A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Rhodes Must Fall: An Embodied Rhetorical Assertion

Richard Marback,  Wayne State University

(Published January 3, 2018)

Rhodes, Malan and Hertzog are divisive campus figures who remind black students of their oppression then and their alienation now. But university leaders make a strategic mistake to think these protests are simply about statues. They are about a deeper transformation of universities – including the complexion of the professoriate – that remains largely unchanged.
-Chumani Maxwele qtd. in Fekisi and Vollenhoven


Figure 1. Chumani Maxwele throwing excrement at Cecil Rhodes statue, March 9, 2015

On Monday, March 9, 2015, Chumani Maxwele carried a bucket of human waste from the township of Khayelitsha to the University of Cape Town and poured it over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that then dominated the campus approach. Maxwele’s actions inspired consolidation on campus of the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement, which identifies itself as a group of students and staff members from the University of Cape Town who have organized to protest institutionalized racism at their university.

Figure 2. #FeesMustFall protest outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, October 12, 2015

After gaining momentum over the next few months, the protest that began in March on the University of Cape Town campus spread to other campuses across South Africa, including the University of Witwatersrand, the University of Stellenbosch, and Rhodes University. The protests closed each of these schools for days or more at a time. Protests also expanded in scope as well as scale. On Friday, October 23, 2015, students marched on government buildings in the South African administrative capital, Pretoria, and used the hashtag “feesmustfall” to demand from South African President Jacob Zuma that tuition at South African universities not be raised because the cost of higher education is already prohibitive for most South Africans of color.

Figure 3. Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, March 9, 2016

Student protests in South Africa quickly inspired student protests in other nations. In May 2015, students at Oxford University in England—sympathetic to the Rhodes Must Fall movement—organized their own protest against the presence of memorials to Rhodes on their campus with the hashtag “rhodesmustfalloxford.” In an opinion piece written for the Washington Post in November 2015, Karen Attiah drew parallels between the protests started at the University of Cape Town and more recent protests on the campus of Princeton University which demanded that Woodrow Wilson be expunged from the campus because of his racist views (Attiah). That same month, law students at Harvard University were inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall protests to demand the removal of the Harvard Law School Shield because its design is based on the family crest of Isaac Royall—a slave owner whose estate helped endow the first professorship in law at the school (“Harvard Law”). As a sign of their association with the Rhodes Must Fall protests, they used “royallmustfall” as their hashtag. Protests inspired by Maxwele that spread from universities in South Africa to college campuses in Great Britain and the United States have all drawn attention to objects such as statues, shields, names on buildings, and the question of whether they should be retained or removed; but, as Maxwele first insisted after he poured human waste on the Rhodes statue, his protest was always about more than the object itself.

Figure 4. Harvard Law School Crest

For the Harvard Law School Shield Committee, debate over the school’s shield was also about more than the shield itself; it was about the question of whether this “official symbol of the Law School helps or hinders” the goal of “reminding ourselves and others of the role of wealth derived from slave labor in its founding and using that knowledge as a spur to promote racial justice within the broader mission of striving to ensure that the law itself is just through the students we educate” (“Recommendation”). Members of the committee agreed on the importance of preserving things that serve as reminders of the past. However, they disagreed over whether the shield is a sufficient enough reminder of the past and whether its representation of the past provides enough knowledge to “spur” faculty and students to pursue justice in the present. Most decided it was not and that the shield should therefore be removed. Annette Gordon-Reed dissented from the committee recommendation to remove the shield by arguing that more knowledge about the past is always preferable to less: “Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins, and connections to the people whom we should see as our progenitors (the enslaved people at Royall’s plantations, not Isaac Royall), is not lost” (“A Different View”).

Figure 5. Royall Must Fall Crest

While the committee described the shield in epistemological terms—as a reminder and a source for a knowing that ought to inspire—Gordon-Reed’s dissent expressed an epistemological extreme in which knowing about the past becomes an ethical end in itself. In contrast to both of these positions, earlier statements from the Rhodes Must Fall movement describe the Rhodes statue less as a reminder, less as a source for knowledge of that which might inspire, and more as a “spur”—an affective prick of injustice. Claims made in the Rhodes Must Fall petition suggest that objects such as the statue of Rhodes can participate forcefully—even violently—by keeping us bound in specific ways to particular pasts not through knowledge and narrative but through a visceral assault and erasure. For example, the petition states that “The statue has great symbolic power; it glorifies a mass-murderer who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people. Its presence erases black history and is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff” (“Rhodes Must Fall Petition”). As much as they differ in their eventual reflection about things, statements from the Harvard committee and the Rhodes Must Fall protesters, when taken together, affirm Maxwele’s insistence that the protests are less about the things themselves and are more about grappling with what Scott Barnett and Casey Boyle describe as “the many ways that things both occasion rhetorical action and act as suasive rhetorical forces” (2).


