Book Review: Necropolitics: Mass Graves and the Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights

Necropolitics: Mass Graves and the Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights. Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius C. G. M. Robben, eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 269 pp.

Necropolitics chronicles the sociopolitical conditions of exhuming clandestine mass graves and the impact this has on the management of the dead and traumatic memory. This edited volume complements a rising number of contemporary books appearing in the social sciences and humanities stimulated by growing concerns related to humanitarianism, crimes committed against humanity, truth and reconciliation commissions, and memory politics. The volume is unique in that it uncovers an unexamined part of the medical humanitarian aid landscape—exhumation. Ethnographically rich, the volume explores the challenging ways in which everyday people alleviate suffering and work toward closure in the form of exhuming the dead. In doing so, the authors put forth a framework for studying political violence and repression beyond just a local analysis of poverty. Instead, they offer an examination of the histories, political economies, and global discourses that are socially constructed and mutable in post-conflict Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as in Western Europe.

Editors Ferrándiz and Robben, once both Berkeley students working with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, are mindful of the body as a living artifact of social and political control. The volume takes inspiration from historian Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics—the power of the sovereign to rule over life and death in exceptional situations—and applies it to the context of exhuming in which power dynamics are played out over the production and management of the dead.

Yet, as Robben argues in his chapter on territoriality and necropolitics in Argentina and Chile (Chapter 2), necropolitics is a helpful concept only insofar as it can aid in understanding the omnipresence of the sovereign. But as an analytic, necropolitics misses out on the counter forces and political communities that can arise against it. The larger project of this edited volume closely follows the necropolitical life of the dead that resulted in their violent end, enduring disappearance, and undignified burial. But it is also an intimate examination of exhumation practice as a powerful tool to dismantle necropolitics and reclaim life and death.

This is not to say that the contributors of this volume are offering up exhuming as a magic bullet to overcome the traumatic past. Many of the authors have witnessed firsthand the political, social, cultural, technical, and legal issues that arise from exhuming graves of mass violence. This work is necessarily a collaborative effort, one that requires unpacking the complexities of mass grave sites and their potential meaning for memory, reparation, and justice. As such, the volume signals the need for the study of exhumation practice to be comparative and multidisciplinary. This is reflected in the content and the authors, who are largely sociocultural anthropologists but also include a forensic anthropologist and a multimedia artist, and range from seasoned exhumation veterans to up-and-coming human rights studies scholars. The diversity of the content and contributors is not just a methodological exercise but a necessary approach to understanding the larger power structures and negotiations involved in representing the violent past in a globalized world where the construction of memory is an ongoing debate.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “Exhumations as Practice,” details the complexities of exhuming that, even when the most advanced technology and expertise becomes available, requires unpacking the scientific and political meanings exhumation practice produces. The second part of the book, “Exhumations as Memory,” situates exhumation practice beyond the gravesite and into state arenas and legal webs where personal, national, and transnational tensions of dealing with the physical and symbolic weight of the violent past come into play.

Nestled between these two sections is a beautiful photographic interlude by artist Francesc Torres (photo essay). Torres grew up in Franco’s Spain and describes his desire to learn about his own personal history by taking an active role in it—by creating art. Photography and other forms of media that capture terror for a transnational stage are “a crucial part of the dignifying process” (p. 102), writes Ferrándiz in his chapter on an exhumation in Spain, where no Republican remains could be found (Chapter 4). Juxtaposed against Torres’s reflections of photographing an exhumation of Republicans killed by Franco’s paramilitary groups are black-and-white photos of objects retrieved from Ground Zero of the World Trade Center and preserved in a cargo hangar at JFK Airport.

One of the most striking moments of the essay is Torres’s photo and description of “composite”—the compressed remains of four stories of one of the twin towers that now stands at barely 4 feet tall. This photographic “exhumation” of these objects, which are closed to the public, bears witness to what Torres calls the emotional history of objects that, like the dead, need to be cared for and remembered. That victims’ relatives desire to bury composite because it could contain human matter demonstrates the need to approach these remains as sentient.

Luis Fondebrider also highlights the need to adopt a victim-focused lens to exhuming the past (Chapter 1). Fondebrider was an archaeology student when he and his colleagues, along with American forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, founded the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) in 1984. EAAF was the first to establish an exhumation methodology that applied legal, judicial, medical, and humanitarian dimensions to archaeology, a methodology the team developed when investigating the Argentine desaparecidos (disappeared). Fondebrider documents the social history of forensic anthropology in Latin America and the birth of this multidisciplinary model.

Yet the contributions of the Latin American model and its emphasis on involving relatives and survivors of violence into forensics are often overlooked in favor of the Balkans case. The Balkans case was largely organized by an international team of American and British forensic anthropologists who had little personal experience or first-hand knowledge of exhuming in post-conflict situations or collaborating with victims’ relatives. Fondebrider points out the hegemonic structures of global exhumation models and calls for the need to recognize and build on the Latin American model to advance forensic anthropology in other post-conflict situations, as was eventually done in the Balkans and later in Spain (Chapter 4).

But what happens when an exhumation and even entire traumas go unnoticed? In Peru, close to 70,000 people were killed, yet most Peruvians did not experience the 20-year war as a national tragedy. Isaias Rojas-Perez explains that Peruvian’s were indifferent to the war because the murders largely affected the Quechua-speaking population of Peru (Chapter 7). When the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out to exhume the mass graves of indigenous Peruvians, it is calling for Peruvians to imagine what Rojas-Perez calls a new political community. This new relationship with the dead asks Peruvians to acknowledge the unknown dead as historical subjects and to reintegrate them into society as victims. Through a universal reburial model based on international human rights law and language, the Peruvian exhumations seek to place living and dead citizens equal to one another, regardless of their racial, class, or sociocultural differences. In the process of materializing a genocide, such as in Peru or in Greece (Chapter 6), exhuming the dead can become a powerful tool for national mourning. But it can also cause nations to revisit its existing political and social divisions, as Elena Lesley describes in her comparative study of the management of state-building commemoration practices in Rwanda and Cambodia (Chapter 8).

This volume will appeal to medical anthropology, science and technology studies, and European studies students and scholars interested in the lived experiences and structured inequalities of human suffering and healing, enacted and expressed through exhumation. The writing in some chapters is at times wordy and cumbersome and could discourage undergraduates and readerships outside of academia who might be overwhelmed by single sentences the size of paragraphs. But overall, the book is an insightful, intimate look at the promises and limitations of exhumation practice to witness the traumatic past. The volume has been thoughtfully put together by a carefully selected group of authors, many of whom grew up in the regimes they write about and for whom documenting political violence has become their life’s work.

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