Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mourning, Part III

[If you're wondering where the first two parts of the "mourning" series are, see The Work of Mourning (November '06) and Mourning Again (November '07)]

As you may or may not remember, then-President George H.W. Bush banned images of American coffins (and dead) in 1991, against protests that the ban was an attempt to cover up the real cost of the first Gulf War in American lives. Then, in 2005, Professor of Communication Ralph Begleiter (University of Delaware) sued the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act to allow the images taken of American casualties returning to Dover Air Force base, and he won, claiming that "these images were the single most important way that the American people could see the cost of war." After American casualties began accumulating again in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, President George W. Bush renewed the ban on images of war dead-- and that ban remained in effect until yesterday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally lifted the media ban on images of American caskets.

It's hard to celebrate this development without some disturbance of conscience. On the one hand, it seems like an unambiguously good development inasmuch as lifting the ban signals a commitment to more transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. Like Professor Begleiter said, images of war casualties are an important way to impress upon a citizenry the "cost of war," and one could easily argue that the anti-war effort was seriously handicapped over the past seven years by the suppression of these images. (Remember Marshall McLuhan's famous quote about the Vietnam War: "Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not on the battlefields of Vietnam.") On the other hand, the images are still of lost lives, the product of (what George McGovern called) "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," and whatever greater social good the images may serve does not assuage the tragedy of what they portray.

Even still, I am in favor of Gates' decision to lift the ban. For me, the wisdom of that decision is not (primarily) about providing ammunition for anti-war arguments, nor is it (strictly speaking) about a kind of tough-love utilitarian lesson in the "costs of war" for the American citizenry. Rather, it's about creating a proper, public space for mourning in this country again-- something that we have been denied for too long, much to our own detriment, and which has become both a symptom and a cause of our increasingly antidemocratic civic posture. Mourning is one of the most difficult-- Derrida would say impossible-- works that human beings undertake. What we attempt to do when we mourn the dead is, in a way, to keep them alive, to make them immortal in memory, to prolong and protract their "presence" even in spite of their painful and undeniable absence. But, alas, death is irreversible, and in that sense our mourning always fails to "keep" the beloved. And so we often introject the other (according to Freudian psychoanalysis, the "healthy" mourning) or incorporate the other (according to Abraham, the "pathological" mourning), but what all of these efforts demonstrate is that we are powerless to overcome our own mortality or the mortality of those we love.

Why is a failure to perform this work of mourning antidemocratic? First, because it alienates us from one another, weakens the bonds of community, and shortcuts a full recognition of the precariousness of human life and belonging that we all share in common. Second, because it fosters a false sense of security, a vision of the world in which violence has no consequences and loss is not suffered, thus undermining all of the reasons that democracies privilege debate and deliberation over war. Third, because suppressing the need to mourn-- publicly and without apology-- hardens and frustrates the human psyche, which spreads like an infection to all the other areas in which compassion and empathy for others ought to be activated. And those hardened psyches are far less capable of cooperatively determining what is in the best interest of their collectives, what is meant by the "public good" and how such good might be brought about without sacrificing the lives for the sake of which it is pursued in the first place.

Derrida once remarked that democracy was the only political form that presumed its own "historicity," that is, its own intractable embeddedness in time. The first and most important insight of that awareness is that things (and people) pass, they change, they deteriorate and they die. Democracy, like the human lives upon which it depends for meaning, is fundamentally defined by this fragility, indeterminacy and weakness. When we hide the signs and the images of those weaknesses-- painful as they may be-- we effectively deny them. And denying them is tantamount to denying our own historicity. It is an attempt to remove the uncertainty of all the unknown possibilities that attend temporal things and mortal lives, a kind of de-"if"-ication of ourselves and our collective that, in the end (and there is always an end), shows itself to be little more than self-sabatoge.


anotherpanacea said...

Thanks for this, Dr. J. It cements my overall approval for the plan, but raises some philosophical issues. One question I've always had for mourning theorists, especially at this intersection of public memory and mourning, is this: -who- do we mourn?

In Freud, it's clear that we mourn those in whom we're already libidinally invested. In short, we mourn friends. Yet except for the trivial way in which all citizens in a democracy can call themselves friends (alike in dignity and deriving benefit from each other) it seems that to introjection and incorporation we can add a third possibility: invisibility or ignorance. That was clearly the Bush administration's goal: to make casualties "non-events" so that Americans could avoid that encounter with their own mortality and subsequent insecurity. What troubles me most about their utter disregard for public memory isn't its deceptiveness or heartlessness, it's the ease with which they accomplished their goals.