To get a sense of the degree to which debate about the Rhodes Must Fall protests unfolded as a disagreement over the ways things “occasion rhetorical action and act as suasive rhetorical forces,” consider responses to the protests which insist the Rhodes statue ought to occasion rhetorical action by acting as nothing more than a passive object of discussion. From this perspective, the statue is less a spur and more a reminder that is not even necessary for those who already know better. Daniel Hannan, for example, responded to the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford protest by refusing to grant things any role in the conversations about discrimination in higher education. He characterized attention paid to the statue as “sheer oafishness” and “too silly for words.” Kenan Malik also denied the Rhodes statue any role in helping or hindering protesters in their pursuit of institutional reform, insisting instead that the student protesters were better served by turning away from involving the statue and toward engaging other people in efforts to reform higher education. For Malik, “turning a statue of Cecil Rhodes into an invented psychological trauma, or demanding that it be removed as an act of ‘decolonization’, will change neither the way that people look upon the past, nor challenge the injustices of the present” (Malik). Though sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters, Oxford historian Timothy Garston Ash nonetheless concluded that involving the Rhodes statue in debates about decolonizing higher education falls short as effective dialogue. Characterizing the protests as “both made and marred by its hyperbole,” Ash cautions against getting distracted and urges students to stay focused on the issues because, “Addressing these effectively, not just rhetorically, is quite complicated.”

Figure 6. Vandalized statue of Cecil Rhodes at University of Cape Town

Ash’s language dismisses the statue as nothing more than a passive object, and he describes protesters assaulting the Rhodes statue as raising important issues “rhetorically” but not “effectively” by making the thing itself into what Malik called the locus for “an invented psychological trauma”—something imagined but not real. Hannan also emphasizes the statue’s inertness by claiming the protesters are giving undue influence to an “offending mass of metal.” Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, similarly juxtaposed the hyperbolic rhetoric of defiling statues to the real dialogue required for institutional reform when he observed, “If you want to be thoughtful about transformation, you need to understand what trade-offs we are prepared to make, for what reason and why. . . . We need an intelligent conversation, rather than a rhetorical conversation” (qtd. in Havergal).

I have selected these responses out of the broader debate surrounding the protests to highlight how their phrasing of questions regarding the role of objects in addressing injustices of apartheid and colonialism characterizes those things as remainders of past human activity. These responses characterizes things as inert—if not lifeless, then most certainly part of a static background for present human action and so demanding nothing more from us than our refusal to let those statues and plaques and building names lure us into conversations that are merely rhetorical and ultimately inconsequential to the present project of decolonization.

Figure 7. “The Rhodes Collosus” Punch 1892

Critics of the protesters push against the ontological leanings of the protest rhetoric by rejecting the protestors’ willingness to experience and interact with things directly and physically, as “spurs,” rather than indirectly and conceptually as “reminders.” But as Rhodes Must Fall protesters insisted, things like the Rhodes statue persist violently, which makes the environment itself into an extension of human activity—something other than a lifeless, static background—something more like an insistent spur. Like all objects in a built environment, such as the University of Cape Town campus, the Rhodes statue imposes itself on the landscape it shares with students, faculty, and staff. It does so not in isolation from other objects in the environment but as one feature in a geography formed through an historical layering of assertions and experiences of colonial power. Being forced to physically move past and around the Rhodes statue becomes part of the experience of racial identities—an experience built into the institution through an accumulated distribution of objects across campus.

It would be a mistake to reduce disagreement between protesters and their critics to a simple choice between speaking epistemologically about things as “reminders” worth keeping and speaking ontologically about things as “spurs” worth removing. The choice is a false one. As S. Scott Graham has argued, “rhetorically friendly new materialisms” must “begin with the symbolic, the affective, and the physical as ontological coequals” (121). To choose otherwise, Graham continues, would be to unproductively reiterate a binary opposition between things as we know and describe them and things as we might physically encounter them unbound from those descriptions. Heeding Graham’s advice, my choice here is to return to and stay focused on Maxwele’s initial engagement with the University of Cape Town Rhodes statue—his act of dumping a bucket of human feces on it. I do so because his physical encounter with the statue expresses a commitment to the statue as a thing that remains, as he insisted, about more than the object itself. Keeping attention turned to Maxwele’s act resists the polarization that too quickly followed the spread and the response to the student protests that he inspired—a forced choice between things like statues serving either as reminders or as spurs.

The fact that debate about the protests unfolded in terms of choosing between removing a spur or retaining a reminder suggests there is a middle way to navigate the false choice between the two. Still, the temptation to impose this false choice remains great in large part, as I argue in what follows, because the embodied interactions people have (and can have) with memorial objects become sites of struggle for evoking the presence of a past fraught with oppression.


