Mengele’s Skull

I posted back in August about Keenan and Weizman’s upcoming Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics and have now got round to reading it. Firstly, it’s a small and short book with a fair number of colour images. It is these pictures that are critical to Keenan and Weizman’s narrative. Although I don’t want to spoil it for those who maybe haven’t had the chance to read it (an earlier version can be found in Cabinet here), or have not been acquainted with the Forensic Architecture project more broadly, I do still want to say a few things.

The exhumation of (supposedly) Josef Mengele’s body inaugurated (page 11) a rather unique form of war criminal investigation. One different to that of either the testimony of the witness (of which Adolf Eichmann was sentenced under), or that of the textual document that many traditional criminal investigations are centred upon (Nuremberg Trials). That of the forensic.

Each type of investigation, say Keenan and Weizman, operates in a particular space or ‘forum’. Or better still (as the space does not pre-exist it’s operation) is constructed through a set of investigative performances, where disputed and otherwise fractious entities (human/non-human; scientist/skull) are brought together for a particular purpose. In this case, an inversion of the perhaps now standard CSI approach; an interrogation of the skeleton with different presumptions and inverse purpose.

It was not a case of asking the skeleton “how did you die?”, but – with the identity of the person in question: “who are you?” (17-18). As Keenan and Weizman point out, “the Mengele investigation was conducted in much the same way as a missing persons investigation would be” (19). Perhaps ironically, the many people who were ‘forcefully disappeared’ by dictatorial forces in South American during the 1970s were re-identified using the very same techniques employed during the Mengele investigation. In doing so, this ‘methodological proximity’ helped to move such investigation “beyond the ethical categories of victim and perpetrator” (61), and establish it firmly within a material forum (with identity the only aim).

The success of the Mengele investigation was in many ways down to German forensic scientist Richard Helmer, who had developed a technique he called ‘electronic visual mixing’. In essence, an apparatus whereby Helmer could superimpose an image of the individual (Mengele) onto a clay cast (Mengele’s skull) and work a video camera between the two to establish a match between photo and cast. These image overlays could be produced in different splits so as to produce a rather haunting image of the skull cast complete with pictorial facial features from the photograph (even with Mengele’s felt hat perched upon it). In doing so, Helmer was able to persuade, quite decisively, many of the other forensic scientists and anthropologists involved in the investigation. Moreover, it was this process that also persuaded the many other victims, witnesses, state officials and media personnel eager to hear of the results of the investigation. This analytical method served as a foundational moment in forensic anthropology, and the construction of a faithful ally in the pursuit of now-dead war criminals (the skeletal object or ‘super-subject’ as a truthful witness[66]), whom in death had escaped the legal, juridical, bodily and political repercussions of their crimes.

But of course, this notion of the truthful ‘super-subject’ has something of a twist. Whilst one of the most prominent members of the Mengele investigation, Clyde Snow, said that “[b]ones make good witnesses” (quoted on 66) – it is indeed this construction of the truthful object that forms the most crucial point of this event. Snow, Helmer and all the other scientists were present to do one thing: persuade. It was up to them to persuade all relevant parties as to their level of doubt. Previous to the introduction of Helmer’s techniques, the doubt, arguably, would have been much higher. How would the skeleton otherwise have been interrogated? If they had not succeeded in persuading all parties how would forensic anthropology look now? Would forensic anthropology even exist? Moreover, how would the witness and textual investigations fare considering this apparent failure in a new investigatory technique? As Keenan and Weizman say:

Something which was not perceivable, which did not count, made its way into the domain of evidence and judgement, and in doing so had to alter the stage on which it appeared. (68)

Helmer’s ‘electronic visual mixing’ not only transformed the field of forensic science/anthropology, but also radically changed the shape of war crimes fora. The assignation of the bones of Mengele with an agential – and legal – force the scientists in the Mengele investigation allowed them, as Snow says above, ‘to speak’. Not only a political act of expanding such fora to include the otherwise non-human but also a transformation of the protocol, discourse and procedure within. Alongside the witness and the textual document stood the object; imbued with all the power to speak (or, more correctly, be spoken for), to be discussed and to be disputed.


One thought on “Mengele’s Skull

  1. Interesting stuff, Sam!
    Was not aware of the whole forensic architecture stuff. Reminds me of the whole Muhammad al-Durrah incident ( where lacking complete documentation, but having a limited-angle video of the event, the ballistics of the scene became the main actor. I have a friend who was involved with the investigation at the time, and he says that despite all time and effort today it’s still inconclusive.

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