There's something incomplete about the 'scope' of healthy mourning here that makes me suspect the application of psychoanalytic models to public memorializing. Certainly, once the coffins are depicted we feel the loss. But in the absence of such stories, that grief is rendered private, invisible. Not aporetically impossible but necessary, just unnecessary: possible but why bother?

In much the same way, I wonder why we -must- mourn the death of American soldiers or else face a pathological incorporation and potential national melancholia (dare I say a depression?), but we apparently do not need to mourn the death of Iraqis.

In any case, that's my concern. You list the 'bonds of community' as your first reason for applauding the decision. What worries me most is that these bonds could be so easily severed in the first place.

Denise said...

It helps

DOCTOR J said...

That's funny that you ask (who do we mourn?) AnPan, since KGrady asked the same question more than a year ago when I was griping on this blog about the possibility of SPEP eliminating eulogies from its business meetings. There, Kyle said: "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." This seems to me to be a similar complaint to yours, namely, that we shouldn't take mourning just-any-old-body as in itself valuable. Whatever "good" comes from mourning only attends mourning (what you call) "friends." So, on your readings, what we might call public/anonymous mourning fails to accomplish the kinds of moral, political and personal insights that I champion in this post. Or, more directly, mourning must be personal, in some sense private, as proximate as possible.

I'm not so sure.

I wonder whether or not it may be the case that the very act of mourning, in some sense, makes the "personal" relationship to which the work of mourning ostensibly attests. That is, to borrow a formulation from the Euthryphro-- in which Socrates wonders: do the gods love it because it is pious? or is it pious because the gods love it?-- we might similarly ask: do I mourn the dead because they are intimately related to me? or are the dead intimately related to me because I mourn them?

The truth is that we mourn "over distance" (to use a somewhat awkward formulation) all the time in the course of establishing what it means to meaningfully belong to a group that we find meaningful. [Think of your distant great-great-aunt whose death you may mourn because she is a part of your family, but with whom you have no other signficant relationship other than the purely formal familial one.] The permission to (or, more strongly stated, obligation to) mourn such individuals is part of what consitutes the relationship that makes such mourning permissable or obligatory in the first place. So, I am completely sympathetic with your concern that we don't feel the need to mourn Iraqi deaths-- or Afghani deaths, or Sundanese deaths, or homeless or homosexual deaths (the structural place of the "other" here can be filled by an almost infinite number of substitutions). This, in fact, gets to the heart of my point, I think, which is that what we desparately need is more public mourning, less artificially-constructed anonymity, broader categories for what count as "mournable" lives.

And I guess I think that images of the dead and dying really do help us concretize the paucity of the categories we're currently working with, even if only by reminding us of the utter wretchedness of the un-mourned (or un-mournable) life.

John said...

Isn't what it means to have life or what it means for the other to have died or "passed on" always at stake or in question in the work of mourning, and in the memento mori? Are we not in those moments witnessing the impossible, whether this impossible is the disappearance in death of one close to us, or whether this impossible is the passage into some eternity? Are tears not a reaction to the witnessing of the impossible?

I have never understood the secular rendering of Derrida or other thinkers that reduces death to a known. As much as much may dislike the theatricality of Derrida asking an audience "My death, is it possible?", Derrida will have been a thinker that put life and death into constant question. Which may someday provide an antidote to the sleepy acceptance of the death of the other or a corresponding belief in the safe quarters that shelter one's own life when the friend or distant other has died.

John D said...

I have two very simple questions:

1. Why is visibility of the corpse, even entombed, necessary for mourning? Are we really mourning the life we know nothing about? Or, does the coffin provide us a blank screen one which to project our political fantasies of meaningful, meaningless, or other kinds of death?


2. Why do we presume to have rights over the dead? That's what this ruling essentially says, and I think what your blog essentially argues: that we have rights over the dead. My objection to this is that it rehearses the very narcissism that occludes mourning ... and in that sense is very anti-Derridean, anti-Levinasian (which on these matters I take to be the same thing). Again, why do we have rights over the dead, to have them present?

