Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mourning Again

On this blog, almost exactly a year ago, I posted an entry on the importance of what I called the work of mourning. That post was prompted by my attendance at the SPEP business meeting, which every year includes eulogies of the SPEP members who have passed in the previous year. I was disturbed by complaints I had overheard by attendees of the meeting who bemoaned the fact that the eulogies that year had taken up the majority of the time in the business meeting. (That was partly because of the unusually high number of deaths that year, but also because of the prominence of the persons eulogized, which included among others Iris Marion Young.) In contrast to these complaints, I praised SPEP for being the kind of professional community that still recognized the deaths of its members (a task no doubt difficult for organizations larger than SPEP) and for its commitment to publicly and officially mourning its community’s losses.

This year at SPEP there were only two eulogies. One was particularly tragic (to whatever extent it makes sense to quantify “tragedy’), as it was devoted to a young (28 yrs. old) graduate student who had committed suicide. The other was a eulogy for an established feminist philosopher who had also died quite young—in her early 50’s as I recall—of leukemia. I wasn’t clocking the orations, of course, but if I had to guess, I would say that together they didn’t take more than 20 minutes.

Again this year, I heard complaints. And what’s worse, I heard that SPEP was seriously considering eliminating eulogies from the business meeting. So, again, I want to register my official disavowal of this proposition.

As professional academics, and as professional philosophers in particular, I imagine that many of us live a double existence, in which some of the most important activities and values of our lives are kept apart, to a significant degree, from the people closest to us. In fact, the people who populate our “personal” domain (to use an old and terribly inadequate distinction) are most likely ignorant of the actual content of our professional lives and commitments. I can’t begin to address the myriad reasons why this segregation is necessary, or perhaps desirable, for many of us... but I can recognize that, for most of us, the people that attend our funerals likely will not be the most informed speakers on the totality of our lives. The SPEP eulogies that I have heard over the many, many years that I have been attending that conference have given me pause and inclined me to appreciate the specific value of those remembrances. It seems to me, in my best attempt to be a Kantian, that we might have a moral obligation to the deceased to advocate just these sorts of recognitions and remembrances.

But, again repeating myself from a year ago, I don’t think this is merely about what we owe the dead. (Apologies to Denny.) I think that the public work of mourning is a constitutive part of what it takes to build, and to maintain, a healthy and self-aware community. There has yet to be a time in the business-meeting-eulogies of past SPEP conferences when I was not reminded of what makes our (so, so small) community important and of the innumerable people who made it possible. I genuinely believe that it will be our loss to eliminate this practice from our annual gatherings, that individually and collectively we will be lesser for it, and that, perhaps most importantly, we will have betrayed many of the fundamental values of “phenomenology and existential philosophy” if we choose to relegate the work of mourning to a mere note in the business meeting program.


kgrady said...

I find myself in complete agreement with your point, and yet I can imagine myself being one of the people complaining about a business meeting eulogy. In fact, I may have done just that in the past, though I think it had more to do with the specific content of a certain eulogy.

In any case, I think this is a really important practice, but I'm torn as to whether the SPEP business meeting is the appropriate venue. I have to say it seems a little unfair to make people who might be uncomfortable with it participate in memorializing someone they may not have known—or, to be frank, may not have cared for. I think owe it to the dead, and to ourselves, to be honest in our memories, and I'm concerned that the bait-and-switch of business meeting eulogies might be a little dishonest.

I'm not sure how much I really believe that. I guess I'm just trying to understand how people could have such a strong reaction against the point you make really well.

Doctor J said...

I'm not really sure that this is a "bait-and-switch" since, as long as I can remember, eulogies have beena standard part of the business meeting agenda. I get your point, though, that there might be an assumption that the business meeting is for "business" and, consequently, the inclusion of eulogies in that meeting are out of place. But inasmuch as they have always been a part of that meeting, I'm not convinced that it's "dishonest."

I also worry that the other part of your comment ("we might be uncomfortable memorializing someone we don't even knowor may not care about") is exactly the kind of utilitarian view of mourning to which I am objecting. There are very few steps from your argument to one that justifies the ban on representations of our soldiers' deaths in the media. (We don't actually KNOW those soldiers, after all...)

The bottom line is, though, that I don't actually believe that the complaints that I hear about the eulogies articulate the *real* reasons behind those people's strong reaction.

kgrady said...

Yeah, I only called it bait-and-switch insofar as to be present for the other parts of the meeting you have to either make a rude exit or stay for the eulogies.

But I don't know that I agree that the slope is so slippery. I just think that attendance at memorial services is more meaningful the less compulsory it is, and that it ought to be up to the individual to decide on a case by case basis whom to memorialize and (to the extent that this is possible) how.

I guess I'm interested in hearing what you do think is the reason for the strong reason for the negative reactions, and that's what I was hoping to tease out with my comment.

kgrady said...

PS: Did you just call me a utilitarian?!