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In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Katherine Verdery tries to jazz up political science by adding a dash of anthropology, examining the ways in which political upheavals are often accompanied by incidents involving the corpses of former leaders or other cultural heroes. "Dead bodies," she says, "have properties that make them particularly effective political symbols. They are thus excellent means for accumulating something essential to political transformation: symbolic capital."
Unfortunately, much of the inherent interest in matters such as the return of Transylvanian Catholic bishop Inochentie Micu's bones to his homeland more than two centuries after his death is crushed under the weight of Verdery's prose. By all rights, the role of historical personages in shaping nationalist myths ought to be a fascinating subject, deserving of analysis more dynamic than this: "Because corpses suggest the lived lives of complex human beings, they can be evaluated from many angles and assigned perhaps contradictory virtues, vices, and intentions." (Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, for example, discusses several cases of the intersection of nationalism, historical memory, and natural landscape in a lively, engaging style perfectly accessible to a broad audience.) And although Verdery presents her work as a counterpoint to "the rationalistic and dry sense of politics that so many political analysts employ," readers--even those with patience for vehemently academic writing--may ask themselves who hasn't figured out by the end of the 1990s that culture shapes politics in chaotic and unpredictable ways. --Ron Hogan [via]