Research Seminar Series: Exhuming Terra Incognita: evidence, materiality, and mourning at a mass grave site   

Presenter: Alexa Hagerty, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy

In this talk, Alexa will explore the openings, closures, and tensions of exhumation focusing on the twenty-year excavation of a mass grave in Argentina. She reflects on what the long labor to recover the remains of the disappeared illuminates about evidence, materiality, and uncertainty in grief –from the territory of a mass grave, to bones in forensic labs, to avatars in the digital cloud.

Abstract: The forensic exhumation of mass graves after violent conflict is intended to provide legal evidence of crimes against humanity and to bring families and communities psychological closure. Scientific identification of the remains of the missing person, DNA evidence, and the materiality of bones all provide undeniable proof of death and thus are thought to be crucial to ending the uncertainty and ambiguity of mourning the disappeared. Yet, my research with forensic teams and families of the missing in Guatemala and Argentina reveals complex and varied experiences that exceed claims of ‘closure.’ As a poet told me about receiving his father’s bones: “Recovering a father disappeared by the dictatorship implies many things, but I never wanted to close anything, actually quite the opposite. For me, it is a process of opening, which still continues.”    

Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist and author of the book Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains (Penguin Random House 2023), a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She received her PhD from Stanford University and is now based at the University of Cambridge, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy where she is an affiliated researcher studying the human rights implications of digital technologies. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Social Science Research Council, among other institutions. In addition to scholarly publications, her work has appeared in Wired, The Los Angeles Review of Books and at museums exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Deutsches Hygiene-Museum among others.