Crucified life-jacket

In her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that if we are to account for the “micrological texture of power” that constitutes our subjectivities under global capitalism, we must attend to this double meaning of representation. In terms of this double meaning of representation, Spivak makes the following distinction between Vertretung and Darstellung. More precisely, Vertretung is defined as ‘stepping in someone’s place to tread in someone’s shoes’. Representation in this sense means ‘political representation’ or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something. Darstellung is representation as re-presentation, ‘placing there’. As such, according to Spivak, the double meaning of representation is encapsulated in the notions of  ‘proxy and portrait’: ‘speaking for’ and ‘portraying’. If we are to understand how macrologies of power are congealed through the ‘micrological and often erratic’ process of subject-formation, then we must attend to the relationship between these two ‘irreducible’ yet ‘complicit’ senses of representation. According to Spivak the problem begins when we are speaking in the name of a subaltern group, or we are representing others as researchers, but also in our daily life. She insists that we must apply ‘persistent critique’ in order to be avoid the pitfall of ‘constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on’.

On December 2019, Pope Francis inaugurated a resin crucifix on which appears a life jacket, symbol of the death of many migrants in the Mediterranean. In his twitter account he wrote:

I decided to display this life jacket, “crucified”, to remind everyone of the imperative commitment to save all human life, because the life of each person is precious in the eyes of God. The Lord will call us to account at the hour of judgment.

In the Christian tradition, noted the Pope, “the cross is a symbol of suffering and sacrifice, but also of redemption and salvation.  Unveiling, what he called, a “crucified” life jacket on a transparent resin cross[2]. What is interesting is that this was not just any life jacket, as the Pope informed the public someone was wearing this life jacket but was drown in the Mediterranean sea. Why the need to crucify ‘a real’ life jacket? How bizarre and uncomfortable that the life jacket made the journey to Italy and all the way inside the Vatican, but the person who was wearing it lost his/her life while crossing the Mediterranean sea. This is an absolute reminder of the problematic representations that Spivak reffered to as ‘proxy’: to substitute the Other with an object and finally transform this into an object of knowledge that can be applied to substantiate any kind of knowledge: in this instance the life jacket stands for the dead body, and in that sense becomes an object that could be used in order to substabtiate the claim that the Pope (or even the Catholic church) care about human lives! All this while the ‘real Other’ is left outside of the frame.


Myrto Tsilimpounidi

[1] Pope Francis (@Pontifex_en) December 20, 2019:



Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, (eds.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Anna Carastathis & Myrto Tsilimpounidi (2020) Reproducing Refugees: Photographia of a Crisis. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


Crucified cross in the Vatican, December 2019