the crowd of the dead, Mick Wilson

narrator Mick Wilson
term the crowd of the dead
published 20 March 2022,
affiliated institution Valand Academy

The crowd of the dead


Rather than speak of legitimacy, I speak of reordering the meaningful universe. I present the politics of corpses as being less about legitimating new governments (though it can be that, too) than about cosmologies and practices relating the living and the dead. And I see the rewriting of history that is obviously central to dead-body politics as part of a larger process whereby fundamental changes are occurring in conceptions of time itself. [1]


We live in a world in which death, after all, faces discrimination. By discrimination I mean the particular privilege granted living beings while at the same time marginalising that which we consider non-living or dead. In light of this, I am particularly interested in the status of non-humans, and especially the condition of those forms of existence that were once human but are now non-human remains. [2]


One of the most famous exclusions of the dead from political community with the living, is to be found in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence with James Madison shortly after the framing of the federal USA constitution. Identifying the question as to whether “one generation of men has a right to bind another” as “among the fundamental principles of every government,” Jefferson proposes to prove that “no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.” [3] He makes his argument by appeal to the seeming obviousness of the non-constituent status of the dead: “I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ’that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. […] The earth belongs always to the living generation.” The pronouncement of this exclusion of the dead from property rights, and from all other “powers” and “rights” over the earth, is already a matter only for dead men – since the prior exclusion of slaves, women, and children had already been accomplished in Jefferson’s androcentric constituency of suffrage.


This figure of the dead as “men” of no property, of no account (dis-possessive individuals) disposed radically outside political community with the living generation, may be contrasted with other figures of the dead. The “crowd of the dead” is one such figure, coming from the Gaelic “Slúagh na marbh” and attested in other traditions, and even fleetingly referenced by Elias Canetti in his famous book on Crowds and Power. [4] The “crowd of the dead” proposes a de-individuated and swarming mass of the dead as a material force, a thickening of the air, that moves in the world of the living not as an antithesis to, but as an alterity and an agency moving among the living. The crowd of the dead figures a form of material ancestral co-being coming into proximity to the living not as revenant nor as shade nor as spectre, but as stuff, as thingly force congealing materially, not as ectoplasm but rather as mist, smoke, a sudden glooming in the weather, a seething mass of insects, a wheeling flock of birds, or as some other abruption in the material textures of the world.


A related, though different figure appears in the work of artist-scholars such as Denise Ferreira da Silva who point to the material persistence of the dead as environment, as matter, as soluble and insoluble stuff diffusing through the ocean, the air and the earth. In the wake of the Middle Passage, for da Silva the Atlantic:

is constituted by these dead people who did not complete the voyage between the West African coast and the Americas or Europe. And not only the dead ones: those who completed the crossing to be sold as slaves also left traces of their bodies, as sweat, blood, urine, spit in the waters along the way. Residence time (the measure of duration for the persistence of different materials in the ocean) reminds us of that. Residence time also tells us that traces of the flesh of the dead slaves remains here/now as part of the composition that is the Atlantic Ocean. [5]


Ewa Domanska, writing in the context of the forensic turn in the humanities, produces a related figure of the materiality of the dead in terms of multispecies co-belonging and the more than human. Domanska does so by arguing for the importance of the decomposition, the biomechanical dehumanisation of the body, as its incorporation into another mode of community:

While dehumanisation in the symbolic world of culture denotes exclusion from the dominant, human collective, in an organic multispecies environment it means inclusion into a much broader collective of beings, of which only some are post-human in the sense that they were once human. The dehumanisation of the dead body (when considered as a post-human existence) is, I repeat, the sine qua non of its incorporation into a multispecies collective. [6]


“That crowd are not much use”


In an earlier moment of the GCK dialogue around constituencies, many themes circulated in a generative way bridging ways of speaking with ways of working: themes of institution, institutional critique, democracy, commoning, post-representational or non-representational assembly and agency, and a non-identitarian praxis of community. Reading these materials, I am struck by a very compelling transfer between the register of terminological and conceptual analysis, on the one hand, and the applied practice of the museum, on the other hand. These expansions on constituencies seem to readily yield operational possibilities to move beyond the horizon of liberal-humanist and nation-state “publics”. For instance, Lia Colombino speaks of contrasting forms of collective address in the Guarani language, inclusive and exclusive –“ñande,” a “we” that includes you to whom I speak and “ore,” a “we” that excludes you to whom I speal. Colombino uses this contrast to articulate the trajectory and praxis of the Paraguayan Museo del Barro. [7] The specific cultural politics and logics of a museum’s practice are unfolded through these terms. I imagine that the Constituent Museum, as a shared frame of mobilization for L’Internationale, emerged from this kind of attentive movement between terminological adjustment and institutional arrangement.


