Edkins, Jenny 2011 Missing: Persons and Politics, reviewed by Stuart Elden

Jenny Edkins, Missing: Persons and Politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2011, xvii + 277 pages, $29.95 cloth, ISBN 978-0-8014-5029-7 (http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100486370)

This was a difficult book to read, but not because it was badly written. It is a difficult book to write about, but not because there is nothing to say. It is a beautifully wrought, painfully acute, moving, thoughtful and challenging book. It raises important questions that need to be discussed, developed and which deserve a wide audience. It was a book, Edkins says, “prompted by an anger at the way prevalent forms of political or biopolitical governance both objectify and instrumentalize the person… Contemporary politics does not see the person-as-such, only the person as object” (page viii).

Edkins looks at a number of instances where people have gone missing. This may be as the result of a large-scale catastrophe such as the events in New York, Washington D.C. and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11th 2001. It addresses those transported and murdered in the Nazi extermination camps, or the displaced persons of many nationalities at the end of the Second World War. It analyzes the confusion of a smaller scale event, such as the terrorist attacks on tube trains and a bus in London on July 7th 2005. There are also discussions of soldiers missing in action, of those who ‘disappeared’ in Argentina under the military dictatorship, and, in contrast, those people who “abscond or voluntarily break contacts with families and friends” (page 175). There are considerations of ‘tracing services’, of forensic identification, and of those left behind.

Edkins uses a variety of sources, including testimonies, newspaper reports, official documents, archive material and printed texts. While the references do not overwhelm the narrative, the stories from them puncture the accounts of much broader events presented across the eight chapters. They personalize them. Edkins is especially interested in photographs, which are “ambiguous, at once present as objects yet inevitably records of an absence” (page 1). Her forthcoming book Politics of the Human Face develops these arguments. There is no obvious chronology to the arrangement of chapters here—chapters 1 and 5 both treat the events of September 11th 2001, for example. While each chapter has a clear internal logic, she weaves different threads across the book as a whole, picking up and developing points made earlier in another context. It builds on Edkins’s pioneering work in the relation between poststructuralism and International Relations, especially her books Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid and Trauma and the Memory of Politics, but, like those earlier works, it is most certainly not a book just to be read by those interested in the theory.  The figures that provide the foundations of her argument, such as Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler and Jacques Rancière are important, but do not overpower.

One of the themes running through the book is the violence of reducing a missing person to a number. Edkins quotes Wisława Szymborska’s claim that “History rounds off skeletons to zero./A thousand and one is still only a thousand./That one seems never to have existed”. Yet while this may be true in the count, it is not in Edkins’s discussion of a file in the United Nations archives: “But here, in this archive, that one counts, as a person, not an object, on the assumption that someone, somewhere, may be looking for them” (page viii). But this is to play to with the two main meanings of the verb ‘to count’—to enumerate, and to matter. Edkins notes that she “is not sure that making certain everyone counts or is counted in ways that we currently count people in Western politics is a step forward” (page 7), because it does not look at who they are, but rather what they are. This is her recurrent plea, for a “politics based on a regard for the who and not the what, a politics not based on categorization, determination and the search for certainty” (page 193). The role of political arithmetic, of statistics—literally the description of states, of censuses and body counts, begins to demonstrate the inherent politics of reducing someone to anyone, of a life as a number. There is the story of Antony Fatayi-Williams, a 26-year old Nigerian man who lost his life in London on July 7th 2005. There is the story of his sister Marie who spoke movingly of her missing brother, as well as the missing information about him she felt was being withheld a few days later. These make it very clear that Antony “is not just a statistic, an unidentified victim of a terrorist bomb” (pages 87-88). For Edkins, “a focus on missing persons demands a focus on the specific, the particular” (page 7).

Edkins tries to outline “what it means to think of the person as missing, and what a politics of the person as missing might look like” (page xiv). The ‘politics of missing persons’ needs to be understood in two registers at least: the political aspects of people who have gone missing, but also “a politics that misses the person” (page 2). People, she reminds us, though we ought not to need telling, are missed as a “unique and irreplaceable person”, “they are not missed as abstract individuals” (page 9). Edkins suggests that, at times, tragic and appalling events can be made worse for those who care for those who are missing by the invocation of “the bureaucratic apparatus of disaster management” (page 97). As she powerfully states at the end of one of the chapters—the one on London, but the point is surely one that, somewhat in tension with her own cautions, is all-too-generalizable:

Those in political authority assume that their task is that of dealing with people as objects to be governed, not as persons: as far as they are concerned the person-as-such is missing. We need to take note before we all become nothing more than a list of physical characteristics and distinguishing marks, dead bodies in all but name (p. 106).

It is ultimately a book that could have been many times longer, a mark both of its importance and the tragic repetition of the kinds of events discussed. It made me think of the untold deaths of the last two decades in Iraq; of my visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the nearby Choeung Ek ‘killing fields’; and of the deaths on all sides in ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland. Yet it would have been still harder to read if the examples had been further multiplied, and the careful account Edkins provides is best precisely because it is specific, careful, nuanced and particular. What we have, while underpinned by an argument and conceptual narrative, is ultimately a finely balanced and powerful collection of stories, of just what it means for a life, a person, a someone reduced to a mere body, to count.

Stuart Elden, Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, United Kingdom

One Response to Edkins, Jenny 2011 Missing: Persons and Politics, reviewed by Stuart Elden

  1. Pingback: Interview with Jenny Edkins | Society and Space - Environment and Planning D

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