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Web Event #3: Unbinding Mourning

Amoylan's picture

The definition of unbinding is formally “to release from bonds or restraints.” When I think of feminism unbound, I think of it in terms of unbinding the traditional idea of feminism, “queering” it in the sense that normative views and ideas on feminism are released from bonds or restraints. Everything goes beyond the surface of its normative definition and in this case, feminism and mourning can be related in terms of unbinding traditional definitions of the two. Mourning on the surface is grieving the loss of something or someone that meant something to you. Mourning an idea sounds like it is making a mockery of the process, how can you mourn something that was all in your head? Unbinding the traditional sense of mourning offers that mourning can be a process done by anyone for anything that has been lost.

The loss of an idea can be as traumatic, if not more than the loss of a person, in chapter six of Wendy Brown’s “Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics” She Mourns the loss of her feminism, everything that she knew and believed in getting revolutionized into something unrecognizable is a tragic loss. Re-imagining everything that empowered you and adapting to new norms is worth the mourning process, you need to start all over you’re stuck at a monumental impasse. Wendy Brown was mourning the loss of second wave feminism, the step up from the first wave of suffrage and gender equality, it looked at the liberation of women and it spread all over the world. When this idea began to revolutionize, she was scared,  where could we possibly go from here, what was going to happen? The loss of anything, or the changing of one thing we knew into something else is traumatic in the sense that we have to re-learn, re-adjust and work ourselves around this new experience.

The process of grieving traditionally has five stages. One: denial and isolation, two: anger, three: bargaining, four: depression, five: acceptance. Denial is pretty self-explanatory, there is a shock and instant pain that is felt which brings you to isolation, you will shut yourself off. Anger comes when the shock wears off and you realize the severity of your situation, your feelings of grief and loss will become anger and you will project, most likely on someone who you believe could have done something to stop it.  Bargaining will come with time and you will blame yourself, this is a reaction that almost everyone has to the feeling of helplessness. Depression sets in when the whirlwind of emotions wears off, when you are alone with your thoughts and the realization that there is nothing that can bring back what has been lost. Acceptance is the best of the five stages and also the hardest to achieve, this will happen when you tell yourself your life will go on, and you truly believe it. These are all subjective and will happen at different levels for each individual loss for any given person. Some of them may not happen at all. The fifth step takes the most time and may never be achieved at all but for arguments sake there are five stages of grieving. But will they happen for each loss? Does it make your mourning less valid if they are not achieved?

When I was in sixth grade my art teacher passed away and he was the first person I ever knew to die, it was a very traumatic experience there was a bond of emotion with all of the students he had. At that age and at that time I was mourning but looking back I don’t feel the emotion and I don’t recognize it. There is the question of knowing someone who passes away and how much you feel like you are entitled to mourn, how much will you allow yourself to mourn depending on the level of the relationship you had with the person. The answer goes back to the five stages. Mourning is subjective and if you are hurt by a loss then no one can tell you “I’m allowed to be sadder than you because I knew them better.” When I lost my grandmother this past February I felt a different hurt than I felt when I lost my teacher, but that doesn’t mean my mourning was any less justified. Losing a family member is losing your own blood, there is no way to describe the emptiness that I still feel whenever I think back to that phone call. There are of course levels of mourning but they are each as valid as the other.

When mourning an idea or a dream it is possible to experience the five stages of grief but in the sense that we are unbinding mourning and it’s traditional definition, there may not be five stages, there may be more or less. Mourning a dream is coming to the realization that your life is going to go in a completely different direction than you ever imagined. You have had it all planned out, as a little kid you were full of different dreams, changing everyday but then there is one that you trust and you stick with. Then the real world comes and you realize you need to make money and have a house and get a job. The dream that seemed so close as a small child starts to get further away. There must be stages that you have to go through when coming to terms with this loss, whether they are the traditional five stages doesn’t matter. It all comes back to the validity of mourning in every sense of the word.

