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Jess Bier @bierjess
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New article out now (open access!) in Social Studies of Science: “Bodily Circulation and the Measure of a Life: Forensic Identification and valuation after the Titanic Disaster”…
In the article, I argue for better understanding practices of instantiation, or determinations of how and whether something exists. This is related to, but differs from, practices of identification, classification, and recognition.
It is about materiality and materials (Ingold), combining migration and the body with circulation and capitalism. It also addresses the ocean, valuation, forensic science, recognition, identification, disaster studies, economic class...
...and life insurance as attributing monetary value to human beings—which sounds, not coincidentally, like chattel slavery.
TW: The paper deals with the handling of the human remains (no images) of disaster victims from the year 1912. I never planned to write an article about corpses, and it was tough to write.
I started to think about the Titanic again partly in response to the current situation in the Mediterranean, where policies are being enforced in such a way that many migrants and refugees are dying at sea. It brought me to thinking about this historical precedent.
Most accounts of the Titanic stop after the sinking, and there’s far less on what happened next. A large proportion of the victims were actually buried at sea, so I examine that sea burial practice, which disproportionately affected crew and passengers with third-class tickets.
In terms of theory, I expand upon Butler’s notion of “radical effacement”, or attempts to erase all evidence that someone ever existed, to not just kill them but to obliterate all memory of them and knowledge that they ever existed.
Existence isn’t an all or nothing, and neither is effacement. The Titanic recovery workers didn’t try to efface the entire existence of the passengers, since they catalogued any possessions and documents that were found. But they did efface their bodies.
They transformed their existence from a potential bodily and forensic archive, into a textual one.
This matters because corpses have agency. The sea burial was excused due to the scarcity of materials, like embalming fluid, but it did also happen to benefit the shipping line. If nothing else, a few hundred extra coffins arriving in Halifax would have been terrible publicity.
But it also had consequences for surviving family, who couldn’t collect benefits or insurance without an identified body. Some of the bodies were identified before sea burial, or possessions were found on them that allowed for later identification.
But for the rest, burial at sea meant that the body would most likely never be identified, that it would most likely become untraceable.
To be clear, this isn’t to judge the recovery workers, who were untrained and laboring in extremely difficult circumstances.
But it is worth asking what can be done differently in disaster response in terms of taking social groups into acount, and acknowledging how societal perceptions shape the ways people see and handle the material world, including the materials of the human body.
Last note: This research goes back to the first article I ever published, which dealt with how technology shapes identification: how the names of Syrian-Lebanese passengers were transformed beyond recognition as they were radioed to shore:…
I never intended to write about, or return to the Titanic, but it brings together a fundamental constellation of social and technical concerns.
It's a moment where circulation stopped and the world broke open in ways that reverberate in contemporary practices of disaster recovery and attending to bodies.
Last tweet: attending to recovery also brings up issues of the long-overlooked practices of cleaning, maintenance, and reproduction, so that's something I may explore in the future. (The End)
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