The Rights of the Dead

(Round Table)

The 21st Congress of Historical Sciences
Amsterdam, 22-28 August 2010

Wednesday, August 25th, 9:00 -13.00
Bldg. Oudemanhuispoort, room D1.09

  organized and moderated by Ewa Domanska


The "politics of dead bodies" has become a key issue in the humanities during the past few decades and links scholars from various disciplines (history, archaeology, anthropology, law, forensic sciences, art). This subject shows that it is not so much theory or methodology that connects researchers from various fields but important subjects which require interdisciplinary approaches. Questions of whether it is justifiable to disinter human remains and examine them for scientific purposes have caused intense controversies, as has the problem of putting them to political use. Tensions arise between the expectations of the living and the rights of the dead, for whom, as it is often assumed, the body no longer matters. Even speaking of the personality of the dead body in the context of its inviolability (law) and memory (doing honor to the dead person) involves the ubiquitous "politics of heritage."


Ewa Domanska (Poznan University/Stanford University)
The Problem of the Dead Body and Human Remains in the Age of Biopolitics

Antoon de Baets (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)
On Posthumous Dignity

Adam Rosenblatt (Stanford University)
Dignity, Rights, and Care: A Materialist Approach to the Rights of the Dead

10:15-10.45 coffee break

Zoë Crossland (Columbia University)
Demands of the Dead and Archaeological Interventions

Olufunke Adeboye (University of Lagos)
Dynamics of Mortuary Politics in Yoruba Society, Nigeria

Milica Tomic (University of Arts, Belgrade)
Neither Oblivion nor Memory

Hayden White, Comments

12:30-13.00 discussion



Ewa Domanska
Introduction: The Problem of the Dead Body and Human Remains
in the Age of Biopolitics 

In my introduction, I am going to indicate the importance of discussion of the various problems related to dead bodies and human remains. The purpose of the session is to address the problem of the materiality of the dead body, its concrete, undeniable presence, its thinginess, as a reality that might be scientifically studied by – for example - forensic methods. Here the dead will be treated not as metaphors of people once alive, but as organic subjects that are still here, among us. The idea is to restore concern for the subject of dead bodies and human remains and take them out of the context of abjection, horror and necrophiliac desires, on the one hand, and out of the context of sublimation, romanticisation of the dead and necroaesthetics, on the other. I will address the following issues: the necrogenic character of history and the problem of the dead in history; the dead body and human remains as a challenge to historical research; dead body studies as a transdisciplinary field and a subject of historical interest; the dead body and biopolitcs. I am going to argue that the so-called posthuman future is founded upon repressed forms of the human, often referred to as non-human (the rebel, the outlaw, the refugee, the “barbarian,” the Muselmann , the wolf-man, the neomort); in general, on that which is non-human and, in a sense, dead. Thus, we might say that in a way the dead understood in a material, organic way, are our future.

Antoon de Baets
On Posthumous Dignity

In this contribution, I argue that the ontological status of the dead is ambiguous because the dead are less than human beings but more than dead bodies. The dead are no longer human beings, but are still reminiscent of them. In trying to catch that ambiguity, I define the dead as former human beings. This definition is superior to rival definitions. It has one important consequence: that the dead do not possess rights (that is, human rights). However, it is not because the dead do not possess rights, that the living do not have duties regarding them. On the contrary, they do. The question is why. My answer is that the living have duties to the dead because the dead possess posthumous dignity and therefore deserve respect and protection. The claim that the dead possess posthumous dignity rests on indirect but firm and widely shared evidence. In addition, posthumous dignity has several empirically retrievable dimensions, such as, for example, posthumous privacy. Posthumous dignity differs from human dignity in that human dignity generates human rights for the living whereas posthumous dignity does not generate posthumous rights for the dead but duties for the living. Nevertheless, dignity, human as well as posthumous, is an essentially contested and therefore elusive concept. It is not clear whether dignity is inherent or ascribed.