We might just disagree on this, but I was very saddened by this decision. Not to mention that these coffins will be nothing but a spectacle, which doubles the violence already done to their poor bodies.

That's my take.

I will say, un(der)related, that McLuhan has that sixties fantasy that the Viet Nam War ended out of protest and outrage. Hardly. It went on so long after the big protests and outrage, and I do think that his (and many others, thinking of Todd Gitlin) characterization is misleading history. (Rant OFF)

DOCTOR J said...

John D,

Those are very good, and not simple, questions. Here's my go at them:

(1) I don't think that the visibility of the corpse is necessary for mourning. I agree with you that the body often serves as a "blank screen upon which to project our political fantasies of meaningful, meaningless, or other kinds of death"... but isn't that, in large part, what mourning is? That is, mourning makes something that is ultimately inapprehesible by reason (death) somehow meaningful? Don't we project all kinds of fantasies-of-meaning onto the dead-- familial, communal, romantic, filial-- and not just political? I don't think we need a dead body (entombed or otherwise) to do this... HOWEVER, I DO think that refusing us a dead body may very well diminish the ability of many people to do it. And as I see it, that's what the previous Bush Sr./Jr. ban on images of war dead did.

As to whether or not we really mourn "the life we know nothing about": I'm probably a bit more hopeful than you or AnPan that we can and we do. That's probably because I think that the dead isn't the only one being "mourned" in "mourning." I think we're also mourning (what Butler would call) the precariousness of life, including our own life. I don't think there's anything solipsistic or necessarily unhealthy about that, either. Part of what makes mourning such a powerful experience for us, what deeply stirs thumos (such that Plato was led to speculate that "for men it is hard not to look at dead bodies"), is that the dead represent the limit-experience that we will never know, but which will inevitably come to us, too, one day. So, I don't think it's necessary to know all of the details of a life to mourn it's suffering or death. On the other hand, if we truly know NOTHING about the dead-- not even that they suffered or died (as was the intention behind the Bush media ban, I think)-- then you may be right that we cannot mourn them.
Which leads me to...

(2) I don't think that my post was arguing that "we have rights over the dead." Quite the opposite. I was arguing that it was the Bush media ban that presumed those rights, and unjustly so. When Obama/Gates lifted the ban on images of the dead the other day, they didn't say: "From now on, everyone is forced to look at and mourn these dead." Rather, they said that the decision to see or not to see these bodies/caskets is being returned to their families, that it is NOT the right of the federal government who sent them to die in the first place to then also decide that their deaths must remained veiled by secrecy and invisibility.

So, I agree with you that we don't really have a ground to stand on-- Derridean, Levinasian, or otherwise-- for the claim that we have some right to "have the dead present." But we don't have a right to insist upon, less so to enforce, their absence, either. THAT is the narcissism that occludes (real) mourning, I think... an insight that even the narcissist-of--all-narcissists, Achilles, realized after hearing Priam's plae: don't hide the dead from me; I need to mourn.

Finally, yes, images of the war dead might (likely will) be used as a spectacle, which (in some cases) may do another kind of violence to them. But that is a different issue, I think, and objections to that kind of exploitation of images belongs in a different argument. I'm unconvinced that it does much to further a defense of the media ban that, as I see it, "doubled" the violence done to the dead in a similar way.

[PS- For the record, I think you're probably right about McLuhan et al.]

John D said...

Thanks for that thoughtful reply. Thinking about it.

I am ambivalent about the lifted ban, which is why I wrote out my critical feelings. My approving feelings were (and still are) largely along the lines you mention, especially with the family caveat: they decide on visibility.

anotherpanacea said...

You're right to chastise me for not following all the links, but I'd like to distinguish my question from Kyle's. I agree that we should mourn the war dead, both American and Iraqi, but I'm not sure we should do so for psychoanalytic reasons (i.e. to avoid melancholia). If anything, it seems much easier to avoid melancholia by ignoring the war dead completely, and that's a problem because it makes war easier, less psychologically expensive, a libidinal 'externality' that we need not calculate.

But I don't think we should 'mourn more' in general. Justice, not psychology, demands that we mourn those whose deaths we could have prevented. There's a difference between recognizing an evil that we have unleashed and embracing that evil as the tragic archetype for life as such.

I think we should mourn the human price of this war, and keep both the dead and the survivors 'on stage' in the democratic spectacle for one simple reason: so that we don't do it again.