However, I cannot pretend that anything so useful will proceed from the proposition that I bring– the proposition to talk of, with, and among the constituency of the dead. So, I must apologize in advance that I cannot move between the registers of rhetorical play and operational task with the same elegance and efficacy as my colleagues, nor indeed with their light touch. I bring to the table, all heavy-handed, some rhetorical corpse-stuff that I cannot claim to make immediately useful and serviceable to any museum’s practice.


There is of course an increasing awareness of the many corpses and body parts that are sequestered in the museums of colonial-modernity. It could be argued that this is just one of many clear psurfaces of contact between the museum and talk of the dead. The museum appears as a temporal mechanism that transacts with the dead, that robs their graves or that tries to keep their promises, if not quite their secrets. The museum is – at least in part – a technology of ancestral transmission and death work. This is so even for a museum of the contemporary, that does not traffic in body parts and ethnographies, but only projects forward from the horizon of a living generation to what might be collected for some future. In proposing to preserve something of now for later, for posterity, for when the living generation is gone, the museum of the contemporary is also a technology for ancestor work, a part of the collective death work undertaken by a society.


While there are many important threads to ravel and unravel, and many deaths at the museum to investigate, this is not the path of argument followed here for several reasons. Perhaps, the most immediate reason for not claiming the figure of the crowd of the dead as a museological theme, is the way in which this figure produces a de-individuated, de-composed and de-humanised way of (not) being for the dead. This form of ancestrality, this way of figuring the dead, is not really the way of being dead that museological practices are typically oriented by – nor do I claim they should be so oriented. Rather, what I propose to consider is the way in which this figure might interact with the wider referential field of constituencies. My guess is that the crowd of the dead might assemble itself in such a way as to unsettle that longing for legitimation beyond and before the state that seems always already to be constituted by talk of constituencies and their agency.


The waxing and waning of the trope of constituent power, within colonial-modernity’s political imaginary has done service for many different political projects. It has oscillated from the “general will” of Rousseau to the “multitude” of Negri and Hardt, it is at work in Schmitt’s sovereign dictator who claims to exercise the constituent power of the people. [8] However, it has arguably always been returned upon as a trope within a discourse of legitimation: Constituencies constitute, and they seem somehow to constitute the right way to do things. Constituencies crowd in around the work of disclosing the rightfulness or wrongfulness of foundation. Some residual work of legitimation seems to be at work, even where constituent power and constituencies are arraigned against constitutions. In recent decades constituent power has been used to claim a different dispensation beyond all those liberal democratic captures of “the many” within the machinations of “the few.” It seems to offer a way to get beyond all those representational conceits whereby the many become alienated from themselves in the rhetorical violences of “we-the-people,” the nation, the public, the participants and so forth. However, what might happen when “we” think the different possible constituencies of the dead? Or when “we” think the theme of constituencies through, with, and among these ever-thickening crowds of the dead?

[1] Verdery, Katherine. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. Columbia University Press. 1999: 26.

[2] Domanska, Ewa. “Dehumanisation Through Decomposition and the Force of Law”, trans. by Paul Vickers, in: Mapping the 'Forensic Turn:' The Engagements with Materialities of Mass Death in Holocaust Studies and Beyond, ed. by Zuzanna Dziuban. Vienna: New Academic Press, 2016: 87.

[3] From a letter by Jefferson to Madison dated 6 September 1789. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison Volume 15: 27 March 1789 to 30 November 1789, Princeton University Press, 1958: 392-8. There are many different genealogies to the exclusion of the dead from political community, Jefferson’s mode of exclusion of the dead might be compared and contrasted with Marx’s appropriation of the Christian motif of “Let the dead bury their dead” and his exclamation that: ʻWe suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!ʼ See Mark Neocleous, “Let the dead bury their dead: Marxism and the politics of redemption,” Radical Philosophy, 128, November/December, 2004: 23-32.

[4] See Dr. Stuart McLean “The Dead Have Never Been Modern” and “The Time of the Ancestors?” Chapters 10 and 17 respectively in Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

[5] “Arjuna Neuman & Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘Serpent Rain.’ Introduced by Margarida Mendes,” Vdrome, April 2018: 17-30.

[6] Op. cit.


[8] See Andreas Kalyvas’ “Constituent Power” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, Issue 3, 2012.