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.