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The spirit sees the person: looking at identification of the dead socially

A presentation given at the symposium: "Naming the dead: social, legal and political issues of disaster victim identification by DNA analysis"

Caroline Bennett

on 24 May 2016

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Transcript of The spirit sees the person: looking at identification of the dead socially

The spirit sees the person: looking at identification of the dead socially
Caroline Bennett
‘Forensic investigations reconfirm the dignity of the victims and of human life’

-William Haglund, forensic anthropologist
‘biomedical knowledge, like any medical system, is a culture system; biomedicine, like science itself, is not an acultural form of intellectual endeavour but one that has emerged during a particular historical moment in the social formation of Western society.

[It] is a socially and culturally constructed enterprise, reflecting the themes of the society and culture of which it forms a part while concurrently imposing these themes on cultural conceptualisations.’
- Kaja Finkler 2000: 11
‘The atomization of the body … raises questions about how increasingly miniscule human parts may still embody persons…. What are we to make of the assumption that our humanity now rests not simply in our body fragments, but in the information surrounding them?’

- Sharp 2000: 309 - 310
This ideology tends to reduce people’s [identity] to nucleic acid and molecules, which are devoid of honor, social classifications, moral imperatives, or even the ability to mythologize the past.’

- Finkler 2000: 10
‘The body made into a political artifact by an act of violence is no less a political agent than the author(s) of violence. The very act of violence invests the body with agency. The body, altered by violence, reenacts other altered bodies dispersed in time and space; in also reenacts political discourse….'
- Feldman 1991: 7
A dead body is meaningful not in itself but through culturally established relations to death, and through the way a specific dead person’s importance is variously construed’
- Verdery 1999: 28
Bodies hold people in awe: as reminders of the fleeting aspect of their own lives; as sites of emotional attachment to people and place; as reminders of what was; as warnings against what could be.

They represent power and act as objects of ‘indirect testimony’; as such they have an incomparable ability to hold people and nations accountable and to justify intervention.
'Dead people belong to the living who claim them most obsessively'
- James Ellroy
by fixing individual identity to nameless remains, states reassert their authority, authority that may have been severely undermined or challenged by earlier inaction or downright negligence.

Identification reinserts the missing back into the embrace of the state.

- Wagner 2008: 255
ensconced in the language of 'hard' science, the DNA technology driving [post-disaster management] processes imparts an air of impartiality to counter claims of political gain or manipulation.

[but] the technological innovation of DNA testing may reinscribe sociopolitical and economic inequalities already in place'
- Wagner 2008: 256; 265
“And then, on September 11, the world fractured."
- Barack Obama
"I understand there are 10,000 people dead. It's terrible. It's tragic. But in a democracy of 300 million people, over years and years and years, these things happen."
-Republican strategist Jack Burkman
‘the human body often remains absent from medical ethical debates, where universalist constructions of human rights are instead privileged’
- Sharp 2000: 317
'In many cultures death is not understood to occur in an instant, but rather is an extended transformative process.'

- Dernbach 2005: 100
'When a person dies [in Micronesia], his or her name is no longer uttered, especially in the presence of close relatives. It was, and remains, offensive to living kin.... It is also considered disrespectful to the dead, and dangerous, because speaking the name aloud can call down the spirit'.
- Dernbach 2005: 105
‘What is it about a corpse that seems to invite its use in politics?’ – Verdery 1999: 27
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