As the left-behind, we are with the dead. We speak languages not of our own invention and carry forth, alter, or refuse traditions not of our making; we tend the graves of our ancestors that shaped our lineages or symbolize our political commitments. In our “necropolitics” — that is, our political relationship to the dead — we move, repatriate, reevaluate, or otherwise resacralize graves. As tombs to the “unknown soldier” indicate, our necropolitical commitments do not hinge on knowing the identities of the dead.
The signs of the dead are everywhere, and acts like tending to the burial or other forms of sacralization of the dead, as well as the upkeep of whatever symbolizes their being set apart (the etymological root of sacralization and the sacred), are shared across human cultures, ancient and contemporary. The means or customs of setting apart the dead while nonetheless maintaining a relationship with them vary greatly, but that we do this speaks to our being at an ontological level. It characterizes us as historical — the left-behind standing in sometimes conflicted relationship to those who have gone before. Nonetheless, although our sense of being is inseparable from this relationship to the dead, how we read the signs that the dead have left us is an ineluctably enduring problem.
This question, at the heart of our being, shapes the seminal new study by the Swedish philosopher Hans Ruin, Being with the Dead: Burial, Ancestral Politics, and the Roots of Historical Consciousness, a work whose clarity, interdisciplinary prowess, and originality rank it among the best and most provocative philosophical works in the continental idiom in recent years:
As members of the human species we never stopped burying. Perhaps we only just started. Perhaps we are still looking for the right and proper way to bury. Perhaps we are only now slowly beginning to learn to live more authentically with the dead, not just with our own but with all of the dead of the earth, through our historical culture and memory.
Burial does not necessarily mark interment, although it includes it. It speaks to the ways we are with the dead, the “different modes of living after as also a living with.” It is not therefore about “laying to rest and storing away but rather the center and starting point for a complex set of practices, rituals, and traditions that continue to care for and to be with the dead.” Given that we are those who care for the dead, it is not clear, therefore, how to do so. They are too far away to be reached by a cry or a gesture. This is a “transcultural predicament where there is no given and obvious guidance.” It is like, as Ruin eloquently renders it, Odysseus’ journey to Hades in the Nekya sequence in the Odyssey. Seeing the shade of his mother, Odysseus learns from her that she had died of a broken heart because her son had never returned home from the Trojan War. Grief-stricken, Odysseus reaches out to embrace her, only to have her disintegrate.
The rituals and practices by which we, voluntarily or not, confront the past, and where the dead reach out to the living and the living call upon the dead, do not result in an unambiguous transmission. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, refused the counsel of the newly crowned Claudius that he had “a will most incorrect to heaven” because he could not put his father’s murder behind him. Claudius characterized Hamlet’s recalcitrance thus:
a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corpse to he that died to-day,
“This must be so.”
The dead are gone. It is time to move on and let the past be past.
Hamlet saw through Claudius’s guile. Yes, the dead are implacably past as no longer here, but they remain in their absence among us. They haunt who we are — what Derrida notably characterized as an “hauntology,” a term which, when spoken in French, elides the sound of the “h,” so that it sounds like we are saying “ontology,” the study of being. Yet the “h” haunts our being in its absence. It is there as not being there, as having been, as with us as no longer being with us. Our care for what has been in what and who we are “opens the space of historicity and of the historical as a social ontological, and thus also as a haunto-logical, problem of how humans are with those having-been.”
What the dead want from us and what we think we owe them can be almost paralyzing enigmas, but Hamlet recognized something that all human cultures appreciate in their culturally specific ways: we are with the dead, and they are among us as gone. This absence marks their paradoxical presence. The grave is hence a “metaphysical site” in that it “is situated in space and in time, yet it destabilizes this matrix, warping the linearity of time and the spatiality of space.” The human present is shaped and “claimed” by the haunting presence of what has been, “touched and addressed by no-longer present others, the dead.” Hamlet rightly exclaimed, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”
Hamlet failed to set it right because it cannot be set right. The past is not simply superseded by the present. Although his book does not specifically engage Shakespeare’s play, Ruin contemplates, with dazzling insight and extraordinary interdisciplinary range, jointless time — what he calls “the irreducible temporal and existential domain of being-with the dead.” Rejecting Hegel’s optimism that the wounds of spirit are healed and leave no scars behind, Ruin powerfully contends: “All wounds are not healed by time. Time itself is a wound within which life prevails. We do not overcome the finitude of death; we share it with the living to which we give birth and for which we too will one day belong to those having-been.”
The space where time is out of joint, where we care in our studies and rituals for the dead, symbolizing them “to represent what is absent,” trying not so much to be responsible — as if we could once and for all quiet their claims with ethical and legal resolutions — but rather responsive, gives rise to our social being as historical. Our present is our “ongoing deliberation within the space of being-with the dead.”
If there is only the reign of the present and the claims of the past are solely determined or “constructed” by the needs and priorities of the present, then there is no history. If it is just a projection of the present onto a past that is utterly helpless to contest, resist, or shape these projections, the time is not out of joint, and the past is altogether irretrievable just as we are locked into the spell of presence. The dead become silent and cease to exercise their ambiguous claims upon us. There could be no archaeology, which cares for the “traces of petrified life,” soliciting the origins (arche) to come into discourse (logos).
