Mourning is a response to loss in its repetition and particularity. In political theology, it is important to register mourning as psychic process and as (often religious) practice. Mourning is also embedded in many of the social and historical theories with which political theologies engage and contend. These theories register that the causes of loss, too, are ritualized and repetitive, and that their effects are particular and collective. Ritualized modes of upholding inequality, committing and tolerating violence, and participating in ecological destruction with unevenly distributed impacts give mourning deeply political valences. These patterns shape horizons of analysis and expectation, and estimations of the possibility or impossibility of invoking notions like hope, healing, and progress.
Practices associated with mourning, whether or not they are explicitly religious, register death’s relational weight and impact. Milinda Banerjee writes of grief and its associated rituals as restoring a sense of mutual belonging to a shared world.
In grieving, we win a chance to transcend bourgeois atomization, live again in the collective, place duty to others above individual profit. Where capital disaggregates, mourning invites to assembly. Where capital commodifies, mourning mandates veneration of beings. Where money-work forces an abbreviation of grief, mourning-work impels beings into action responsive and responsible to others…Within a capitalist globe where this-worldly exchange value rules supreme, mourning is always potentially anti-capitalist, promising other-world values.Milinda Banerjee, “There is Grief, There is Death,” 176
The sacralization of connection and otherness that mourning makes accessible reveals through contrast a quotidian sense of loneliness and alienation, and a routine distortion of value that accedes to racial capitalist priorities. What is mourned, then, is not only the death that occasions grief, but grievous ways of living that submerge perception of pain and loss in a sense of inevitability. In Banerjee’s words, “The dead haunt us to self-awareness.”
An important theoretical strand of discourse on mourning derives from psychoanalytic thought about the ways that experiences of loss constitute subjectivity itself. Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) and “The Ego and the Id” (1923) are common reference points that grapple with how loss is processed on the level of an individual’s (socially embedded) psyche, and Jacques Lacan elaborates a theory of subjectivity that revolves around a sense of division and lack— the impossibility of attaining wholeness as subjects whose reality emerges in and through language. The inextricability of melancholia from mourning was one of Freud’s conclusions in “The Ego and the Id,” and I use both terms in this entry.
Many theorists of race, gender, and sexuality have found psychoanalytic work on mourning and loss evocative and useful, if often in need of revision. Hortense Spillers’ “All The Things You Could Be By Now, If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” (1996) (the name of a 1961 song by jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus) is a famous intervention into debates on the usefulness of psychoanalysis for African American and African diasporic modes of inquiry and relationality. Acknowledging that it is an uneasy and conflicted project, Spillers advocates for engaging with psychoanalytic approaches as a mode of personal and collective care of the self.
In Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (2007), Antonio Viego takes inspiration from Spillers into further engagements with Lacanian frameworks, arguing for a distinction between the necessary losses at the heart of subjectivity and the losses inflicted by racial hierarchy, oppression, and violence. Throughout this work, Viego tries “to engage a more varied and textured understanding of the losses experienced by ethnic-racialized subjects in a white supremacist society” than that made readily available in discourses of rights or exclusion (78).
Judith Butler argues in dialogue with Freud, Lacan, and their French feminist critics that normative gender and sexuality have a melancholic structure. One of the key claims of her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identityis that heterosexuality is consolidated when homosexual attachments are disavowed and foreclosed. Yet as decisive as these operations might seem, they signal ambivalent and insecure surrender. Ongoing, largely unacknowledged mourning registers the loss of love and possibility that these refusals require.
In a 1995 essay that consolidates many of her arguments about the melancholic formation of gender and sexuality, Butler argues that a widespread inability to acknowledge homosexual attachment or the pain of its loss makes inaccessible “a public occasion and language” for grieving lives lost to AIDS. A further cultural violence accrues to political and social neglect in the inability to collectively mourn when a community’s grief is “culturally thwarted and proscribed” (178). Kris Trujillo has recently elaborated how efforts to collectively register these forms of loss are part of the origin story of queer theory as a contemporary academic field. This processing of loss is not a sharp break in academic discourse. Rather, “the tradition of elegy conditions the emergence of queer theory because the elegiac mode fundamentally shapes the field of English studies to which queer theory is bound” (120). This elegiac lineage, moreover, challenges the presumptive secularity of queer theoretical frameworks in ways that are significant for political theology.
