Severed Heads and Body Parts in Mexican Visual Culture

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:20 PM
Suffolk Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Andrea Noble , Durham University (U.K.), Durham, United Kingdom
On ascending to the presidency in December 2006, Felipe Calderón declared a “war on drugs.” Since then, the cycle of so-called “narco-violence” has spiralled out of control. One of the most chilling phenomena to have arisen from the military-focussed strategy in the combat against organized crime has been the escalation in the practice of decapitation, with victims' heads deposited in public places, often with warning messages attached. Commentators have attempted to analyse and account for this macabre phenomenon. For some, in the age of what W. J. T. Mitchell has termed the “global iconosphere,” it is inspired by al-qaeda terror tactics; for others, it is linked to the influence of Central American violence; whilst others locate its origins in Pre-Columbian practices. Designed to sew fear and terror amongst members of rival gangs and the population at large, as a tactic in the psychological warfare the efficacy of beheadings and other forms of bodily mutilation depend on their visual dissemination across a range of media, from the internet, print news and TV. In the summer of 2009, the news weekly Proceso devoted two special issues to what it termed “El México Narco,” focusing in particular on the activities of the drugs cartels in the various states of the Republic. The large format, glossy magazine carried an abundance of barely-captioned photographic images, displaying the dismembered bodies that have become a commonplace of everyday visual culture. Such was public demand that within weeks of going on sale, it had vanished from newsstands. Taking “El México Narco” as a starting point, this paper aims to explore the visual culture of decapitation in Mexico in both contemporary and historical context. Drawing on theories of visual agency and affect, it aims to raise questions around the ethics and politics of visual display of the severed head.