Adam Rosenblatt
Whose Rights? A Materialist and Pragmatic Approach to the Rights of the Dead

This paper argues that philosophical arguments about the dignity, agency and rights of the dead all become fatally entangled in issues of cultural difference and ontological uncertainty (about who the dead are, and what they want). It asks that we shift our focus from theoretical justifications for the rights of the dead to the question of what the rights of the dead would do in a real-world context: the context of forensic investigations of human rights violations. In this context, I argue, teams of forensic scientists cannot possibly grant or restore the human rights of the dead with anything approaching the completeness or universality that human rights demand. Instead, I offer a materialist approach to the violated dead body, one inspired by the movement for the repatriation of remains to indigenous peoples. This model sees forensic investigation as a form of repatriation of the bodies, objects, and even living children of the dead and disappeared, all of which were violently displaced from the physical and social worlds they once inhabited.

Zoë Crossland
Demands of the dead and archaeological interventions

This paper examines the construction of rights in relation to the dead, focusing in particular on the ways in which Christian traditions in Western Europe and North America have informed archaeological practice. The dead are not a unitary category and the ways in which they are endowed with rights serve to articulate difference, recognizing some bodies after death as more suitable to be identified, remembered, mourned and reburied. In this context I'd also like to consider the ways in which the agency of the dead has been conceptualized and relate this to changing perceptions of human remains in archaeological anthropology.

Olufunke Adeboye
Dynamick of Mortuary Politics in Yoruba Society, Nigeria

This paper investigates the change-producing forces in Yoruba mortuary practice from the nineteenth century till date. It focuses, among other things, on the role of religion, social status, affluence, and the relentless claims of tradition. The issue of individual identity is also crucial to this study as the place and manner in which a person is interred confirms and seals his/her identity vis-à-vis others in the society. Another pertinent issue is the ownership of the dead body, and here, I discuss the various roles played by the family, the community, and even the state (in the case of public figures) in claiming the dead. At the heart of this study is the question of the rights of the dead in Yoruba society. Do the Yoruba dead have any right given the contestation over them irrespective of their own will (emotive and/or legal), by the different parties mentioned above? This paper shows how the ‘rights' of the Yoruba dead have been variously contested, confirmed, and even exercised by proxy, depending on the exigencies of the time. To illustrate this, interesting examples are drawn from the dead of various descriptions: nineteenth-century Christian converts, twentieth-century Yoruba traditional rulers and other public figures.

Milica Tomic
Neither Oblivion nor Memory

By combining three of my art projects xy-ungelöst, Container and Mathemes of Re-association (Monument Group) this paper attempts to investigate the ways in which we can engage with the past to confront the impulse to forget. The art project called “xy ungelöst” is about a massacre that took place in Kosovo in 1989 when 33 ethnic Alb ania ns were killed; “Container” deals with the crime that happened in North Afghanistan when thousands of Taliban people were killed during the American invasion; Mathemes of Re-association” (with the Monument Group) relates to the mass killing in Srebrenica that happened in 1995. Different artistic strategies of reconstructing the suppressed memory of traumatic events of mass killings in a relationship with the community will be presented. These artworks critically investigate the politics of rights to narrate A traumatic past and feature artistic strategies of taking over the right to narrate the crime--a creative act of producing a visual trace, which opposes the politics of total annihilation, with a focus on questioning the politics of administering bodily remains (with the Monument Group). Throughout the entire process of forensic analysis, quantification, and identification of the Srebrenica victims' bodily remains, an unpleasant surplus was produced. This has to do with a corporeal surplus that cannot be identified, quantified, buried, or sacralized—it is the surplus of debased matter , of scattered, excess bones. It is precisely this unpleasant, radically inassimilable material remainder that opens up the real space of politics. It offers itself as, literally, the ground for a process of subjectivization that would not be identity-bound, and that would demand a different sort of memory-politics. We do not know the proper name of this political subjectivization tied to the non-identifiable corporeal remainder, but we do know that its mandate is to interrupt the “parallel convergence” of the contemporary constructions of identity and the politics of terror. These artworks are centered on a simple hypothesis: There is no remembrance without the political subject. Such is the first step towards a truly political construction correlative to the “unidentified remainder of the crime.”



