Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bodies Are Political

Lyman L. Johnson, editor. Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2004.

 Lyman L. Johnson, in Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America,  asks, “Why is it common both in traditional Christian iconography and in Latin American political discourse that the defeated, the tortured, the assassinated, and the executed have exercised such an enduring hold on popular imagination?” (xvi). To answer this question, he assembles nine essays that discuss the political meanings associated with the bodies, or body parts, of martyred heroes in Latin America. Embedded in these stories is the struggle for control; by governments, their political enemies, and the common people –– as when the Spanish placed the head of the executed Túpac Amaru on a pole in the center of Cuzco for all to see that the Inca, and everything he represented, was truly dead, and any other “rebels’ could expect the same. Alas for the Spanish, as Foucault so eloquently shows us in Discipline and Punish, the people must be willing to participate in such displays, and in Cuzco in 1572 they were not. Rather then being horrified, as the Spanish hoped, the indigenous population came to mourn and worship the severed head. 

While the veneration of the dead is not unique to Latin America, Johnson attempts to show a set of distinctive regional characteristics that are rooted in Latin America’s culture and history. Johnson surmises that the reason for the veneration of dead bodies in Latin America is due to a confluence of symbolic language informed by Catholic Christianity, the experience of conquest and colonization, and the complexity of cultural practices derived from indigenous, African, and European origins. Johnson shows how social and economic injustices are also central to the region’s history, allowing dead bodies to speak of protest and resistance. 

 Along with the political meanings of death and memory, the question of both death’s and the dead body's meaning traverse these essays. Samuel Brunk, writing about Emiliano Zapata, remarks that death is the most important moment of a persons life marked by ritual and the very source of religious feeling, because of the fear that it generates as well as the mystery that presses for some sort of explanation. Most human societies have practiced ancestor worship, and it is this ancestor worship along with the ability to imagine shared ancestors that helps to give meaning to national identities and cultural roots. In this way, Brunt shows, the state is able to use ancestors as agents of state power by employing them to persuade the people they seek rule of the legitimacy of their regimes (144-5).

Julie Livingston, in Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana, explained that bodies are necessary but not sufficient elements of personhood. Once death has occurred, personhood ends. All that remains is the memory of ones’ personhood, maintained by the survivors and the body. This is the moment when the mythologizing process begins, whether it is for Che Guevara, Eva Perón, or Maria Soledad Morales. Along with this mythologizing process, the twentieth-century has introduced a commodification process, as has been pointed out by Donna J. Guy and Paul J. Dosal. Dosal effectively deconstructs the commodification of death in his essay on Che Guevara when he speaks of the ways in which the people who worship Che have largely turned away from everything that Che believed in. As Dosal points out, the American bourgeoisie have adopted as a symbol of their “allegedly rebellious past a dead guerrilla who despised their materialism and self-absorption” (319).

Recently I saw a political cartoon which showed a war veteran who had lost both legs watching a television news story about George W. Bush, and the announcer is saying, “Ten years after the invasion, President Bush is kickin’ back painting his feet.”  Monday, the day I finished reading Death, Dismemberment, and Memory: Body Politics in Latin America, explosions rocked the Boston marathon. The New York Times headline screamed “So Many People Without Legs.” Meanwhile, that same Monday in Iraq at least 50 people were killed and nearly 300 more were wounded in a series of bomb attacks just days before the first scheduled elections since the United States withdraw in 2011, and that was barely mentioned by the U.S. press. What these examples reinforce is that bodies, and body parts, are political, whether they are living or dead, no matter what geographical region they belong to, and are therefor subject to the politicization of myth making.