Mengele’s Skull

I posted back in August about Keenan and Weizman’s upcoming Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics and have now got round to reading it. Firstly, it’s a small and short book with a fair number of colour images. It is these pictures that are critical to Keenan and Weizman’s narrative. Although I don’t want to spoil it for those who maybe haven’t had the chance to read it (an earlier version can be found in Cabinet here), or have not been acquainted with the Forensic Architecture project more broadly, I do still want to say a few things.

The exhumation of (supposedly) Josef Mengele’s body inaugurated (page 11) a rather unique form of war criminal investigation. One different to that of either the testimony of the witness (of which Adolf Eichmann was sentenced under), or that of the textual document that many traditional criminal investigations are centred upon (Nuremberg Trials). That of the forensic.

Each type of investigation, say Keenan and Weizman, operates in a particular space or ‘forum’. Or better still (as the space does not pre-exist it’s operation) is constructed through a set of investigative performances, where disputed and otherwise fractious entities (human/non-human; scientist/skull) are brought together for a particular purpose. In this case, an inversion of the perhaps now standard CSI approach; an interrogation of the skeleton with different presumptions and inverse purpose.

It was not a case of asking the skeleton “how did you die?”, but – with the identity of the person in question: “who are you?” (17-18). As Keenan and Weizman point out, “the Mengele investigation was conducted in much the same way as a missing persons investigation would be” (19). Perhaps ironically, the many people who were ‘forcefully disappeared’ by dictatorial forces in South American during the 1970s were re-identified using the very same techniques employed during the Mengele investigation. In doing so, this ‘methodological proximity’ helped to move such investigation “beyond the ethical categories of victim and perpetrator” (61), and establish it firmly within a material forum (with identity the only aim).

The success of the Mengele investigation was in many ways down to German forensic scientist Richard Helmer, who had developed a technique he called ‘electronic visual mixing’. In essence, an apparatus whereby Helmer could superimpose an image of the individual (Mengele) onto a clay cast (Mengele’s skull) and work a video camera between the two to establish a match between photo and cast. These image overlays could be produced in different splits so as to produce a rather haunting image of the skull cast complete with pictorial facial features from the photograph (even with Mengele’s felt hat perched upon it). In doing so, Helmer was able to persuade, quite decisively, many of the other forensic scientists and anthropologists involved in the investigation. Moreover, it was this process that also persuaded the many other victims, witnesses, state officials and media personnel eager to hear of the results of the investigation. This analytical method served as a foundational moment in forensic anthropology, and the construction of a faithful ally in the pursuit of now-dead war criminals (the skeletal object or ‘super-subject’ as a truthful witness[66]), whom in death had escaped the legal, juridical, bodily and political repercussions of their crimes.

But of course, this notion of the truthful ‘super-subject’ has something of a twist. Whilst one of the most prominent members of the Mengele investigation, Clyde Snow, said that “[b]ones make good witnesses” (quoted on 66) – it is indeed this construction of the truthful object that forms the most crucial point of this event. Snow, Helmer and all the other scientists were present to do one thing: persuade. It was up to them to persuade all relevant parties as to their level of doubt. Previous to the introduction of Helmer’s techniques, the doubt, arguably, would have been much higher. How would the skeleton otherwise have been interrogated? If they had not succeeded in persuading all parties how would forensic anthropology look now? Would forensic anthropology even exist? Moreover, how would the witness and textual investigations fare considering this apparent failure in a new investigatory technique? As Keenan and Weizman say:

Something which was not perceivable, which did not count, made its way into the domain of evidence and judgement, and in doing so had to alter the stage on which it appeared. (68)

Helmer’s ‘electronic visual mixing’ not only transformed the field of forensic science/anthropology, but also radically changed the shape of war crimes fora. The assignation of the bones of Mengele with an agential – and legal – force the scientists in the Mengele investigation allowed them, as Snow says above, ‘to speak’. Not only a political act of expanding such fora to include the otherwise non-human but also a transformation of the protocol, discourse and procedure within. Alongside the witness and the textual document stood the object; imbued with all the power to speak (or, more correctly, be spoken for), to be discussed and to be disputed.

Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre

Presentation screengrab

I’m in the process of putting together a research presentation for January. It’s something all first year PhD students in sociology at the University of Warwick have to do, and it’s a nice way to introduce your thesis to the other students, as well as helping formulate your own plans. I’ve started to put the bulk of it into MS PowerPoint but decided I’d have a little play about with Prezi, which is great for adding a few neat visual touches and is far more flexible than PowerPoint.

After trying a couple of their pre-formatted designs I decided I’d search for a suitable background image. I first typed in something general like ‘digital maps’ and ‘map game boards’ because I wanted to re-create the sequential format Prezi seems to like, with arrows and frames and also play on the urban exploration side of mapping. Then I had a bit of a brainwave and searched for some Situationist artworks/maps; the perfect combination of maps, play and ‘flow’. The classic image of the cut-out map segments with red arrows darting from section to section seemed perfect (see a selection here). Alas, I couldn’t find an image with a good enough resolution for the levels of zooming Prezi requires so I had to ditch them.

Then I came across a post on the [polis] blog on the Moscow Occupy movement. Their main picture was an image by Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920 – 2005). Taken from his New Babylon project, the image was part of a selection of “models, sketches, etchings, lithographs, collages, architectural drawings, and photocollages, as well as …manifestos, essays, lectures, and films” (Wigley 1998; text available here) that together formed a utopian vision of an anti-capitalist city. His work was strongly interconnected with the Situationists of the 1950s/60s.

