Material Evidence & Corpus Delecti

Claudia Salamanca
Material Evidence



Corpus Delecti

Can one be mobilized actively to oppose war by an image [...] as one might be enrolled among the opponents of capital punishment by reading, say Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or Turgenev’s “The Execution of Troppmann,” an account by an expatriate writer, invited to be an observer in Paris prison, of a famous criminal’s last hours before being guillotined? (Sontag 122).

@SarahPalinUSA Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it’s part of the mission.

Susan Sontag asks, if we can be driven to action by an image. Specifically, she asks if we can oppose violence mobilized by an image that depicts precisely the same violence. In her question she establishes a comparison between Turgenev’s precise account and an image. This comparison leaves aside any qualification of the latter. The image is never described. We can read this gesture of Sontag as an affirmation that the image of violence always depicts the same thing; an image of violence is full of literal content, which does not need any description. Therefore, any difference between an image of violence and another seems to be a matter of degree: more gruesome or less gruesome. Although Sontag refutes the power of the image to carry out a unilateral agenda for peace by giving us an account of the complexities between representation, reality and atrocity, she sees that images of violence and atrocity have an ethical value. In her words, they are “an invitation to pay attention, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers” (117). In the other end of the debate, Sarah Palin joins those who believe that the image of the corpse of Usama bin Laden would deter those who seek America’s destruction. Whereas Sontag’s gaze reads violence exerted upon the body of the Other as suffering, Palin’s reads it as justice. Palin’s statement echoes Michel Foucault’s study of torture in the seventeenth century as the spectacle of power. Foucault tells us that this form of visibility was not a form of exemplary justice. To the contrary it exhibited the absolute right of establishing justice that emanated from the body of the sovereign. Sontag and Palin are well aware of the ideological uses of images of violence. However, neither one of them addresses the image as such. The debate still remains outside the frame, making the image an instrument for something else that resides outside the representation, whether it is ideology or structures of feeling and sensitivity. Conversely, I want to call our attention back to the image. Specifically to that literal content: the corpse.

In our highly visual public sphere the corpse is the object of continuous censorship, specifically when it is the image of our dead. In the realm of television the corpse has achieved a prominent place in our imagination through the genre of forensic dramas. These series whose main premise is forensic investigation take the corpse as the departure point for their puzzle. In these TV shows the corpse speaks only in past tense; time unfolds from the moment of death to the reconstruction of a life that was put at risk. In this sense the corpse is denied a present or a future; it can only exist in terms of a past domesticated by the correct protocols for preservation, identification and analysis within the boundaries of the laboratory. The scene in the laboratory acts as the judge between what the testimony of the living states and what the corpse reveals, and it is through the latter with the aid of technology that a specific truth is constructed. I remember once in an episode of Crime Scene Investigation the main character of the series was explaining that a century ago there was no notion of fingerprint technology, that fifteen years ago there was no identification from DNA, and he claimed with certainty that in the next 15 years, at today’s pace in technological development, there will be no innocents in jail. The future technology will be able to identify the signs, the identities of offenders, their addresses and their actions. And of course no one wants innocents in prisons; however, the contradictions, ambiguities of language, the arbitrariness of violence, the explanations, motivations will fall by the wayside. That certainty that the protagonist claimed can be quickly attested in two words, guilty or not guilty: a certainty of oppositions, a certainty of antagonisms, a quick administration of justice.

These TV dramas locate the corpse as an index of risk. ‘Why did he die?’ is the question that not only drives the mystery but the one whose answer establishes death as an unfortunate event derived from risky conjunctures. The corpse is the object of official procedures anchored in risk assessment for public health policies and law enforcement. Our insistence on human life as the only life and the human as an inscription of the civilized requires an explanation for death as if it could be avoidable. In this sense, death is the result of a narcissist embodiment to which the corpse is an index of risk. As a literal object, these television dramas have made of the corpse an instrument for the preservation of life based on a vulnerability that is made to appear external and circumstantial.

To find the identity of the corpse is not the result of a singularization of death. The identification is a matter of procedure. The ‘TV corpse’ to which we have become very familiar—as it lies on the autopsy table answering the why and the who issuing risk assessments —becomes a site for extreme individuation. Individuation is what structures the task of risk assessment. It allocates degrees of vulnerability on those now dead when they were alive. This vulnerability is defined as the arrangement of external conditions that threaten a sovereign and self-sufficient subject that constantly denies its relationality and dependence on others.[1] However, I would like to consider the literality of the corpse as the limit from where we can go beyond our human centered formulation of life, history and politics. In this limit, contradictory and at the same time complementary events happen. Once our anthropocentrism shatters, the corpse is no longer a human remain; it is not only under the power of nature, it is nature and its force. But science, through the containment of the corpse at the laboratory, attempts to inscribe back its humanness, aided by the belief that there is no language that can describe atrocity. In a world where the normalization of violence has spread to the point where we use violence for humanitarian purposes, where war has become an organizing principle in society, where images of violence are part of our daily consumption of information, we need to reconsider the corpse as a form of becoming.

The corpse opens a space human and non-human, singularity and individuality, and a moment between being alive and dead. “Every event is like death” Gilles Deleuze tells us, comprised by a state of affairs, a present moment of actualization as well as by

“a mobile present always divided in past-future [...] incorporeal and infinitive, impersonal grounded only in itself” (151). The corpse is the image of a present death; it happened to a body, but also it presents the imminent future of its dissolution/decomposition. This short essay does not advocate for visibility or censorship of images of violence and atrocity. I am interested in the de-instrumentalization of the image, specifically of the image of death. The image of the corpse is one in which the subject and object distinction cannot hold, presenting us with the challenge to rethink singularities outside the idea of an I.

[1] Contrary to this notion, authors like Judith Butler and Adriana Cavarero have proposed a new bodily ontology based on a corporeal vulnerability, of being open to injury by already being “beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own” (Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. pp.45)

Claudia Salamanca