In the 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that normative gendering is unavailable to Black women. From the “ungendering” of enslavement to the surveilling judgments of the Moynihan report, racialization precludes heteronormative compliance. (Kyla Wazana Tompkins notes Butler’s neglect of this essay and its insights about the “always-already raced” status of gender.) Cathy Cohen’s 1997 “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” demonstrates that racism and poverty effectively “queer” many subjects who would self-identify as heterosexual, barring their alignment with elevated gender and sexual norms. In the context of discourse about mourning, it is important to note that these authors register both loss and possibility in alienation from dominant social standards.
This points to a recurring issue for both generalized theories of loss and political theologies striving to represent and respond to inequality and violence, one that brings discourse on mourning back to a focus on death. Critical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” can, for instance, be placed alongside Dipesh Chakrabarty’s statement that to not receive a funeral means that one “has not received a social death” (“There is Grief, There is Death,” 179).
This phrase, social death, is evocative for its contrasting meanings. Chakrabarty is referring both to Antigone’s motivations in illegally caring for her deceased brother’s body and the many deaths in India from Covid-19 that were not ceremonially and socially observed. A social death is one that affirms the deceased as belonging to a social world. “Social death” is also a phrase coined by Orlando Patterson and extended by Lisa Marie Cacho to describe the denials of power, rights, and protection that structure patterns of violence and abandonment.
Declarations of mourning that deny these political arrangements can be key to understanding which losses do not count. When thoughts and prayers are summoned as a response to victims of police violence, school shootings, or civilian “casualties” of imperialist interventions including but not limited to official warfare, mourning is proclaimed but does not occur. To say that one is mourning these losses is a way of asserting that these events were regrettable but necessary, that they are in the past rather than ongoing.
What does it mean to share in mourning in ways that open rather than obstruct transformative potential? Tiffany Lethabo King begins The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (2019) with a moving reflection on how she was jolted into an understanding of the imbrication of Black and Indigenous losses in history and the present. The book that follows is her ensuing study of how “[e]ach form of violence has its own way of contaminating, haunting, touching, caressing, and whispering to the other” (x).
For King, the shoal is a methodologically important metaphor because it suggests a forced slowing down, a space of disorientation that demands “adjustment” and in which there is no absolute control over what converges or disintegrates (2-4). The shoal is a geological area where one is not decidedly at sea or on the shore, an accumulation of sedimented material that is a boon to fishing and a hazard for one trying to navigate a boat. If engaging one another’s loss is to be more than an occasion for catharsis or exculpatory performance, it may depend on modes of disruption like the ones that King encounters and analyzes. On the shoals, familiar movements become impossible. To slow down and truly “remember, register, and contemplate the damages, losses, and erasures of the past and present” (Winters 2016, 7) might reorient the ways we are accustomed to coping with everyday life as well as academic methodology.
A slower, indeterminate approach to navigating history’s relationship to the present through mourning does not exclude broad narratives of history, sociality, and violence. King recognizes in Anishinaabe accounts of genocide something that “had everything to do with slavery” (x) before she can narrate precisely why or how they are entwined. She senses something like what Christina Sharpe describes as “beholden-ness” (100-101) beckoning as both possibility and necessity. Political theology might seek to engage broad structural lenses, from historical materialism to queer negativity to Afro-pessimism, and their critics without supposing to know in advance how ongoing encounters and losses might shape what comes next. That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Through engagements with psychoanalytic theory, Cheng argues that grief is at the heart of racial identification. This work provides relational frameworks for connecting Asian American and African American racialization in the U.S.
Enwezor, Okwui. Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. Edited by Okwui Enwezor, Naomi Beckwith, and Massimiliano Gioni, et al. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2020.
This stunning catalogue is a combination of artwork and essays based on an exhibit curated by Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor died in 2019 and the opening at the New Museum was further delayed by Covid-19, finally appearing in 2021. The artists and writers address Black grief and Black responses to loss, as well as the perdurance of racism and rise of white nationalism.
Hollywood, Amy. Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Many of the essays in this volume deal with the relational power of loss and trauma, and how their entanglements with social positionality refract understandings of history, truth, and reality. Hollywood connects the ways that grief and suffering imbue medieval mystical accounts with issues in contemporary critical theory. See especially the opening “A Triptych” and “Acute Melancholia.”
Winters Joseph R. Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
Winters problematizes a recurring turn to progress as a conciliatory or compensatory response to racial oppression and violence. He elaborates, in dialogue with Black literary and aesthetic traditions and Frankfurt School writers, modes of hope and futurity that issue from deep engagements with mourning and loss.