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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 161
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Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 185 pp.
Verdery is a gifted essayist, and the politics of historically significant corpses in postsocialist Central Europe and Russia is rich in anecdote and fertile for theorization: in short, a perfect topic for essayistic inquiry. Verdery puns that her study of dead bodies is intended to "animate the study of politics," and she accomplishes this mission well, communicating something of the combustible ferment of politics and culture in what used to be the "Eastern bloc." Verdery's little book stands out brilliantly among the multitude of desiccated, gray studies of the region—lackluster books aimed at an audience of "policy makers and members of the intelligence community." The four essays that make up her book (too few, really, to resurrect a moribund discipline) examine the often cynical interventions of political actors into the "usable past." Still, the book seems a touch reductionist in its invocation of a "base" of ancient cosmologies and objective processes that supports the "superstructure" of contemporary political symbolism. Perhaps Verdery herself has trouble giving up the authoritative (yet deadening) voice of contemporary social science?
Kevin M. F. Platt
Kevin M. F. Platt is associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include History in a Grotesque Key: Russian Literature and the Idea of Revolution.