- Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses by Margaret Schwartz
The title of Margaret Schwartz's Dead Matter indicates it will address the materiality of the dead, and the ways in which that materiality has been converted into discursive value throughout history. The alternative reading of the title is that the deceased (the term Schwartz uses to differentiate the personhood from the mortal coil it vacates) continue to hold weight and importance for the living, but in a manner charged with the category of deadness that death has brought.
Happily, Schwartz delivers on both of these expectations, and the flexible title suggests the contribution of Schwartz's book will always be what Hans Robert Jauss, Stanley Fish, Marvin Carlson, and others describe as a co-production between the author and the reader. Schwartz embraces this premise from the start, inviting readers' personal associations with death and dead bodies by starting with her own. She begins with her father, who died when she was fifteen. While she perceived his vacated body when she found it collapsed in his home office as "awesome" and "sublime," the subsequent embalming of his body resulted in an object "not him," disturbing in its violation of her image of him as alive, but also "not him" dead, either: an "abomination" that ineffectually attempted a display of her father as admixture of his remains with chemicals and makeup in a pose and expression dictated by funerary conventions rather than a more natural articulation (ix-x). The dichotomy between the two iterations of her father's remains, however, writes Schwartz, is not to reinscribe some kind of binary between an ontologically [End Page 165] authentic or authoritative dead body and a successive series of referents that are further removed (embalmed, photographed, gradually replaced by more and more plastic as has been the case with Vladimir Lenin), but rather "to explore and justify the ideological investments in those kinds of claims" (x).
Chapter 1, "The Body of the Nation," then, treats the displayed body of state figures like Abraham Lincoln and Eva Peron. Here, the body functions in varying ways, depending on the owner, as a document that bears witness to the brutality of its suffering. The dead and buried body of Lincoln, for instance, has a complicated relationship to the photograph of his body, which acquires its own ontology insofar as it takes on its own status as an index of ideas. In the case of Lenin's embalming, which not only arrests his decomposition but continues to be present, the indexical nature of the embalmed corpse is even more forceful, since "its entire meaning stems from its physical relationship to an absent presence" (38). Eva Peron's body is a particularly fraught example as the regimes in Argentina not only changed, but her embalmed corpse was allegedly exhumed and mutilated by the Argentine military (her face and feet were badly damaged).
If the embalmed displayed bodies in Chapter 1 serve to smooth over rough and competing narratives to make the leaders stable and knowable, the photographs of the bodies in Chapter 2 disrupt public understanding by referring back to the slippage of knowability (51), even as they build toward a common cause. This chapter interrogates the martyred bodies of Emmett Till, the lynched black boy from Chicago whose family displayed his brutalized body next to an image of his smiling living self, as well as that of the Syrian boy Hamza al-Khateeb, who after being tortured and dismembered was the subject of a filmed autopsy, bearing witness to his suffering as a way to appeal to the United Nations and humanitarian agencies in the struggle against the dictatorship. Schwartz draws attention to the bodies and photographic and video technologies as indexes to the lives and deaths of these boys, but also the marks on their bodies as indexes to the violence they endured. By going against the practices of displaying the corpse as close to the way it appeared while living and instead arresting the corpse in...