- Bring Out Your Dead:Corpses and the Limits of Sovereign Power in James Martel's Unburied Bodies
In a story recounted by Cicero, Diogenes the Cynic, a philosopher known for his eccentric behavior (he supposedly lived in a barrel near the Athenian Agora and roamed the city with a lantern during daylight in search of an honest man), is said to have told his followers to avoid burying him upon his death. He preferred that they toss his corpse over the city walls to let nature take its course. Seeing their horrified reactions, Diogenes advised them to leave a staff near his dead body so that he could drive away the wild beasts that would inevitably consume it. "But how can you do that," they asked, "for you will not perceive them?" "How am I then injured by being torn by those animals," Diogenes replied, "if I have no sensation?"1
The story is instructive because it illustrates a powerful contradiction regarding the human corpse. As something that is neither person nor thing, the dead body occupies a liminal space between subject and object. In Julia Kristeva's reading, it represents the paradigmatic form of the abject.2 Though lifeless and insentient, the corpse maintains some qualities of personhood by virtue of the fact that "it" was once a living, breathing, speaking, thinking, and feeling human being. Being dead, a corpse can hardly be described as a person, yet nonetheless, human communities take great pains to ensure that dead bodies are given care and respect. Proper funerary rites help transition deceased individuals from the world of the living into the world of the dead. If, however, such rites are denied by states or other political actors who treat corpses as if they were mere things, either by desecrating them or by leaving them unburied, the consequences can be momentous. According to James Martel, the unburied dead pose not only a major threat to sovereign authority and power, but can even serve as the catalyst of their undoing.
In his provocative new book, published by Amherst College Press as part of its open-access Public Works series, Martel observes that the long and bloody history of sovereignty is marked by a litany of unburied corpses. Over the course of several wide-ranging chapters, he analyzes the political repercussions of unburied bodies from the classical era (Patroclos and Hector in the Iliad, Polynices in Antigone), to the early modern and modern periods (Machiavelli's account of the assassination of Remirro de Orco and Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus"), to the recent past and present (James Baldwin's description of a lynching in "Going to Meet the Man" and the murder of Michael Brown). In most of these cases, the act of killing is followed by a second round of violence directed at the corpse itself, in the form of mutilation or public display as a warning to others.
Rather than seeing this violence as the ultimate expression of sovereignty's power over life and death, Martel argues that, to the contrary, "the [End Page 1125] unburied body is the place where state projections of power and authority go to die themselves" (5). This is because the dead are able to evade the grip of power and projection in ways that are less readily available to the living. They "embody" something that the state cannot control. "The fact that our bodies have never been "ours" and have never been the subjects we interpellate them to be," writes Martel, "becomes more visible when our bodies cease to serve as active and naturalized vessels for our identities and subjectivities," (140) i.e. when we are dead.
The disruptive power of the dead lies in their ability to avoid interpellation and other mechanisms of projection. In doing so, corpses expose the limits of what Martel calls "archist" authority: a principle of rule that is not usually named because it is supposedly just the way things are. Archism is the opposite of anarchism. It is a hierarchical, centralized, and representative "system of rule...