This would also spell the end of anthropology. As it continues to shed its original colonial task of ranking all forms of life that are not our own as Other and, as such, lesser, anthropology attempts to investigate the many modalities of being human, including the various ways of caring for the dead and remaining under their claim. A constructivist account of this activity supplants the future that the past has left for those to come. Who will have been to those to come? Like Odysseus who had to perform sacrifices in order to be granted access to Hades, we perform our rituals — our studies, field work, and other academic practices — so that the shades of those who have been can come forward: “Unless the living perform a sacrifice (give something of themselves), the dead will remain blind and numb shadows, with no ability to communicate.”
Nonetheless, if we reach out and try to take possession of the dead, they fall apart. We are this narrow yet inexhaustible out-of-joint space, negotiating with the past, hearkening to those who have left us behind, yet unable to overcome the distance that is their paradoxical proximity to us. The present can neither successfully repress nor access the past as the latter continues to forge our future.
Ruin deftly shows how the “existential predicament of being with the dead” manifested in the enduring grand historical and philological debates about the person of Homer himself. Was he, as the Romantics and other 18th- and 19th-century enthusiasts extolled, a genius whose singular imagination forged the mythological world of the early Greeks? Or was Homer a token for the compiler of the many oral stories that he inherited? Did he even exist? If he did, was he one person or many people? Even the story of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld to bear witness to the shades of the dead is itself its own shade, which dissolves when we try to take possession of it. Did Homer really write it? Is the story, so fundamental to the Western imagination (Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno), a later interpolation?
Archaeology itself eventually struggled with the constitutive dishonesty of its own particular relationship to the dead. It initially conceived itself as an impartial science engaged in a disinterested inquiry into the remote origins of the human past. It collected the bones of the dead as if they were mere artifacts for the taking, neutral data to be illuminated by objective analysis. Yet this relationship to the dead elides the “existential predicament of being with the dead.” The relegation of bones to neutral objects of study was a culturally and historically specific way of being with the dead that disguised itself, even to itself, as a disinterested relationship to the putative truth of the past. When, for example, the bones of white colonial settlers were discovered, they followed protocol and gave them a proper (Christian) burial. All of the bones of indigenous peoples, however, despite their importance to contemporary indigenous peoples and their own practices of being with the dead, were routinely collected and stored as museum artifacts. Our dead are sacred, but the desecration of the dead of Others disappears under the pretense of scientific neutrality.
This tension led to the famous 1989 meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in Vermillion, South Dakota, where archaeologists, recognizing the hypocrisy of their position, and working with indigenous Elders, attempted to establish the rights of the dead. Although this was an important step in confronting the tacit settler colonial values in archaeology, as well as exposing archaeology as a culturally and historically specific relationship to the dead, it does not and cannot settle the “existential predicament of being with the dead.” Necropolitical battles continue as the claims of the shades of the having-been are renegotiated. Traitors are reburied as heroes, statues of military heroes are destroyed as traitors, racists, and murderers. The ignominiously buried dead of the defeated are reburied as martyrs. The remains of great writers and artists are repatriated to the lands that they had once flown as artistically stifling. In these and many other ways, the burial site is contested by those who share it:
The politics of the dead is not over: It is not a thing of the past in the sense of what is behind us. Instead, it is a mark and a symptom of how the past itself continues to be constituted in and through the involvement of the living with the dead and of how the dead shape the space of the living.
Ruin’s evocation of our constitutive care for the dead resonates with Heidegger’s famous phenomenological analysis of care (die Sorge) in his 1927 unfinished masterpiece Being and Time. Heidegger’s chief emphasis in his existential analysis of "being-unto-death" is Dasein confronting its own death, me confronting my death, an incomprehensible future that will end all that I know of myself, evacuating my properties and showing me that, before death, all I own is death itself. Death takes away all that I am, but I cannot give death away. What this obscures, as Ruin reads Heidegger against the letter of his own text, is that we are already with the dead, that we are the site of this relationship and ongoing negotiation, a negotiation in which the dead are near enough to be recognizable, but too far away to be reached by a cry or a gesture.
Yet the dead’s claim upon us can also be a hidden life, as Terrence Malick’s recent film of the same name invokes the famous concluding line of George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans) Middlemarch:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
To be with the dead is to acknowledge the tombs (and books, languages, traditions, rituals, artworks, worlds) that we visit as well as the unimaginable unhistoric acts in their unvisited tombs. It is not only that my own death will one day unmake me. It is also that I am the active and responsive recipient of lives, historic and unhistoric, beneficent and traumatic.
Dr. Jason M. Wirth is professor of philosophy at Seattle University. His recent books include Nietzsche and Other Buddhas: Philosophy after Comparative Philosophy (Indiana, 2019), Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis (SUNY, 2017), a monograph on Milan Kundera (Commiserating with Devastated Things, Fordham, 2015), and Schelling’s Practice of the Wild (SUNY, 2015).