Appeals to embodied interactions with memorial objects have informed recent rhetorical theories aimed at accounting for the power of those monuments and memorials to recall us to the past. In their overview of the intersections of rhetorical theory with research on memorials and memory studies, Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian Ott track major trends in scholarship that explain how memorial objects (such as the Rhodes statue) call upon publics to gather around the creation of collective memories that assign those objects their significance. Specific places and certain objects deserve special attention and so come to matter because their material form and “seeming permanence” locate “the sites of civic importance and their subject matters as the stories of the society” (28). The physical matter that comes to matter is a question of affective saturation—the intensity of feeling that acquires a material presence in that it literally comes to matter in one object here rather than another object over there. Although Blair, Dickinson, and Ott acknowledge that such formulations are more provocative than systematic, they nonetheless highlight the usefulness of these formulations. They do so by noting a central concern in Sara Ahmed’s work on affect, which they phrase as the question, “What sticks?” Their summary of Ahmed’s work on affect as a question about stickiness is meant to convey “how objects, signs, and bodies ‘become saturated with affect’” (15). Phrased as questions, these concerns ask, “What makes it stick? how? and with what effects?” (18).

Saturation and stickiness connote tactility. That which sticks and saturates rubs off on and adheres to whoever or whatever comes into contact with that which is affectively saturated. It is hard to avoid and difficult to wash off. Even though such connotations are less than theoretically rigorous, I nonetheless find the language of affective saturation and stickiness to be useful because it is ambiguous. For one thing, it is a language echoed in Jane Bennett’s reflections on “vibrant matter,” such as the claim that there are no “unequivocal demarcations between, human, animal, vegetable, or material,” a vital materialism in which “portions congeal into bodies” in a generative fecundity of ontologically diverse assemblages (117). Unfortunately, the vocabulary of stickiness—with its suggestions of adhesion and viscosity—is at odds with a vocabulary of circulation, flow, mobility, and velocity—with its suggestions of trajectories and impact. The latter is often called upon to account for the threshold of activities that distinguish sites of civic importance and inflect questions about “the past in ways very much having to do with the present” (Blair, Dickinson, Ott 29). Pushed too far, vocabularies of stickiness and flow can each force the unproductive choice between things as affective spurs and things as cognitive reminders—reifying an imperative to choose between the thing physically present and experienced and that which the thing recalls and remembers.

The challenge in rhetorical studies of memorials and monuments has been one of finding the point where a thing, like the Rhodes statue, acquires enough affective saturation to make any account of the past stick to experiences of it in the present. Typically, this challenge has been met by describing how the physical movement relative to a memorial or monument enacts a reminder that provokes a feeling for the past. One prominent example is Blair and Michel’s description of the Civil Rights Memorial as a stage inviting “an ensemble of interrelated performances” (32) from visitors. Blair and Michel emphasize the physical structure of the memorial, which is “positioned so as to create dislocation, tension, and (minor) inconvenience” (47). According to Blair and Michel, the memorial obstructs the path of visitors, invites their attention to its presence, and in so doing engages those visitors in a “historical re-creation” of the experience of the civil rights protesters (47).

Figure 8. Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, AL

Blair, Dickinson, and Ott challenge us to be cautious of such claims for performative re-creation. They point out that such claims assume the performance itself can stand in as some kind of authentic experience. They note Bradford Vivian’s observation that “There is a crucial distinction . . . between accepting authenticity on its own terms and regarding it as a feature of the discourse by which memory is enacted” (27; Vivian 299). Graham makes the point as well when he cautions against forcing the choice between locating the authentic nature of a thing either in direct physical experience or a discourse that shapes awareness of experience. The claim for historical re-creation paired with cautions regarding the authenticity of such representations suggest that questions of what sticks are best phrased not as questions about authenticity but as questions about how people encounter and experience objects—the touch and texture of experiencing affect “taking hold” at a specific site within a larger rhetorical geography.

The problem is that descriptions of how the past saturates an object to the point of making it “sticky” enough for a feeling to take hold rarely account for individual experiences of immediate contact with the thing and instead appeal to patterns of repeated encounters by large numbers of people who reiterate the preference for a specific place as a space of civic attachment. Emphasis on the uneven distribution of activity and attention here and not there establishes a site as a “space of attention” on the basis of the activity in that place. Measuring quantity distinguishes a site from, and so perpetuates exclusion of, other distant spaces of inattention. In these terms, the performative enactment of what sticks where is explained in terms of a flow of competing public enactments accumulating concern here and not there. At this point,  the concepts of flow and stickiness work at cross purposes. On the one hand, the vocabulary of circulation is useful for tracing the activities that concentrate at one site rather than another. On the other hand, circulation by itself does not account for that concentration of often divergent activities that nonetheless have enough internal continuity over time to preserve some kind of experience of authenticity—to make the experience of significance stick. Vocabularies of circulation can track engagements with monuments to identify what we can call authentic spaces of attention; but locating something like the Rhodes statue as a space of authentic attention does not do much to allow for specific encounters like Maxwele’s—visceral encounters that deviate from others but nonetheless appear genuine, if for no other reason than the intensity of responses.

