Politicization of Body Processing and Manipulation


  • Itzamara Ixta Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University


In present day Western society, the act of body processing is often unseen, with a body being presented to its kin once ready for burial. The idea of corpse manipulation is seen as a natural next step after a person passes away. Similarly, other cultures throughout time have had ritualistic processes for their dead that extended beyond the burial. In The Poetics of Processing, Anna J. Osterholtz aims to focus on body processing and the ways in which body manipulation serves as a social tool (2020, 3). The book itself is separated into three sections- The Americas, Europe, Eurasia, and Africa, and lastly Anatomization. The Americas focus on sites in Peru, Chihuahua, Mexico, and the Southwest. The second section has case studies focused in Africa and the Middle East. The last section focuses on anatomization within the United States.

    Osterholtz begins by introducing her audience to body processing and the poetics model. The Poetics model was a theory developed by Neil Whitehead where he applied the concept of poetics to violence and the way in which it creates identity (Overholtz 2020, 4). Whitehead concludes that violence itself is both constructive and destructive and emphasizes social identity while enforcing hierarchies and power structures (Overholtz 2020, 4). This concept is important throughout the rest of the book and is highlighted by every author. 

    Within the first section, there is a clear pattern of violence through cultural performance. In the site of Uraca in Majes Valley, Peru, trophy heads of enemies are used to emphasize cultural power and dominance over enemies. The trophy heads act as agents that elicit responses from the living with a changing relationship dependent on the maker and victim (Koontz Scaffidi 2020, 34) Chapter three, four and five continue to emphasize the significance of manipulation and processing as part of ritualistic behavior. The same poetic element viewed here falls under cultural performance that allows a varying interpretation of what violence is. The Paquime site of Casas Grandes, Chihuahua used body processing as a means to enforce community norms and social control. Likewise, the regional focus of the Southwest highlights the overlooked importance of an audience. Without an audience to view the violence, norms can not be enforced, and the performative violence loses its cultural impact and social identity. Debra L. Martin and Anna J. Osterholtz emphasize that the complexity and symbolic force of violence is a long-term processual event reinforced by new acts of violence (2020, 94)

    In section two you begin to understand violence as a means to maintain social order. In the Aksumite kingdom, burial rituals and processing is directly tied to the concept of group hood vs personhood and the deviation from social norms (Singh Basanti 2020, 103). In Ancient Egypt, the concept of group hood is ruled by the Pharaoh who executes violence against threats to order (Campbell 2020, 123). Section two sparks the conversation of the legitimacy of violence. In modern society, the idea of dismemberment is labeled as violence, a common ethnocentric viewpoint. However, for these cultures, these processes are socially acceptable and for the greater good of their society.

    Lastly, we enter the importance of anatomization in the United states. The concept is defined as dissection of cadavers. In chapter 10, the authors Christina J. Hodge and Kenneth C. Nystrom place emphasis on the poetics of the body as communication tools and material practice (2020, 189). By the late 19th century social hierarchies had been set, and remains maintained their personhood. Anatomization began as a punishment of criminals, and eventually increased in occurence for medical schools, there were instances of illegal resurrection of remains, particularly of the disadvantaged (Hodge and Nystrom 2020, 193). Remains of minorities, poor, and mentally ill were illegally acquired and used for medical schools. The authors then emphasize the poetics of space, particularly in the anatomical theater that serves as a heterotopic space (Hodge and Nystrom 2020, 198-203). The acquisition of remains is questioned when it comes to famous collections like Hamann-Todd which consist of unclaimed remains. Poetics here differ from the first two sections and they focus on the postmortem treatment symbolic of Western culture. Here, remains are stripped of their personhood with their identity erased or reduced to a material (de la Cova 2020, 213-230).

    The book itself is carefully curated around the theme of poetics. The concept itself is shown to be variable culture to culture, but often is dependent on social norms. The need for an audience is invaluable for reinforcing social control. Poetics are amplified through the material, architecture and space (Haanstad 2020, 241). The last section ties in the clear distinction in processing between premodern and modern societies. Violence emphasizes the importance of a social hierarchy and domination over the enemy. It is important to consider that in the U.S, without human remains and associated collections we wouldn’t have advanced science and research. However, the poetics of this violence extends beyond body processing and shines a light on political structures that aim to strip disadvantaged communities of their personhood and identity, thus labeling them an ‘other’.

Author Biography

Itzamara Ixta, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University

First year Masters student.


Campbell, Roselyn A. 2020. “Smiting Pharaohs: The Poetics of Violence and Power in Ancient Egypt,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 123-144. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

De la Cova, Carlina. 2020. “Processing the destitute and deviant: Inequality, Dissection, Politics, and the Structurally Violent Legalization of Social Marginalization in American Anatomical Collections,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 212-234. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Haanstad, Eric J. 2020. “Conclusion: Poetic Amplifications and Extensions, How to Process the Dead,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 235-252. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Hodge, Christina J. and Kenneth C. Nystrom. 2020. “Dissection as Social Process: Anatomical Settings in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 189-122. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Koontz Scaffidi, Beth. 2020. “Power, Mediation and Transformation: Dismembered Heads from Uraca (Majes Valley, Peru) and the Andean Feline-Hunter Myth,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 15-40. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Martin, Debra L. and Anna J. Osterholtz. 2020. “ The Poetics of Corpse Fragmentation and Processing in the Ancient Southwest,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 85-102. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Osterholz, Anna J. 2020. The Poetics of Processing: Memory formation, identity, and the handling of the dead. University Press of Colorado Louisville.

Singh Basanti, Dilpreet.2020. “Poetics of the House: Changing Realities of Body and Person in Aksumite Mortuary Practice,” edited by Anna J. Osterholtz, 103-122. University Press of Colorado Louisville.