Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Jessica Auchter's "Global Corpse Politics"

Jessica Auchter is a Guerry and UC Foundation Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Her research focuses on visual politics and culture. She is author of The Politics of Haunting and Memory in International Relations (2014), and dozens of academic articles and edited volume chapters.

Auchter applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Global Corpse Politics: The Obscenity Taboo, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Global Corpse Politics focuses on the decision not to release images of the dead body of Osama bin Laden, and the creation of an “absent spectacle” around the image. The American public demanded to see the image in order to feel triumphant at the gruesome nature of the death especially given the duration of the manhunt. Yet the photograph wasn’t publicly released, so the larger narrative around bin Laden’s death instead took on the elements of salaciousness that would have been associated with the release of the dead body image and the associated rupture of the taboo governing viewing dead bodies. On this page, I ask how we should understand or visualize events that are determined to be “too obscene” to be visually depicted.

This test works well for my book. Readers opening to page 99 would get a good idea of the work, because this page reiterates some of the key questions of the book, especially about the labeling of particular dead body images as “too obscene” for viewing. It would work best to readers already familiar with the case of Osama bin Laden, but page 99 highlights the theoretical contributions of the book in a way that isn’t overly dense and is connected to this well-known case.

My main interest in the book is the regulation of images that we consider obscene, and the bin Laden case is particularly interesting for this precisely because the dead body image of bin Laden wasn’t shown. Most of the images I discuss in the book were published in mass media, so this image stands out for the questions it poses about how images are circulated and consumed. In this case, there was a complex debate over the image, which had been taken as evidence of his death, as an issue of national security. Indeed, this was the grounds the US government gave for not releasing it in court debates after numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, all of which were denied. Because the image was not ever released, this provides an interesting case for looking at how a spectacle can be created around an image that we don’t even see. Additionally, there was so much demand to see the image that fake images of bin Laden’s dead body started circulating, including one that had an embedded virus. People wanted to see this dead body image so badly that they clicked on spammy links that gave their computers viruses!

Osama bin Laden’s dead body image is just one of many I consider in the book that demonstrates that the taboo governing viewing the dead is complex. We don’t simply glorify the deaths of enemies by viewing their dead bodies. Rather, at times the impact of an absent photograph can be just as substantial. It raises questions of the reality/trustworthiness of images, their use as evidence, and the very way they are implicated in wider stories about security/insecurity.
Learn more about Global Corpse Politics at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue