An Iconography of the Flesh: How Corpses Mean As Matter


The structuring relationship between the material world and the world of culture is variously embodied in the figure of the corpse. To ask how corpses mean as matter is to attend to them as “things themselves”—by bracketing the freighted assumptions and naturally mixed feelings we have when we encounter something that cannot but remind us of our own mortality. Corpses force us to think of putrefaction—and allow us, via a complex system of cultural and representational practices, to just as quickly disavow this unpleasantness. Wherever the corpse appears, then, it brings with it ideas about the relationship between representation and the real, or, more precisely, about the matter of subjectivity.

This materiality also crucially constitutes the corpse’s difference from the identity of the deceased, and it is here where the corpse may thus do more than simply reference the past. The end point of the argument, then, is to work towards a vocabulary that allows this difference—this material remainder—to figure meaningfully in practices of grief and mourning that may not point exclusively back towards the deceased (and inevitably a particular version of that person’s legacy) but towards the future and towards polysemic, even conflicting ideas of the responsibility placed upon us by this death.

This paper opens a discussion of corpses as “vibrant matter” (to borrow Jane Bennett’s provocative term) whose materiality is an equal partner to their cultural significance. My reading opens a conversation about the very real work of corpses as things capable of organizing diverse affect that in turn may become considered action.

Following Bennett’s reading of Deleuze and Latour, I account for the corpse as both deceased subject and material object by framing it as a kind of assemblage. As remains, the corpse is essentially referential, the remains of someone. But remains are also material, matter that functions as an actant in concert with the processes of decomposition, with the interventions of photography and embalming, with the cultural practices of disposal that ritually encounter and resolve this “remaining.”

The corpse diversely and dynamically organizes the cultural, the representational, the biological, the subjective and the objective, the ritual and the metaphysical. I argue that lingering with the corpse as a dynamic assemblage allows for the development of a nuanced and materialistic notion of agency. I further suggest that this kind of reading provocatively develops Bill Brown’s question, “What might scholars accomplish through a materialist analysis of media?” Corpses are unique objects in that they already suggest themselves as figures of the material, thus literally embodying the question of what a materialist media studies might look like. Corpses communicate something to us about the flesh; they are the not-so-passive objects of technological, ritual and representational practices; they are the perfect starting point for a materialist communication and media studies.