religous studies

Hitchens, Bolivar, Chavez, and Necrophilia: Deathpower in the Media

Christopher Hitchens is a hack.  Here’s how I know.  A non-hack would situate a seemingly weird story in context, rather than attempt to exaggerate its supposed uniqueness to demonize an enemy.  He’s also smart, so I can’t give him the excuse that Hitch is just stupid.  See, if there’s one thing I’m pretty well-trained in, it’s the theory of necrophilia. Seriously. It’s at the heart of much of my work on death rituals, though I focus less on the psychoanalytic aspects of the theory than I do in the practices, and the commentaries on those.

So, while I’m happy to have no less of a prose stylist than Christopher Hitchens address my topic of choice, he presents it as news, when it’s nothing more than another chance for him to lob his anti-Left IEDs into the interwebz. First, let me be clear: there are great reasons to criticize Chavez, though these criticisms are rarely shared by those who most loudly criticize him. Nope, the people whose criticisms of Chavez get heard are right-wing journos like Simon Romero (his NYT page) and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, who was a prolific writer of left-oriented journalism prior to his right-wing conversion has spent his time since advocating “The Clash of Civilizations,” attacking supposed “Islamo-Fascism,” attempting to transform George Orwell into a conservative fellow-traveller, and sneering at any and all leftist attempts to pry the fingers of the neo-liberal regime away from their necks.

So, when Hitch starts running on and on about Chavez’ necrophiliac love of Simon Bolivar, I get to say ‘balderdash.’ Also, would someone please check the Hitch’s sources? This is o l d news. And it’s much much bigger than Venezuela. In what remains, I make two points by snarkily referring to three texts which should have served to deflate Hitchens’ and Romero’s ‘graverobbing’ rhetoric. First: Chavez’ idealization of the Liberator is very very old news. Second: this ‘grave-robbing’ by Chavez is classic nationalist ritual. This is hardly ‘graverobbing,’ but instead ‘nationalist mortuary ritual’ of an extraordinarily common type. The characterization that Hitchens and Romero are involved in is disingenuous at best; Hitchens at the very least should be aware of the way Chavez’ worship of Bolivar falls very squarely in the most common of national rituals (sure, it’s still weird, but hey – humans are weird).

First of all, Chavez’s idealization of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, is hardly unusual in South America. The fact that he’s institutionalized a sort of cult of Bolivar is also hardly unusual, either within Venezuelan history, or in the world generally. First of all, Mick Taussig rather famously wrote all of this up quite nicely in his 1997 book, The Magic of the State, entirely about Venezuela, Simon Bolivar, and the possession of dead bodies by the spirit of the political present, and which included, on page 108, a picture of (then-Colonel) Chavez, and a prayer to him (at that point imprisoned for a Left-wing coup attempt). Not only were Chavez, Bolivar, and the Possession of the Dead put together in this book nearly 14 years ago (and frankly, Taussig’s a better stylist than Hitch anyway), Taussig’s argument in this book is indeed precisely that the State relies upon a fetishism that is the fetishism of the dead.

If we think Taussig’s writings are somehow too obscure for the Hitch – who prides himself on his erudition – perhaps the extraordinarily famous and influential 1991 book by Benedict Anderson about nationalism, titled Imagined Communities, should have been noted? After all, Anderson’s book opens with a meditation on the fetishism involved in the practice he considered paradigmatic of nationalism – the tomb of the unknown solider, a tomb which houses a particular person, whose unknowability means precisely that all can identify with him.

Or what about – to put it in a much more comparative frame – Katherine Verdery’s much-read and well-respected book, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change, the entire point of which was to demonstrate the way in which nationalist longing and mortuary care are deeply linked, and finding full expression in post-socialist countries.

Goodness, at this point, Hitch is starting to seem less like a thinker and more like a callow politician, ignoring real context to make his shallow little points.

Yawn. Perhaps I protest too much. I love examinations of this stuff, and will undoubtedly use Hitch’s article – in combination with Anderson and Taussig – in my Fall seminar, “How To Do Things With Dead People.” I’ll use them as examples to be interrogated; what Hitch and Romero are doing here is yellow journalism of the worst stripe.

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