My point is that appeals to movement and the circulation of attention do not fully account for the persistence, the intensity—the stickiness—of affective immediacy at memorials and monuments. Two accounts of the Monument to Joe Louis in Detroit illustrate this. Arguing for the rhetorical character of the Monument to Joe Louis, Victoria Gallagher and Margaret LaWare evoke larger geographies of attention and inattention by observing that receptions of “The Fist,” as it is called, “are contingent on location and audience, the product of a complex physical—as well as historical, political, and social—context” (89). Their account of the rhetorical impact of The Fist includes reference to Detroit “communities marginalized and made invisible” (90), but discussion of those marginalized communities hovers at the abstract level of culture, economics, history, and politics. They elide accounts of a distribution of disembodied, structural inequalities with affective saturations that stick to things. Such descriptions make sense of the monument as an object within a larger swirl of more general social problems, but those problems are presented in such broad terms that they lack the affective intensity to “stick” to a specific thing like The Fist as opposed to anything and everything else.

Figure 9. Monument to Joe Louis, Detroit, MI

In response to vandalism carried out by Brett Cashman and John Price—who threw white paint on The Fist to “unclench it” and  negate its force as a symbol of Black Power—I argued that any attempt to explain their actions by appealing to things like Detroit’s geography of race makes the vandalism seem inevitable—the product of structures that overdetermine the motives and movements of the vandals. If The Fist makes visible the structural dynamics of racial inequality and racial tension in Detroit, then the vandalism cannot but make sense. But the “sense” made by the explanation is not the sense Cashman and Price had of The Fist. They were confronting a “living thing animated with agency, desire, feelings, and intentions” (55)—a thing they experienced so intensely, they wanted to wash away the affect that sticks to it.

Figure 10. Monument to Joe Louis vandalized, February 23, 2004

Like the paint Cashman and Price threw on The Fist, the human waste Maxwele threw at the Rhodes statue was a sticky, tactile manifestation of affective saturation. Carrying a bucket of human waste from the Khayelitsha township to the University of Cape Town, bringing into contact two different things—a bronze statue and human waste—Maxwele disrupted the dynamics of spatial segregation by which different affective saturations had come to stick to different objects. Unlike Cashman and Price, Maxwele smeared the thing with sticky stuff not to wash away affective intensity but to make it more tangibly present.

Figure 11. Chumani Maxwele throwing excrement at Cecil Rhodes statue, March 9, 2015

I take seriously claims made by Maxwele, other Rhodes Must Fall representatives, and the Harvard Law School Shield Committee that protests which engage things like statues and shields are not about those statues and shields but rather are about the unjust conditions that perpetuate inequalities. At the same time, as I have just suggested, taking such claims seriously involves staying focused on what sticks—and what sticks affectively is intimately involved with what sticks viscerally in experiences of injustice. Taking this stance toward Maxwele’s initial protest—his act of throwing human waste on the statue of Cecil Rhodes—directs our attention beyond the question of what things like statues or shields symbolize toward a more thoroughgoing challenge to think rhetorical activity in terms of the bodily encounters and visceral experiences through which those things acquire their affective saturation.

By raising the question of “what sticks where,” Maxwele’s protest offers a more fundamental challenge to the uneven flow in embodied human activity through which rhetorical significance comes to stick more to some things than to others. Maxwele’s protest was deliberately not deliberative. It was an engagement with a hierarchy that structures claims for authenticity by imposing on human experience a sensory ordering of rhetorical embodiment.


Maxwele’s protest—carrying a bucket of human waste twenty-seven kilometers from a township to the university campus—explicitly challenges the authenticity of a landscape, its logic of memorialization, and its rhetoric of verbal expression that distribute attention unevenly. As Frantz Fanon argues in the first chapter of Wretched of the Earth, spatial isolation of the colonized by colonizer is a violent assertion carved in stone: “a world of statues: the statues of the general who led the conquest . . . . A world cock-sure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of those scarred by the whip” (15). This world is a divided landscape that requires violent response—a response like Maxwele dumping human waste on the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Fanon characterizes such individual acts of violence as “a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence. Even if the armed struggle has been symbolic . . . the people have time to realize that liberation was the achievement of each and every one” (51). That human waste might serve as a cleansing force seems contradictory at best, but Maxwele’s physical act was cleansing in the sense that it demonstrated his refusal to passively accept a petrified world of statues “crushing with [their] stoniness” the bodies of the oppressed. The human waste Maxwele threw at the statue itself was more than inert matter. Because Maxwele and fellow students (Wandile Kasibe, Baxolele Zono, and Zabelo Mcinzima) were forced to interact daily with sewage, they decided that human feces was an ideal medium to protest colonial compartmentalization. By exposing that world to the raw sewerage that is a daily reality for township residents, Maxwele refused passivity. He unleashed on the statue the affective saturation of living in spatial isolation.

