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  • Absent DeathNecropolitics and Technologies of Mourning
  • Ege Selin Islekel

There are many ways of dying.

—Michel Foucault, The Punitive Society

In Siirt, a town in eastern Turkey, there is a trash disposal area called Newala Qesaba, the "River of Butchers." Around 1988, the families of more than eighty people were notified that the remains of their children were there. There was a brief investigation, which ended when the journalist covering the issue, Günay Arslan, was detained in 1990. Between 1984 and 1991, during the height of the "fight against terror," the River of Butchers was used to dispose not only of trash, but also of bodies, most commonly, the bodies of the disappeared. Since the area is protected by the military, no official exhumations have been possible. The families who were notified were not allowed to retrieve the remains. The number of bodies that are in Newale Qesaba is estimated to be over three hundred. Newala Qesaba is one of the 253 identified mass grave sites in Turkey, which are considered to host 3,485 remains in total.1 The number of the "disappeared," however, is much higher than this number, although an exact report on the disappeared in Turkey is still inexistent.2

The fates of mass graves and the disappeared coincide not only in Turkey: Argentina and Chile are also notorious for their disappeared. The General Cemetery of Santiago, Chile, has a separate lot, Lot Number 29. Here, mass internments are hosted and distinguished by crosses bearing the initials "NN" [End Page 337] (ningún nombre, nomen nescios, no name). Lot 29 was one of the three mass graves in the Santiago area (there is one in Lonquén and another other in Yumbel) that received much publicity between 1978 and 1979 as exhumations and work to find the body of the disappeared reached a peak. During the investigation, it was learned that Lot 29 received more than three hundred bodies within a three-month period, some of which were crammed into one coffin (Robben 2015). These mass graves received so much attention that the Chilean military decided to empty them out, including Lot 29. The solution was to make the dead disappear once again, this time by airdropping the remains at sea or over mountainous regions.

Finally, my last example is not of a mass grave but an example from a regional state of exception. Regional states of exception have a different history than national states of exception, where practices such as curfews or cease-and-desist orders are declared only in a determined region or area.3 A common practice of regional states of exception that have been ongoing in eastern Turkey since 2015 has been to implement a curfew, during which time the residents of the areas are not allowed to leave their homes. In September 2015, a ten-year-old girl called Cemile was shot by military in front of her house, steps away from the door. Her family was able to drag her body in, and yet not allowed to go out to bury her: the dead body of Cemile was kept in a freezer in her family's house for over nine days, before it was taken from the house.4

This paper works on the investment of politics in prohibiting or otherwise regulating practices of mourning through improper burial practices, such as dumping, immolating, disappearing, collectively burying, airdropping, or hindering the burial. I aim to understand why and how politics is invested in practices of mourning, and specifically, what the import of improper burial practices is from a perspective that aims to take into account the relationship between politics and life and death. I adopt the biopolitical framework of Foucault's corpus throughout and first briefly elaborate the role of death in biopolitics through Achille Mbembe's account of necropolitics and Banu Bargu's work on bio-sovereign assemblages. I then read these accounts in relation to improper burial practices in order to problematize the role of mourning in the work of these technologies of power. The third section of the paper focuses on the question of mourning and the political practices of mourning. Here, I touch...


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pp. 337-355
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