ACP interns Angel Musyimi (‘23) and Sydney Ireland (‘23) explore the works of James R. Martel and Carlos Alberto Sánchez
On October 21st, 2020 Amherst College Press (ACP) Director Beth Bouloukos sat down for a CHI Salon over Zoom with two ACP authors, Carlos Alberto Sánchez, whose book A Sense of Brutality: Philosophy after Narco-Culture, ACP published in 2020, and James R. Martel, who wrote Unburied Bodies: Subversive Corpses and the Authority of the Dead, published in 2018. Students, faculty, staff, and other community members gathered to learn about and discuss the connections between these two open-access books. There was one recurring connection that prevailed throughout the Salon which was the idea of state power and resistance to authority.
The CHI Salon opened with Bouloukos posing the question to the authors “why open access for this title?” Martel began, stating his desire for all books to be open access because open access challenges capitalism. To Martel, not publishing his book open access would contradict his anarchist beliefs and the philosophy of resistance that he writes of. Sánchez answered the question more broadly, stating that he wants to increase accessibility; by publishing the book open access, anyone and everyone is able to learn about narco-culture, not just philosophers. Sánchez hopes that an open-access book will allow for more dialogue about narco-culture especially.
Both authors had different reasons for publishing open-access books with ACP, yet their beliefs were rooted in the desire to challenge what is currently talked about, as well as how scholarly knowledge circulates. Whether challenging capitalism or what are considered mainstream topics of conversation, these ACP authors wanted readers to find their books without barriers, which ACP is all about!
It was very interesting to hear how the two authors spoke about the ways in which they came up with their book ideas. Sánchez wondered why death wasn't being talked about in a broader way in the context of Mexico and drug cartels. He framed his writing through philosophy, while most works on narco-culture focus instead on empirical data. Sánchez sought to think about the violence that takes place within narco-culture, yet he believed violence was not the most fitting word, because the acts were more than “violent.” The word “brutality” better captured what Sánchez meant regarding narco-culture.
Martel noted that Unburied Bodies was a complete departure from anything he had written before, yet the challenge to state power and authority persists throughout his body of work. He began writing his book after Michael Brown was fatally shot by the police in 2014. The image of a young Black man lying on the concrete, unburied, created a movement towards resistance and fighting for Black lives. Martel noticed how vulnerable state power is and the necessity to challenge its power.
In the Salon, Martel explained state power as a sort of mythological idea. The state shows its might through examples and hypothetical consequences--there is no true basis for state power. However, when the unburied body refuses to contribute to this image of power that the state has constructed, the guise begins to crack and eventually fall apart. According to Martel, its inherent lack of agency allows the unburied body to be powerful. Because the corpse cannot respond, the state cannot force it to cooperate with a narrative. Instead, the public can form its own opinion of the body, even using it as a symbol in its own right.
By choosing to refuse to participate with the state, though involuntarily, the unburied body is a radical concept. It exemplifies how quickly the state’s ultimate show of power can become ultimate vulnerability, as Martel described. This notion of the power that the image of the unburied body holds is rarely discussed.
Martel contributes the idea that an unburied body can have an even larger impact than the individual may have had in life. Without the ritual of burial, the unburied body represents a direct confrontation with death and the way in which a person was killed. The act of not burying a body alludes to ideas of brutality, as the individual is not afforded a proper burial, as well as that of spectatorship, as the body is on display.
As Martel discussed how brutality and spectatorship are entwined in the concept of the unburied body, Sánchez noted how both are central to his own analysis of narco-culture. Narco-culture, the culture associated with the trafficking of narcotics by cartels in Mexico, represents something more than our traditional definition of violence according to Sánchez. Because it is not captured by subjective violence, symbolic violence, or even objective violence, Sánchez aptly calls this “something more” brutality. In his book, Sánchez writes it “stands outside the rational space of justification” and “we are unable to find words that describe the fact of seeing it” (Philosophy After Narco-Culture, 10).
The narco cartel in fact acts similarly to the state in attempting to project its image of power to the public: cartels seek to encapsulate “law and order,” just as a government might. They even film themselves executing “criminals” to show both control and “lawfulness.” Sánchez explained to the Salon’s audience that each new function of the cartel is always seeking to totalize the economic activity of a particular region in addition to this idea of law and order. Thus, it seems in order to justify its brutality, the cartel tries to appear as the state does, which is an acceptable form of brutality in the eyes of the public. What makes the cartel that much more fascinating is the fact that it does already exist outside of the state, and yet still tries to exist within it. This becomes even more complicated when thinking of how many of these cartels “own” certain state actors, from police officers to judges and beyond. Martel responded to Sánchez’s description by deducing how alternate state actors comprise narco-culture in this way; their brutality is only a reflection of state brutality.
By the end of this engaging, thought-provoking conversation, we had seen how unburied bodies in both the US and Mexico functioned to spectacularize death and boastfully brandish the ability to kill. As Martel noted, archist forces, or structured forces such as governments, need to have spectacles to show how violent they can be in order to reassert power. Death rituals, such as burying, shift attention from the body itself to an image or memory of the person, making them that much less radical, according to Martel. When the body is left unburied, we must face the body as it is and are not afforded the opportunity to view the individual as a memory. The body is tangible and present, perhaps even grotesque. It is concrete and draws us into the present state of the body and the conditions that allowed it to end up this way.
Similarly, Sánchez added that “without bodies there is no justice.” The body forces us to pay attention, and reveals the actions of the killer. Sánchez described how the more brutal an action is, the less brutality you actually see. The unburied body epitomizes that brutality in the flesh. When it is left in public, it is that much more resistant, according to Martel. Almost as if refusing to be hidden, the unburied body puts on full display this brutality. It does not allow for the transition to memory, and begs urgent action.
In their conversation as well as their books, both authors teach us just how powerful unburied bodies and their relation to brutality by archist forces can be in its impact on our broader society and how we are able to respond. To hear more from Sánchez and Martel, check out their Amherst College Press titles on Fulcrum.
Read A Sense of Brutality: Philosophy after Narco-culture and Unburied Bodies: Subversive Corpses and the Authority of the Dead open-access (for free)!
Sydney Ireland is a sophomore at Amherst College double majoring in Political Science and Psychology. She began interning for ACP in August and has enjoyed learning about equity in peer review and the benefits of open access. During her free time, she enjoys dancing, playing with her dogs, including two current foster puppies, and watching low quality reality tv.
Angel Musyimi is a sophomore at Amherst College majoring in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought doubled with Black Studies. Angel has a background in writing, and as an intern at ACP she has learned ways to implement her passion for literature into learning about the various aspects of scholarly publishing as well as the ways discrimination affects topics such as open access and peer review. In her free time she enjoys reading, watching films, and playing with her puppy, Sofia!