I met Kasibe again to discuss the plan of action, focusing on more concrete action, with a time and date as well as what exactly would be done. He suggested that we use human excrement that runs exposed through Khayelitsha so that we could speak to the urgent need for human dignity for the black people living in shacks in Khayelitsha in inhumane conditions and indignity. Kasibe said that, by throwing poo at the statue of Rhodes, we would symbolise the filthy way in which Rhodes mistreated our people in the past. Equally, we would show disgust at the manner in which UCT, as a leading South African institution of learning, celebrates the genocidal Rhodes. In short, the poo would be an institutional appraisal of UCT. (Maxwele)

Even though his protest is symbolic in the sense that it attempts to register his disgust, one would be mistaken to view Maxwele’s actions as merely symbolic—as nothing more than bringing human excrement into contact with an “offending mass of metal” to draw attention to, and to act as a reminder of, an unjust landscape that divides the material indignities of township life from the intellectual privilege of university education. To view his protest this way would be to miss the visceral experience of the protest achieving affective saturation—interacting with and being present to the relative stickiness and tactility of excrement and metal. Critics like Hannan, Malik, Ash, and Habib who respond with calls for “intelligent conversation”  (through which the statue becomes an object for discussion rather than a subject in the discussion) miss the point of the challenge posed by Maxwele’s protest. Maxwele challenges conversations that try to be unsullied by what sticks and what is unstuck from our visceral involvement with such things as masses of metal and buckets of human waste and the structures that keep those things apart from each other and, in certain places, apart from our concern.

Keeping material things out of conversations allows those discussions to remain “merely rhetorical”—empty words and symbolic gestures. Ignoring, denying, or distorting our embodied presence in a world of physical matter further discounts how the uneven distribution of things like statues—and consequently the distribution of  different experiences of those things—function within colonial and apartheid rhetorics. These rhetorics also shape experiences with things like human waste—the urine and feces which remind us all of our own biological being—through an infrastructure that orchestrates attention to routines of bodily function. In this regard, Crystal Powell, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cape Town, recounts the embarrassment she felt when she first had to urinate in a communal bucket during her ethnographic research in Langa township.

While standing in the middle of the shack I realized that I had to use the bathroom . . . . There were several women in the house and one of them motioned to another to get the bucket. . . . She placed the bucket on the floor in the middle of the shack. There was too short a window between the time the bucket was placed on the floor and when the other women began turning their backs to give me privacy before I could object. I was uncomfortable. . . . It seemed to be a natural experience for them and I did not want to draw any more attention to myself. (quoted in Nyamnjoh, p 75-76)

Expectations for what is natural or what feels uncomfortable regarding a basic, embodied experience are never ours alone but are developed through habits of using things like bathrooms or buckets placed on the floor in the middle of a shack occupied by other people. And the habits we cultivate depend on the access we have to things like bathrooms and buckets—things that have been built into and distributed across our environment.

Figure 12. Khayelitsha open air toilet

Like all else in the built environment, the uneven distribution of bathrooms and buckets is not accidental even if it is not always intentional. But in Cape Town, urban apartheid—the segregation of blacks in townships away from whites in the city center—was the product of a “sanitation syndrome,” which is Maynard Swanson’s term for the process during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which disease and epidemiology provided the British and Afrikaners metaphors useful for providing segregationist solutions to concrete social problems. By equating the squalid conditions in which black South Africans were forced to live with threats to the public health and security of white South Africans, government officials “buttressed a desire to achieve positive social controls, and confirmed or rationalized white race prejudice with a popular imagery of medical menace” (Swanson 410).

Figure 13. ANC Youth leaders pouring human waste on the steps of the Provincial Legislature, Cape Town, South Africa, June 3, 2013

When Kasibe suggested to Maxwele that he dump a bucket of human feces on the Rhodes statue, thereby invoking the same disgust felt in response to the human waste that flows through the streets of Khayelitsha, he was suggesting a physical engagement with embodied habits of defecation enforced through segregated sanitation infrastructures. The act became more than hyperbole by disrupting a rhetorical ecology in which things like statues are made to stand apart from—but always also in a relation of superiority to—human waste.

By the time Maxwele dumped a bucket of feces on the Rhodes statue in 2015, protests involving human waste had already occupied residents on the Western Cape for several years. Those protests were motivated by township residents who were dissatisfied with progress made by the government in providing basic infrastructure that had been denied them during legal apartheid. Residents took offense to the unenclosed community toilets provided by the regional government as a short-term solution to the absence of modern plumbing in the townships (Robbins). Prior to national elections in 2011, images of unenclosed community toilets in Khayelitsha circulated in the news media, which exposed the regional government to public embarrassment. In 2013, to continue expressing their agitation towards the township toilets, protesters threw feces on streets, highways, and the entrance to a government building. These protests made present in the urban center of Cape Town the experience of living in the tangible presence of human waste,  which was already a daily fact of life in the townships.

