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  • Should Death do us Part?:Singular Bodies and Ethical Responsibilities
  • Jeremy Arnold (bio)

To bring into view that which we cannot 'see'—that which conceals itself as the origin of the other, in the other—and to bring 'into view' the fact that we cannot 'see' it: that is what today makes an 'ethical' demand, without which any moral standpoint, any normative or prescriptive, assurance, is only the application of a recipe, with eyes closed, sleepwalking.1

But we are exposed—that is, we are thrown into finding something we can live with, and it may at best be a kind of bitter tasting compromise. There is here only what we make of our exposure, and it leaves us endless room for double-dealing and deceit.2

A black and white image taken by a photographer named Zoriah after a suicide attack in Anbar province in June of 2008 shows a single bloodied hand.3 The severed hand, the result of an Al-Qaeda attack in a war begun by the United States in 2003 is, it must be assumed, only one of the many limbs that have been and can be found throughout Iraq. A second image is from Darfur, from sometime between 2003-2004, the remains of what may be three bodies killed in a Jinjaweed attack, each body appearing to be cut off at the waist, leaving it uncertain whether the bodies have been cut in half or are partially buried in the ground.4

These and thousands of other bodies and body parts are the very concrete, if sometimes indirect, effects of sovereign violence upon both human and non-human beings. Across the globe human bodies, human body parts, animal bodies, human homes, animal homes and human artifacts remain as remnants of sovereign violence, possibly never to be buried, certainly rarely to be mourned by those of us who belong to the countries sometimes partially, sometimes largely, responsible for the appearance of those bodies. This essay is an attempt to think how we might respond ethically and politically to a specific set of those bodies: killed human bodies. I want to show how we might challenge discourses that justify and legitimize sovereign violence, hence legitimize and justify the appearance of these bodies; and second, I shall try to present a mode of ethical and political relationship we might develop to the dead and dismembered bodies sovereign violence produces. The two aims are interrelated for if it is the case that we can only morally justify sovereign violence by committing a further form of violence—what I will call "hiding the body"—then perhaps the only way to avoid hiding the body, to live the horror of an unjustifiable violence, is by learning how to maintain or construct an ethical and political relationship to and with killed bodies. As Jenny Edkins has suggested in response to a set of photographs of children taken before the children were killed and tortured in a Cambodian prison during the Pol Pot era: "The task is to look at the photographs, not look away, nor adopt the cynic's concern with authenticity or "truth" as an excuse for not looking...The task is to find a response that does not reinforce the purpose of inscription and subjectification that the photographs imply, as part of a genocidal state regime, but rather one that engages with the way we are all beyond and before ourselves."5

It may be misleading to begin by mentioning a series of photographs. One of the main sites of academic and critical debate of issues surrounding our relationship to killed bodies is in the large archive of writings on photographic representations of suffering, especially war photography, and more generally on the question of the of the possibility of representing the radically new forms of mass slaughter and suffering recurrent in the 20th century (especially, of course, the Nazi death camps). Such debates have largely turned on a series of interesting but, for my purposes, ultimately unrelated issues. For example, as Carolyn Dean has shown in a summary discussion, a main point of contention in understanding representations of suffering (e.g., photos of victims of the Nazis) is...

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