Olufunke Adeboye

Olufunke Adeboye is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Strategic Studies, University of Lagos, Nigeria. She was a visiting Research Associate at the Harriet Tubman Center, York University, Toronto, Canada in 2006 and has held visiting research fellowships at the Center of West African Studies, University of Birmingham (UK), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (USA) and at the Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge (UK). Her research interests include: pre-colonial and colonial Nigerian history; nineteenth and twentieth century Yoruba state and society, and Pentecostal history in West Africa. She has published widely in leading Africanist journals such as the Canadian Journal of African Studies, African Studies Review, Nordic Journal of African Studies, Afrika Zamani, and in various edited volumes. She is currently working on a book titled, ‘Honour, Status and Cultural Change: A Study of the Elite in Colonial Ibadan'.

Antoon de Baets

Is a Professor of History at Groningen University, the Netherlands. He has written about the rights of the dead (and about the duties of the living toward the dead) in “A Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations toward Past Generations,” History and Theory, 43, no. 4 (December 2004), 130–64. In his forthcoming book Responsible History (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2008) he expands this topic. Among the problems he tries to solve are the following: Who or what are the dead; do the dead have rights? Do the living have duties to the dead? Which duties? Are these duties universal? Can these duties be violated and how? In the course of this debate he discusses notions such as posthumous dignity, posthumous privacy, posthumous reputation, posthumous wrongs, posthumous punishment, and posthumous reparation.

Zoë Crossland

Zoe Crossland is Assistant Professor in the department of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works on the archaeology of the contemporary and recent past, with a particular interest in situations where divergent sets of beliefs and practices converge upon one place, and the conflict that often ensues as a result. At the moment she is writing on the production of the dead body through archaeological practice, exploring conflicting understandings of the corpse ~ as object, as evidence, as abject, and as still-embodied person ~ that are drawn upon by archaeologists and others in the practice of exhumation.

Milica Tomic

Milica Tomic is a PhD candidate at the Department of Interdisciplinary studies/ Multimedia Art, University of Arts in Belgrade. She works and lives in Belgrade as visual artist, primarily video, film, photography, performance, action, light and sound installation, web projects, discussions etc. Tomic's work centres on issues of political violence, nationality and identity, with particular attention to the tensions between personal experience and media constructed images. Milica Tomic's has exhibited in a wide international context since 1998 and participated in numerous exhibitions including Venice Biennale in 2001 and 2003, Sao Paulo Biennale in1998, Istanbul Biennale in 2003 and Sidney Biennale in 2006, Prague Biennale in 2007, Gyumri Biennale in 2008etc.

Adam Rosenblatt

Adam Rosenblatt is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. His dissertation, “Last Rights: Forensic Science, Human Rights, and Atrocity,” describes multiple models of human rights work that have emerged from the increasing use of forensic science as a response to political violence. In addition to existing human rights instruments and the question of the rights of the dead, it explores the emergence of newly declared human rights, from the right to truth to the right to mourn, that have emerged in the context of forensic investigations and transitional justice. He is also the author of published articles on the contemporary graphic novel in the U.S. and South America.

Ewa Domanska

Ewa Domanska is an associate professor of theory and history of historiography at the Department of History, Adam Mickiewicz University at Poznań, Poland and since 2002  visiting associate professor at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, USA. She is working on comparative theory of the human sciences and topics related to the problem of dead bodies as represented in archaeology, anthropology, history and art and related to genocides and crimes against humanity. She is the author of Unconventional Histories. Reflections on the Past in the New Humanities (2006, in Polish); Microhistories: Encounters In-between Worlds (1999, revised edition, 2005 in Polish); editor of several books including: Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism (1998); (with Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner) Re-Figuring Hayden White (2009); History, Memory, Ethics (2002, in Polish).


audio: overview of the congress "La storia è viva?" by Claudio Vesentin in Swiss national radio (20 minutes, in Italian)