Figure 14. Khayelitsha open air toilet

In their essay, “The Poolitical City,” Colin McFarlane and Jonathan Silver use the term “poolitical” to identify the ways human waste was made visible as a political matter and so became a participant in protest rhetoric. McFarlane and Silver, both geographers, invoke a visual metaphor to  describe the political participation of human waste and sanitation: “The poolitical emerges from conflict over different ways of seeing distributions of the body, the infrastructural, and the sensorial, but in so doing becomes a question of dignity, race, gender, citizenship, history, and the prospects of urban justice” (McFarlane and Silver, 3). Unfortunately, their metaphor of “seeing distributions of the body” reduces the tactility and affective saturation of physical engagement with defecation, feces, and sanitation infrastructure to the single sensory register of visual representation. By privileging visual sensation and its associated rhetoric of representation, McFarlane and Silver weaken the force of their argument regarding the sensory import of the protest. The waste used by protesters becomes, in their argument, a metonym, which persuades by representing inequalities as such. The human feces spewed on statues, streets, and stairs is denied the persuasive force of being physically experienced as the sticky stuff it is. Because it downplays the role of other senses in “the materiality of human waste and the reception of that materiality,” their analysis does not get far beyond the kinds of disembodied conversations with which Maxwele’s critics countered his protest. Their analysis continues to privilege conversations that are cleansed of the visceral presence of sticky things like the odors and textures of human waste.

Figure 15. Workers clearing human waste thrown in protest on N2 highway, Cape Town, South Africa, August 7, 2013

This is not to dismiss efforts to account for the protests by bringing awareness to the geographic forces that distribute inequality. Such accounts draw necessary critical attention to how the biopolitics of defecation and sanitation and their articulation through rhetorical conventions in the geography of Cape Town enact a process through which sensory hierarchies become internalized and human rhetorical agency becomes consolidated around control over bodies, waste, and matter. At the same time, however, critical accounts such as McFarlane and Silver’s elide the tactile immediacy—the stickiness—of rhetorical embodiment. They cannot adequately defend Maxwele against critics who charge that ceding to the influence of a thing like an “offending mass of metal” or making a statement with a bucket of feces is to appear silly, perverse, or out of control. This is because the rhetoric of representation used to make sense of human waste as protest is cleansed of smells and textures. Responding to Maxwele’s protest by focusing on that which is seen—the statue of Rhodes—fails to register the presence of that which can be felt and smelt—feces. My point is that progressive critics like McFarlane and Silver—or even Malik who otherwise acknowledges the material consequences of racial injustice—nonetheless have trouble feeling the force of protests that productively unleash the affective saturation of living in an unjustly unsanitary township racially isolated from the university’s sanitized, memorial landscape.

For critics of the campus protesters, including those who share their cause, human actors do better to rise above, control, and deliberate among themselves about the injustices of their environments than to spread filth. From this rhetorical disposition, Maxwele appears misguided because he goes too far by disrupting a sensory hierarchy that consolidates human agency in control of bodily functions. However, I do not think Maxwele carried a bucket of human waste from Khayelitsha township to the University of Cape Town campus and poured it on the Rhodes statue to suggest there should be no differentiations made regarding what sticks where. By invoking stickiness to explain his use of feces as rhetoric, I am suggesting that rhetorical activity does not function outside hierarchies of sensory experience that habituate us to attend to or ignore embodied experiences.

More attuned to the embodied rhetorics of the protesters, media activist Gillian Schutte describes the protests involving human waste in terms of a semiotics that explicitly challenges a hierarchical organization of sense perception made in terms of dividing white, clean, rational, disembodied, and human from black, dirty, irrational, embodied, and animalistic. Schutte is worth quoting at length:

By importing the unfettered faeces of the poor collective, who live with dismally inadequate sanitation, into the deodorised spaces of those who are able to flush their own faeces away in toilets, they are successfully exposing the extreme and dehumanising cruelty of a capitalist system which privileges some and entirely deprivileges others.

By the same token using “dirty language” to express frustration at enduring white hegemony or at political elitism is an equally valid form of insurrection, as is stencilling profanities onto monoliths of race-based power rooted in a protracted history of colonialism and representative of entrenched white male privilege, such as Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town (UCT). . . .

Instead of engaging the semiotics of this protest action from the subaltern perspective, [the privileged class] insist this is just bad behaviour. They develop top-down arguments to criminalise black struggle and to silence black rage. (Schutte)

To refuse the embodied semiotics of the protests by characterizing them as silly or hyperbolic is to deflect the challenge those protests pose to people who take for granted the orchestration of bodily functions that entangle people in a built environment. The protests are a struggle against the effort, built into the environment, to privilege ideas of human subjects as unstuck and unencumbered from their bodily functions or the inert matter of physical objects. The protesters reject the idea that progressing beyond colonialism and decolonizing education involves students of color learning to become unstuck from the structures that marginalize them. They reject that it is incumbent upon them alone to somehow occupy space unencumbered by their bodies or by the tactility of an unequal distribution of things in their environment.


Figure 16. Protesters burning paintings, Unviersity of Cape Town, February 17, 2016

While it is tempting to account for Maxwele’s protest—and through his protest, the Rhodes Must Fall movement—in terms of the politics of sanitation in Cape Town and the larger injustices of apartheid, I think such accounts incomplete. When taken too far, these accounts diminish the traction of Maxwele’s act—his affective unleashing of a visceral challenge to shift what sticks where. Unfortunately, even the protesters themselves have at times gone too far. Having gotten stuck on whether to retain or remove the Rhodes statue from the campus of the University of Cape Town, protesters have since turned their focus from removing offending symbols to destroying what they feel are colonialist paintings—among them paintings by Richard Baholo, the first Black South African to earn an MFA at University of Cape Town (Langerman).