In two, perhaps not so, coincidental moves I found a translation of an interview with Henri Lefebvre on Nieuwenhuys, Guy Debord and the Situationists, and also a reference to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and his homo ludens concept. Nieuwenhuys wanted his utopian city to be populated with the ‘playing man’ (homo ludens) in opposition to the ‘bourgeois shackles’ (Goldhagen 2006; direct link) the working man had to contend with in the modern city.

A subsequent image I found from Nieuwenhuys’ same New Babylon project was perfect for the background to my presentation. Good quality and a perfect colour scheme (here). Close up I think it looks like either a microscopic image of a biological cell or a computer circuit board. It also gives me an opportunity to pick out individual elements in the collage (as I think it originally was) and link them into the different sections in the presentation.

If you want to know a little bit more about Constant himself there’s an interview by Linda Boersma at the art magazine BOMB here from 2005. I’d like to think my attempts to introduce the digital map (and mobile device) as a ‘new terrain’ for situationist-style explorations draws on some of themes Constant envisaged in New Babylon.

3 Deleuzian critiques of Hardt & Negri

As Tampio (2009) says in ‘Assemblages and the Multitude: Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and the Postmodern Left’ (direct link here), Deleuze has three issues with Hardt and Negri’s political endorsements.

Tampio claims that Hardt and Negri have reinterpreted Deleuze and his many concepts (the multitude, rhizomatic networks, nomadology, organs without bodies, war machines) for their own ends. In doing so they have obscured Deleuze’s ‘distinct contributions to the contemporary left’ (385). So, those three issues below:

1. The concept of the proletariat. Not because they don’t exist per se, but that categorizing people as proletarians risks preserving a rather outdated opposition between capitalism and communism (bourgeoisie and worker). The left needs to work beyond these distinctions.

2. The concept of revolution. Every revolution ‘almost always’ (390) ends badly and rarely changes people’s minds. This is in opposition to what Deleuze calls ‘revolutionary becoming’ (Transformations 1995: 171) – a kind of experimentation of political change. It goes beyond thinking about revolution as a requirement for political change and supposes that change can be brought about through smaller interventions.

3. The desire for an end to sovereignty. Deleuze wants to ‘strike [an] optimum balance’ (391) between the state (order) and the war machine (chaos). In calling for an end to sovereignty we risk damaging individual and collective life. ‘It is far better to use a ‘very fine file’ to open up the political body to new possibilities than to wield a sledgehammer to obliterate its contours’ (391).

Carnivalesque windows of opportunity

Two similar ‘carnivalesque’ moments in protest history, consider:

In 1982, during the [Polish] May Day celebrations, members of [the activist group] Orange Alternative dressed up in ridiculous costumes, rented a bus, went to the local zoo, and waved red flags and sang communist songs while ironically demanding “freedom for the bears,” the bear being an obvious Soviet symbol. Although the “protesters” were arrested, they were so ridiculous that the police refused to fine them, particularly because it was difficult to know where to draw the line when it came to this obscure kind of political performance. Additionally, because the government wanted to take advantage of its newfound ability to distance itself from direct Soviet intervention in local economic and political affairs, officials did not want to be seen as returning to the more openly brutal political oppression of the past.


The idea for the turtle people [during the Seattle WTO demonstrations] was the brainchild of Ben White of the Animal Welfare Institute, mainly as a reaction to the fact that the WTO court had overturned a US law passed in 1996 banning the sale of shrimp caught in nets that killed endangered sea turtles. The WTO court’s reasoning was that the law constituted “an unfair barrier to trade.” White thought that a public performance by “turtle people” could send a number of important symbolic messages. […B]ecause unelected courts in newly empowered international government organizations designed to enforce “free trade” were (and are) now able to overturn the laws of nation-states, the turtle people wanted to provide a “street theater [sic] spectacle” to draw attention to this new and relatively unknown form of corporate global governance.

Then as a summary;

These two examples, limited as they are, suggest that the humorless [sic] state has a very difficult time dealing with absurdity, symbolic protest, and the curious blending of the fictive and the real—people becoming turtles, elves becoming “real”—but it has much less trouble violently dealing with more “serious” forms of protest. And perhaps this has always been true.

Really enjoying Michael Lane Bruner’s (2005) ‘Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State’ in Text and Performance Quarterly. Available here (subscription only). He argues that whilst playful protest does indeed work in subverting and inverting typical social roles and power hierarchies they only work during specific ‘windows of opportunity’. In his examples, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and pre-9/11 era USA. Is there a similar window currently open across the UK and Europe? That’s difficult to say. I’m tempted to say yes, only because I think there is a particular ideological objective to be reached for those in power, and ‘serious’ protest arguably is only having a detrimental effect to those involved. At least in the UK that is. Carnivalesque forms of protest (similar to calls for ‘playful protest’) open the door for a wider inclusion of those who otherwise might not have engaged in any protest at all. The ‘seriousness’ of protest can frequently deter those who feel like they need to in some way ‘swot up’ on what they’re protesting about. No doubt there needs to be a certain amount of education involved, but that’s not to say that people should be deterred from heading out onto the streets. I do think carnivalesque forms of protest can help in mobilising people. As Major Fydrych (leader of the Polish Orange Alternative movement) was quoted as saying in Padraig Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (2002);

Orange Alternative “happenings” were “places to learn opposition” and to “discover more political forms of protest.” He argued, “The WrocŁaw street slowly ceases to fear, and through participation in the fun, people learn to support more serious [protest] . . . [and slowly the] fear of detention—usually for a few hours, without serious consequences—evaporates” (190). It was, as Kenney remarks, a kind of socialist surrealism as sociotherapy.

A sociotherapy I’m sure many people in the UK would welcome now.