupation of public space by bodies. Or perhaps simply an assembly of a group with a shared identity and shared interests. And it is in that way that the lone fist concurrently speaks to the individual and to the collective.

One last thing. Somewhere above, I wrote that the current ensemble of meaning surrounding the fist has (in some ways) become globalized. This has generated two competing tendencies. On the one hand, we’ve seen solidarity and formal or informal collaborating between movements that have invoked the symbol. Recall how Tunisia’s revolution spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with potent democratic undertones. And calls for democratic governance and for redress of economic disparities served to alter the meaning of the symbol. It ricocheted across the planet, a revolutionary air that has been felt by some like a breeze and to others like a typhoon.But there are risks. Adopted like a brand or logo by various movements, is it possible that the symbol has been overused or lost power due to overstimulus? Has its meaning become so inflated and all-encompassing as to be rendered nearly meaningless? Should boundaries be drawn for use of the “clenched fist” – which issues are most important for raising the spectre of direct action? But I wonder what other symbols could be as powerful or universal for urging action and change. OWS eventually abandoned the symbol, perhaps in the hopes of finding something more original for Occupy to use, to re-define or distinguish the movement, and to seek greater reception by the American public. Collective memory of the Black Power Movement, which was perceived by many Americans to be radical or violent, may in part explain the symbolic angst.

In sum, to trace the meanings and movements that have come to be enveloped by the “clenched fist” symbol, and the trajectory on which it has moved and morphed is truly insightful for how we understand symbols and the fluidity of the meaning attached to them.

One response to “The clenched fist: symbol, metaphor, brand

  1. Never made all of those connections between the single fist and it’s meanings. A couple more fists for thought: the 1968 Olympics 200 meter medal presentation with gold medalist Tommie Smith & bronze medalist John Carlos famously holding up their fists during the medal ceremony, which some associate as the “black power salute.”

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