Dead bodies (do not) matter

Edinburgh, October 2018

From migrants facing death at borders around the world, to the different chapters of the “War on Terror,” to the politics of post-genocide, our era seems to be marked by the constant politicisation of death. Social and physical death are increasingly intertwined in various spectacles of horror. Clearly, not all deaths are treated equally. Trenchant questions remain over what kinds of death are deemed morally, political and legally significant; and what kinds of death are rendered visible or invisible, and with what implications for those who are still alive.

These short blogs started life in a workshop on Politics in the Face of Death, held at the University of Edinburgh in May 2018, where we brought together scholars from different disciplines: anthropology, forensic architecture, international relations, law, political theory, and sociology. Their contributions shed light on the re-signification of social and political relations after the exhumation of human remains of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (Laura Major); the post-mortem reconstitution of the dead as subjects of human rights (Moon), the transformation of migrants and refugees into legitimate military targets subjectable to lethal violence (Perugini and Gordon); and the struggle—through the tools of “forensic oceanography,” against the attempts at erasure by state actors—to identify migrants deaths in the Mediterranean Sea (Pezzani and Heller).

The fundamental tension that these contributions examine concerns the attempts to render dead bodies irrelevant—bodies that are pre-emptively constituted as not mattering, as dispensable bodies that will “not count,” through different policies and legal operations, on the one hand; and on the other hand, the claims of justice that dead bodies can generate after death—bodies that continue to matter, for the living and otherwise. Hence our ambivalent title. This ambivalence is in large part a question of knowledge; of the different forms of knowledge (and denial) we produce about the claims of the dead, whether commemorative, forensic or aesthetic, for example. Such knowledge, whatever its forms, is inevitable partial, incomplete, but also emergent. And it is in these spaces that alternative politics can emerge.

We hope that the combination of texts published in this series can provide a small contribution to thinking through the politics of dead bodies, but also to examining how the politics of death constantly generates—in spite of it often being a politics of normalisation and the occultation of death—a politics of resistance to death, through the mobilisation of different techniques of struggle and registers of justice. As such, we hope to support an engaged transdisciplinary scholarship and forms of political activism that go beyond death.

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About Tobias Kelly

Tobias Kelly is professor of political and legal anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include human rights, torture and ill-treatment, and freedom of conscience. He has carried out fieldwork in Israel/Palestine, the United Kingdom, and at the United Nations. He is the author of two monographs: Law, Violence and Sovereignty amongst West Bank Palestinians (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and This Side of Silence: Human Rights, Torture and the Recognition of Cruelty (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). He is currently working on an anthropological history of conscientious objection.

About Nicola Perugini

Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. Nicola's research focuses mainly on international law, human rights, and violence. He is the author (with Neve Gordon) of The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford University Press 2015) and Human Shields. A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press 2020). His current research projects explore international law from a decolonial perspective and the global history of the University of Edinburgh and its entanglement in imperialism.

About Mathias Thaler

Mathias Thaler is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh. His main research interest is in contemporary political theory. Thaler’s recent publications have appeared in the British Journal of Political Science, Constellations, Contemporary Political Theory, Political Studies, Political Theory, and Review of Politics. He is the author of Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture and Terrorism (Columbia UP, 2018), Moralische Politik oder politische Moral? Eine Analyse aktueller Debatten zur internationalen Gerechtigkeit (Campus, 2008), and co-editor (with Mihaela Mihai) of On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies (Palgrave, 2014).

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