Maxwele’s use of human feces to display his disgust with the Rhodes legacy refuses to reduce to the structural politics of sanitation; at the same time, it resists iconoclasm. The protest in this sense recalls Joshua Gunn’s suggestion for a rhetoric of fecal matter that finds liberation through exploration in a style he describes as coprophilic excess: “This style of public address must be akin to street shitting! This style must truly be risky and creative. (Self)consumption should be emptied out into a prideful overproduction, gluttony in reverse” (Gunn, 93-94). Critical of privileging the visual over the tactile, Joshua Gunn argues that claims made in terms that privilege the seeing of feces—over sensations of smelling or touching feces—participate in a hierarchy of human sense perception which disciplines our bodies and subsequently sanitizes our spoken and written engagements with each other (85). Gunn’s proposal for “a new coprophilic style of public address (viz., of shitting/speaking within a public),” which is a style rich with the sensory fecundity of matter, pushes against rhetorics that cultivate decorum out of disciplining biological urges and disparaging bodily functions. While Gunn develops his argument in psychoanalytic terms, Jay Dolmage draws from ancient rhetoric to illustrate how processes of negating bodily excretion contribute to the construction of an epistemologically biased rhetorical tradition. As an example, he quotes a passage from the Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle writes that many people believe the “practically wise and clever are incontinent,” to observe that it suggests “some forms of thought . . . are continent, while others . . . are linked with incontinence” (11-12). Incontinent thought and expression is practically wise and clever; it is the other of embodied restraint and control over bodily movements. Letting go of a rhetoric of continence in favor of a cunning incontinence “means admitting that rhetoric has a body.” Dolmage concludes by proposing the use of “cunning rather than brute force to defeat a tradition that has channeled oppressive strength to delimit rhetorical possibility. .  . to begin describing to ourselves (and our students) what rhetorical bodies can do” (21-22).

As something rhetorical bodies can do, Maxwele’s fecal protest may well be a cunning challenge to the oppressive strength of colonial rhetoric. However, I think more is required from Maxwele’s “prideful overproduction”—his refusal to hold in what sticks—for it to become a “risky and creative” embrace of affective immediacy not for its own sake but as a refusal to aspire to become unstuck and unencumbered from the immediacy of sticky things. In this case, stickiness becomes a matter of what matters—care and concern, pain and anguish—emotional involvement in embodied intensities in a world of matter.

Cape Town artist Thuli Gamedze draws a similar conclusion from Maxwele’s protest in her June 12, 2015 essay, “Decolonization as Art Practice.” After rejecting narrow representations of the protest as “a tunnel-vision campaign for the removal of a statue as the over-arching solution to the removal of a regime,” she argues instead for Rhodes Must Fall as a fecund, embodied rhetoric. Focus on Rhodes Must Fall as a controversy surrounding the statue misses the point that the momentum of the protests belongs to creative acts of making embodied experiences of pain and anger present to others through “a discipline of creative and risky thinking, and a discipline of mobilisation and activism.” The immediacy of affective intensity must be found in the encounters where they acquire their charge. Gamedze concludes that “in a communal learning space, we all become makers and viewers, writers, sellers, buyers, curators, and narrators, and then we can take art to allude to creative response and exchange as its very ‘objectness’, as we have seen with the ‘MustFall’ image/ artwork/ creative notion/ conversation.” Gamedze’s call for inventive practices that express pain and anger to generate change echoes in Achille Mbembe’s proposal for decolonizing education in response to Rhodes Must Fall. Arguing for what he calls a pedagogy of presence, Mbembe appeals for an educational environment in which faculty and students make and remake themselves as embodied beings in relationship with each other; for “there is something we could call a Fanonian theory of decolonization, that is where it is, in the dialectic of time, life and creation – which for him is the same as self-appropriation.” As a matter of rhetoric, Mbembe concludes that people make themselves by making things: “Decolonization is not about design, tinkering with the margins. It is about reshaping, turning human beings once again into craftsmen and craftswomen who, in reshaping matters and forms, need not to look at the pre-existing models and need not use them as paradigms.” The generative potential of multiple rhetorical bodies cannot be infinite but are always constrained by their presence and responsiveness to each other. The ways they generate relationships, cultivate connections, and inspire compassion for one another can create feelings of boundedness. 

But the Rhodes Must Fall demonstrations that have defiled statues or burnt paintings have been more exuberantly iconoclastic and destructive than pridefully over-productive. To get a sense of how difficult it is to become unstuck from rhetorics of representation that isolate people from each other, consider the University of Cape Town Trans Collective’s protest against “Echoing Voices from Within” which was an art exhibition chronicling the first year of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Members of the Trans Collective—a student-led “organisation of trans*, gender non-binary and intersex students, staff and workers at the University of Cape Town”—obstructed the entrance to the gallery with their bodies, smeared paint on some of the photographs, and held a rally expressing their concerns about the lack of inclusiveness of Rhodes Must Fall. A statement released by the Trans Collective described the role of their organization as one of “speaking back to RMF and keeping it accountable to its commitment to intersectionality precisely because it is positioned as a black decolonial space” (Hendricks).

