ACTIVISM: an internal state of revolt that finds a public form in protest;
PROTEST: a public movement to address an immediate cause of collective anger, often in response to unjust death or ideological loss;
MOURNING: the ritual form of grief;
ELEGY: a poetic form to address the dead, the loss of an object, or idea.
When synthesized, activism, protest, mourning, and elegy result in a “performance” of grief. Each term involves the movement from inner revolt to outward gesture. In other words, a psychological state of revoltfinds a form in the performance of mourning.
If grief, as Freud famously said, is productive when connected to a larger, collective, or cultural loss, it is unproductive—and dangerous—when internalized. The internalization of loss is the tendency to become enshrouded by grief and its mirror, anger. Tightly wrapped, the shroud becomes an identity because it is the story—the script—that is returned to again and again. But in performing it, the shroud becomes an offering to the audience. The offering means that a person’s radical interiority is not a cage; it can be transformed into a cry of protest. A bird perhaps; a winged creature cawing, “release!”
His wings were a whole-cloth first
folded around his chest
so it hurt to rip apart
this revolutionary redbreast
and make him spread and fly
All his singing actually
was a cry of protest
-Fanny Howe, “The Passion”
Because a grieving body in public is understood differently depending on how it is used, it is tempting to be suspicious of mourning as a vehicle for protest. As Judith Butler argues, public mourning is a “struggle for recognition” and certainly many wars are fought over whose body is more deserving of recognition. Mourning, like the violence that precipitates it, is a human experience whose use as political protest has the power to start as many wars as it stops. When bodies are on the line, mourning is not a leveler because bodies are inscribed by loaded perceptions of gender, race, ego, beauty, ugliness, purity, oppression—indeed, it is difficult (impossible?) to see a grieving body stripped bare of these projections. Yet, when not metastasized into revenge and hatred, the movement from inner revolt to outward gesture can effectively transform private suffering into a wider social perspective.
When the body count is too high or the cost of individual suffering too great, it is the landscape itself that becomes grievable because the landscape is a reflection of what it feels like to be torn up inside. What was once there—a bustling city, a neighborhood, a church, a park —now lies in ruin. A hurricane, an earthquake, a war.
In these great times, the terror of action and inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake the burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.
-Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans
In November of 2006 the artist Paul Chan visited New Orleans for the first time, only to find himself in the setting of a play (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) he had seen many times before. “The empty road. The bare tree. The silence.” Instead of keeping this profound reflection to himself, he raises the money to actually stage his vision for a community of viewers. He doesn’t conceive of the project as a work of mourning, but the staging was a ritual transformation of something left to die (in this case, the Lower 9th Ward). And whatever experience the audience had of watching the play amidst the flood-ruined and abandoned neighborhood speaks to what is “in truth” worth renewing. Say it: the human spirit survives amidst all the shit, violence, abandonment, loss, disappointment; amidst the vengeance of history, nature, ignorance, injustice; and sometimes, amidst life itself.