Unbinding mourning releases it from the restraint of “the loss of a loved one”, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word mourning. There are different stages for each type of mourning. Mourning is natural and will happen when it happens. Grieving is not an allowance, it a process that will come with loss. There is subjectivity in both but no one’s process is any less valid or justified, we all have mourning, we all have loss. 


juliah's picture


I think Anne articulated something through her comment on your paper, Abby, that I have been struggling with. Mourning is a topic that really stuck with me as well, and I have spend a lot of my time re-reading Judith Butler's essay in an attempt to understand its multitude of definitions. Trauma, for me, involves heartache, and though at times it may dissipate, it never fully leaves you. The mark remains, even through the passage of time. Mourning, however, can hopefully be separate from this (like how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square).

When I think of mourning, I think of a passage of time, though no particular amount, that one must take in order to grieve and, hopefully, move on from the pain. There may still be stings, but if mourning has a goal (can I say that it does? I don’t think Butler would like that…), it is to make it so that mostly fond memories remain. Earlier in the semester, I took a day because of the anniversary of an old friend’s suicide. I had forgotten throughout most of the day, seeing as it has been years since the event, but because I was reminded of it “accidentally”, the wound seemed to open fiercer than before. Just taking now for example—I am able and willing to write about it, because it is on my terms, and I have gone through some process of mourning. However, the way it was abruptly brought to my attention made it feel more like a trauma. I was given no time to remember my friend fondly, and was overcome only with guilt for having forgotten, and sadness for what that signified. In trauma, unlike pure mourning, the goal is more specific—to forget, or move on from associations as affectively as possible. The event I just brought up was traumatizing for me, and though I have had plenty of time to mourn, associations still sting. Trauma and mourning are really distinct beings, though closely related. Not sure if they can ever be reconciled, but they live because, with, and for each other.

Anne Dalke's picture

mourning vs. trauma?

It's moving to me that you are drawn to (understanding better) this work of mourning. That's first.

Second is that you quickly collapse mourning and trauma ("the loss of an idea can be traumatic...the loss of traumatic"). This made me think of a pretty wild and wonderful essay by Christina Zwarg, who regularly teaches a class @ Haverford about Trauma, Reconstruction, and the Literary Event, and who published an essay 10 years ago on "The Work of Trauma: Fuller, Douglass, and Emerson on the Border of Ridicule,"
Studies in Romanticism, 41, 1, Psychoanalytic (Spring, 2002), pp. 65-88.

Tina starts off her essay w/ this great quote from Emerson's journal--about "one key to the mysteries of the human condition, but one solution to the old knot of Fate, Freedom, & fore knowledge: the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness”-- and then goes on to focus on trauma as a spur to thinking the “unthought” in a host of symbolic systems, a vehicle for questioning the relationship between experience, memory and event. A common characterization of trauma is its bi-polar nature, the undistorted flashback of an event unavailable to normal waking consciousness--and it's this dualism that provides its transformative potential.

Tina compares the “work of mourning”--which emphasizes accepting loss (as inevitable?), with “the work of trauma,” which "fractures narratives of inevitability." There's a temporal and directional difference in the two orientations [this should interest you, given all our work on "queering time"!]: the first is anchored in past, the second a departure to the future. Tina actually goes so far as to claim that the struggle between the work of mourning and the work of trauma is central to every thinker: the wrenching away of all comforts/protections/limitations of context is an opportunity for critique (and also involves overcoming the fear of the “ridiculous" -- hence her title). The work of trauma is "the move from fear to fright to surprise," decanonizing one set of fears and encouraging the arrival of emergent practices.

This seems to me directly extensive of your essay--the trauma of unsettling normative notions of what is/can/will be --and also seems to me quite akin to what we have been talking about, all semester, in our insistence on seeing alternatives (alternative narratives, alternative orientations) to any experience. This may be less "natural" (as you say--and see my quibble w/ Vaughn about that word!) than psychoanalytic.

But: still--an essential part of this process of being-and-becoming human.