Mengele’s Skull

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Yesterday, on a visit to IMMA I nearly – just nearly – plucked up the courage to see This Situation. I had a look around I KnOw YoU in any case, and came across this little wonder of a book. Fortunately, bookshops don’t frighten me like socially constructed performance art. The book is called Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (2012), and it’s written by Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman. The latter wrote one of those series of books for the last year’s Documenta I think; I’ll have to dig that out. Anyway, a truly terrific book, just 70 pages long, but says more in those pages than tomes of five times its word-count. 

The book looks at the strange case of Joseph Mengele, and the efforts to identify bones exhumed in Brazil as those of the war criminal. The last Nazi of any standing still at large, in 1985 there was a renewed effort to track him down and bring him to justice. They were pointed, disappointingly, to a modest grave in Brazil: it appeared he had died some years back, from drowning – again disappointingly. What followed was an unprecedented interaction with the material residue of a case: in these case, unidentified bones that may or may not have belonged to Mengele. The impetus was not to glean from these material traces how he died: rather, all that was important is to prove identity or non-identity. 

This engagement with the object, so common now in criminal proceedings, was a rare, if not unheard-of, occurrence, in 1985. What is interesting about this is the suggested dissolution between subject and object: here, the object is made to speak, if you will. This requires an interpreter of course, most likely an expert and yet unable to interpret without the exercise of subjective judgment. This rhetorical process of formulating language to inert things (or absent persons) is called ‘prosopopeia’[i]. Is it is here that the question of aesthetics enters: to exercise judgment on visual material is to engage with the aesthetic realm, it is to exercise aesthetic judgment. This cannot be objective, and so Mengele’s bones cannot speak fully to the accreditation of his identity.

There is an interesting part to the book, towards the end, in which the authors consider the weird role of this forensic-interpreter. Clyde Snow, one of the people involved in the Mengele Case, appears, the authors say, to attribute theses inert objects, these bones, not only with the power of articulable language, but also of essential truthfulness: for him, they do not lie. In such a way, they say, he grants theses objects a kind of super-human quality; remembering that humans lie and forget all of the time, he renders them more than human[ii]. In such a way, he grants them an objective truth, in so doing failing to consider the inherently aesthetic, that is, subjective, dimension, bound to the act of forensic interpretation.

The book interests me because it deals with objects, presumed lifeless but given language through the act of aesthetic interpretation. Do we not deal with artworks as if they were people? Are they not granted an objectivity, over and above their material status? It’s still very fresh in my mind, but this little book certainly speaks to many of my current interests, and will in all likelihood forge some new ones over time.  


[i] Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (2012) Keenan, Thomas and Eyal Weizman: Sternberg Press/Portikus; Berlin & Frankfurt am Main, pg. 28

[ii] Ibid, pg. 66

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