Towards a politics of grief



The Costa Coffin

I’ve been thinking about mourning recently. In a way it was the Costa Coffin episode that crystallized things. Yet underneath that story lies a whole host of others. Mourning seems to be everywhere in the news these days. At least sitting here in Russia it does. Though it is hard to characterize why and how this has come about. Of course, capitalism in general has appeared to warm up to death in new ways in the past five years with their Death Bond schemes. This seems to have put death on the political agenda in new ways. Of course, September 11, 2001 caused some strange global transmutations of the political role of mourning. As far as I know, though, there is no Global Political Economy theory of Mourning which would help us to think systematically of this question. I have been thinking of some questions. September 11,2001 as Judith Butler put it led to the use of mourning for “the muting of critical discourse” on a massive scale. Of course, this is also the point argued by Norman Finkelstein in his ‘The Holocaust Industry’. Yet there is, perhaps, another side to this question: the public right to mourning over other events. Who has the ‘right to mourn’ and who does not is arguably an undeclared realm of potential significance. Who we mourn and who we don’t has always been with us. In many ways Thatcher’s early years in office had a very close relationship to this issue. From the early period of her tenure as Prime Minister her struggle against mercy was symbolized by the figure of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. Less than a year later, unacknowledged deaths became a public reason for rejoicing . Not that the journalists surrounding her would even have dared to ask Thatcher about Argentine deaths, but wasn’t that the question she refused to even contemplate? Obviously, these were hardly new facts in history but surely they represented a shift in the political economy of mourning and the political presence of death in those times. Much could also be said about the political economy of mourning under Blair- after all, his early tenure was marked by the death of Princess Diana and his role in suffocating what seemed a potentially dangerous mourning process for the establishment was (arguably) an early indication of his refusal to break with Thatcherite political economy.

A memorial to Bobby Sands

It was Michael Rosen who commented on the links between the present stage of Thatcherism and the steady withdrawal of the right to mourning in his piece on the Bedroom tax. He noted that:

Though we talk of death as the great leveller, in many ways it’s the opposite. Death is shot through with the details and colours of the lives that were lived. Visit a country house and you are invited into a reverence for the sequence of deaths on display in the paintings and statues. It seems to say: we’re the kind of people who can defeat death, we pass life down a chain, and when we pass life to each other we pass this glorious place to each other too.

The history of the poor is a history of not being able to do this. Under government plans, a bereaved family will become eligible for the bedroom tax after three months – an incentive to clear out the room, to get rid of the kinds of things I was able to keep. It’s more of the same: with poverty there often comes a disruption of place. Migration, war and developers do a lot of disrupting. You leave your home, or your home is destroyed…

With the proposal about the bedrooms of those who’ve died, they are cutting quality of life. Rich people are using the power they have to force poor people to do things that they, the rich, never would or could force on themselves. …They are working to the rule that death is the great unleveller.

Nevertheless, mourning appears to be back on the agenda. As news, and maybe even as some indication of changes in global political economy. How precisely this may be so is difficult to say. I thought that I’d bring up a few examples, however, from Russia. In the run-up to the new “anti-gay laws” in Russia, the now famous clip in which Dmitry Kiselev (since honoured with a state award) made his speech about burning the hearts and organs of gays.Of course, the commentary at the time was about the biopolitical aspects. But there is also the element less commented about implying an attempt to exorcise the right to mourn. Mourning at the Olympics is also seen as a political issue by the IOC. Who knows who will remember this cowardly refusal of the right to mourn given the horror of the unfolding events in Ukraine these days but to me there was something remarkably sinister about the IOC decision, although maybe completely within the logic of the pusillanimity that it has shown.

Another aspect of the debate in Russia is how death and mourning have been expropriated and used for political ends (but this also has its equivalents elsewhere). Whether it is cenotaphs or Leningrad blockades, mourning will be instrumentalized for political and media crackdowns.

At a recent showing at the Media Impact festival here in Moscow, Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard showed their excellent United in Anger film– a history of political action at the time of the AIDS epidemic and the lack of access of medicine highlighted by the ACT UP campaign. One of the most moving and memorable scenes was the scattering of ashes as political protest. The collective use of mourning as an act of political solidarity is not, perhaps, new but this action was it seemed was innovatively radical.


Political grief, an ACT UP protest at the White House.

Yet the impossibility of mourning as a political act in Russia was, perhaps, sensed by Svetlana Baskova in her film За Маркса (For Marx) during the chaos of the funeral scene which broke out in scuffles. A finely drawn scene that should leave us reflecting. A scene that, perhaps, reproduced that rupturing of the right to mourn and to rage at the unjust deaths of miners in Mezhdurechensk, for example.

The chaos at the ‘For Marx’ funeral for murdered activists

Anatoly Osmolovsky, who worked on the film with his wife Svetlana Baskova, recently contributed to a debate on the new coming anti-communism with the interesting observation that Russsia’s exit from its present state will be inextricably linked with happenings regarding Lenin’s Mausoleum. There is no likelihood in sight that it will be dismantled by the state. Yet during political disorder this could indeed be another question.

In the meantime, I am trying to picture a new moment in the hidden class struggle over mourning. How are the Ukranian care and domestic workers in Italy feeling now – while their host families are stuck to the televisions watching the cheesy San Remo festival on their TV sets, their ability to mourn the descent of their home country into civil war must be particularly limited and filled with an silenced emotion of insult. I can picture the scene as well as the struggle with emotions as grief is taxed cruelly by cheap entertainment. Death and migration was already an issue , these days though may indeed have made it a greater one. The list goes on. I also believe that the acts of Pussy Riot were a kind of hidden struggle over the politics of mourning (and not in the way that they have been presented). But that is another story.

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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