The Afterlife of a Sovereign Corpse: Gaddafi

by | 28 Oct 2011

The global circulation of the images of Gaddafi’s corpse and the long lines of people eager to see it in person reveal, rather than a generic fascination with gore, that this cadaver embodied a state that had been destroyed. The power of Gaddafi’s corpse to affect millions reveals that the state itself is a bio-political assemblage. A man who saw the corpse on display articulated how he was affected by it. “Before, when we watched him on TV, he always seemed so strong. Now he looks so weak.” It’s that simple. The sight of the corpse of the sovereign shatters, even if briefly, the idea of the state as an all-powerful, transcendent force; it brings to light the immanence of the state, a human-made and therefore perishable political contingency that in Libya acquired bodily form. Bio-politics is not a regime of power generated by a state immune from it. Bio-politics also involves the breathing tissue that makes up the body of the sovereign. This is why, as Giorgio Agamben reminded us, the public execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and the exhibition of his head, was a turning point in the history of European modernity.

The power of Gaddafi’s body when he was alive was apparent in the political liminality of the two months that followed the fall of Tripoli. His elusive body and the resilience of his last military forces in Sirte were enough to erode the power of the new regime, despite the latter’s control of the vast majority of the Libyan territory and despite the military and financial support of its imperial patrons. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime, first announced back in August, only became real when the body of its sovereign suddenly appeared in public as a corpse. The Libyan NTC announced that the appearance of the corpse signaled that the Gaddafi state was at last finished and that celebrations of victory were now in order. The new state, therefore, inadvertently admitted that it had been weakened by the spatial elusiveness of the body of a sovereign.

Spinoza famously argued that all bodies have the capacity to affect and be affected. Yet corpses mark the threshold after which bodies can continue affecting without being affected. And few objects affect the bodies of the living more powerfully than a corpse. This is why the display of images of corpses, as Alan Klima argued in The Funeral Casino, releases affective energies that are often hard to master. And the same way that different bodies have different capacities to affect, some corpses can affect more viscerally than others. Being the embodiment of the state, the corpse of the sovereign generates affective excess that spills over the attempts to control it.

The insurgents who captured and executed Gaddafi sought to channel the affects released by the corpse of the sovereign through the language of revenge. The mood of many Libyans was not only one of exultant celebration at the death of the sovereign but also of indignation at the asymmetry of the affects they had exchanged with him. As a living body, Gaddafi had profoundly affected their lives for over forty years. The way his body had been affected by insurgent violence seemed, in comparison, insignificant. The corpse was turned not just into a trophy on display but also into an object of communication to highlight an unpaid debt. A remarkable number of the people who entered the improvised morgue to see the corpse expressed a strong urge to communicate with it: insulting it, gesturing toward it, talking to it, affected by the presence of a cold mass of dead tissue that could not be affected. This was a communicative practice performed in front of other bodies and cameras but aimed at the petrified carcass of the state. And in attracting so many living bodies eager to communicate with it, this dead organic form revealed its afterlife; it also affirmed the corpse’s ongoing power as a fetish.

The debates in the media about the appropriateness and ethics of displaying the image of Gaddafi’s corpse silence that the western media has always been eager to show corpses as long as they are not white. We regularly consume images of lifeless dark bodies from Haiti to Iraq and from Rwanda to Afghanistan, but the taboo to show corpses of “people like us” remains in effect as if it were law. Imperial forces learned their lesson in Vietnam: the image of the corpses of US soldiers on TV affected too many people at home and eroded the support for the war. Even the flag-wrapped coffins that hide those corpses from view were deemed by the Bush administration as having too much affective power, and were banned from being visually represented. The differential affects generated by corpses racialized as different are not unlike the old unwritten rule according to which showing the breasts of indigenous women on National Geographic was not real nudity. Those non-white bodies, after all, affect us differently. Similarly, the western media has socialized its public to be relatively disaffected by the images of non-white corpses. The widespread presence of the corpse of an Arab sovereign on the cover of myriad western media outlets is part of this racialized imperial genealogy.

The affective power of this corpse has elicited the predictable hypocrisy of the imperial powers that regularly send death squads and drones to execute countless people without due process, including their own citizens, yet expressed outrage at the fact that Gaddafi was executed. In Libya, not surprisingly, these hollow calls have been met with scorn. “Did anyone complain when the Americans shot Osama bin Laden in the head?” asked a rebel leader to The Guardian, reminding us that the shot in Gaddafi’s head simply followed the standard operating procedure established by imperial forces.

The insurrections of North Africa have now toppled three different regimes. Yet the spatial trajectories followed by the bodies of the three deposed sovereigns have been markedly different. The first toppled dictator abandoned the national space of Tunisia to avoid popular wrath and lives in exile; the second did not leave Egypt, yet popular pressure has been strong enough to force the military to put him under arrest and begin his prosecution; only in Libya the insurgent forces killed the sovereign on the streets after having captured him bloodied but alive. The execution of the ruler highlighted the insurrection’s power but also, inadvertently, empowered the ruler’s corpse. They did so, first, by fulfilling Gaddafi’s pledge to die in his country. The affective force released by this particular corpse may not be easily dispelled.

Spinoza famously said that we don’t know what the body can or cannot do. This is probably more so with corpses. What makes corpses affectively unpredictable is that their power to affect is liberated from the capacity to be affected. This gives corpses, and especially those that embody the state, a potent political afterlife. Gaddafi’s corpse was buried secretly in the depths of the desert, the same way that the cadaver of Bin Laden was thrown into the depths of the ocean, because their executioners don’t really know (and hence fear) what a corpse can do.

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