Figure 17. Trans Collective protesters block entry to Centre for African Studies Gallery, University of Cape Town, March 10, 2016

The Trans Collective’s occupation of the exhibition space drew attention to a drift in the movement. By substituting the Rhodes statue with photographs documenting protests against the statue, the exhibition reifies Rhodes Must Fall in much the same way the statue reified Rhodes. Like the statue, the photographs are assumed to be reminders rather than spurs. But the photographs themselves, like the statue, are in some sense beside the point. The protest is, as Maxwele insisted from the beginning, not about the statue. Neither, then, is the Trans Collective’s protest really about the exhibition. Rather, the statues of Rhodes and the photographs of Rhodes Must Fall protests are spurs of affective immediacy that can come and go. These spurs fade in or out of our attention in a communal space of response and exchange in which faculty and students engage those objects as part of a process of engaging each other in inventing, experiencing, evaluating, and debating the urgency of their presence to the project of embodying rhetorical activity. That is to say, what gets generated must find somewhere to stick and catch our attention and involve us in change.

Figure 18. Member of the Trans Collective smearing red paint on a photo of Chumani Maxwele pouring excrement on Cecil Rhodes statue, Centre for African Studies Gallery, University of Cape Town, March 10, 2016


As I recount above, Maxwele’s act of dumping human waste on a bronze statue has inspired students at other universities, including Oxford and Harvard, to raise questions of “what sticks” at their respective institutions. And as I have argued, the ways those questions have been asked and the answers they have generated fail to address the distributions of rhetorical embodiment at stake in Maxwele’s protest because they remain focused on whether a statue or a shield acts as a reminder or a spur which should be retained or removed. Those who advocate for removal are suggesting that the absence of memorials is enough to dislodge embodied habits from a larger environment that stimulates the stickiness of affective saturation. Those who argue for retaining memorials—like Annette Gordon-Reed who dissented from the Harvard Law School Shield Committee recommendation—claim that human discourse has the power to channel the affective saturation of memorial objects toward more productive concerns and more just ends.

Figure 19. Royall Must Fall Crest

At this point, someone might observe that my argument about protest against the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town does not transfer all that well to other protests, like those against the Law School Shield at Harvard. One could argue that the protest at Harvard, however much it was inspired by the protest in South Africa, was fundamentally different. I want to conclude by countering that the Harvard protest raises the same concerns as the Cape Town protests, and  approaching those protests in terms of the kind of embodied rhetoric I argue for highlights the value of asking questions about what sticks and why. The Royall Must Fall Shield, created by Marium Khawaja, does more than recall the hard labor of enslaved persons on Royall’s plantation. The Royall Must Fall Shield also alludes to a present in which the educational work “of striving to ensure that the law itself is just” is carried out by embodied persons in a space created and also maintained through physical labor of persons with whom faculty and students always have a relationship of structural interdependence.

To argue otherwise, like Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust when she claimed that “If we can better understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time,” is to isolate the past from the present by containing it in a space of deliberative consideration (qtd. in “Harvard and Slavery”). An artifact materializing this stance is the plaque placed on Wadsworth house in April 2016 to acknowledge four slaves who were owned by past presidents of the university. Their names framed by the shape of the plaque, Titus and Venus, Juba and Bilhah are acknowledged as part of a past which, as Gilpin Faust affirms, “continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” Whatever the merits of the gesture, it perpetuates a rhetoric which can erase or ignore the spur of the past by not questioning its own privileging of a disembodied distance. The plaque does not do much to change how or why the past of slavery “sticks” to the current institution because that past is safely contained in the frame of a reminder. Ta-Nehisi Coates made the point at a recent conference on academia’s ties to slavery when he stated, “I don’t know how you conduct research showing your very existence is rooted in a great crime, and then you just say, ‘Well, sorry’ and walk away’” (Schuessler).

Figure 20. Wadsworth House plaque identifying four slaves owned by past presidents of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

As much as Maxwele’s actions inspired protests on other campuses, those related protests could only do so much by engaging commemorative objects. Taking  on Maxwele’s challenge to us to acknowledge how our hopes for and responses to memorial objects are functions of adopted and embodied habits and routines that get us stuck in creating and sustaining disregard for others requires rhetorical re-embodiment—feeling the weight of our visceral involvement with things. However much Rhodes Must Fall and the other protests failed to take on the full weight of embodied encounters with memorials, there is little doubt those protests were piqued by someone smearing a thing with sticky stuff. Doing so, those protests still brought to attention, however briefly, that which Maxwele’s assault on the Rhodes statue was about—engaging viscerally with questions of what sticks where in debates about the affective saturation of statues, plaques, and other memorial objects.

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