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Sovereignty and the politics of dead bodies
Editor: Finn Stepputat

This book looks at sovereignty as a particular form of power and politics. It shows that the fate of bodies in the transition from life to death can provide a key to understanding fundamental ways in which sovereignty is claimed and performed. The contributions analyse (post-)conflict as well as non-conflict contexts, which too often are studied in isolation from one another. Focusing on contemporary issues rather than the equally important historical dimensions, they all grapple with the questions of who governs the dead bodies, how, why and with what effects. The book analyses how dead bodies are placed and dealt with in spaces between competing, overlapping and nested sovereign orders, under normal as well as exceptional conditions. It looks at contributions that draw on psychoanalysis, critical theory, the structuralist-functionalist anthropology of burial rituals and recent ideas of agency and materiality. The book first explains the efforts of states to contain and separate out dead bodies in particular sites. It explores the ways in which such efforts of containment are negotiated and contested in struggles between different entities that claim the dead bodies. The book then shows how entities that claim sovereignty produce effects of sovereignty by challenging and transgressing the laws regarding the legitimate use of violence and how dead bodies should be treated with dignity.

Open Access (free)

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book looks at sovereignty as a particular form of power and politics. This hopefully shows that the fate of bodies in the transition from life to death can provide a key to understanding fundamental ways in which sovereignty is claimed and performed. It explores how the management of dead bodies is related to the constitution, territorialisation and membership of political and moral communities that enframe lives in various parts of the world. The book analyses the exhumation of a mass grave with dead bodies in varied degrees of decomposition in the northern part of contemporary Zimbabwe. It presents various cases in which necro-political aspects of sovereignty take precedence over the bio-political in practices that work through dead bodies, notably by transgressing the limits set out in state law.

in Governing the dead
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Theoretical approaches

This chapter sets out the theoretical terrain that the authors of the volume navigate in their analyses, a terrain where dead bodies and sovereign practice intersect. It looks at four different approaches, including psychoanalysis ('fear of death'), critical theory ('between bio- and necropolitics'), the anthropology of rituals ('sacralisation of authority') and lastly more ideas of materiality and alterity ('dead agency'). Given the theoretical links between sovereignty and dead bodies, it would be no surprise if shifts in the ways authorities claim to govern dead bodies coincides with shifts in the ways in which sovereignty is claimed. The chapter looks at ways in which anthropologists and others have interpreted the ritualisation of death as linked to power and sovereignty. The power of death is associated with classical accounts of sovereignty. Dead bodies have an important role to play in the enchantment of politics and the sacralisation of authority.

in Governing the dead