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This June issue of Texte zur Kunst, whose thematic focus was conceived for the first time in the magazine’s 30-year history by three guest editors, is dedicated to the politics of memory and forms of ritualized mourning in art and culture. For the German title, we chose the verb trauern rather than the noun Trauer to signal that we are interested not in an analysis of an ostensibly universal emotion or general state of affairs but in the concrete and diverse practices of engagement with loss and grief as a continual challenge to society. In discussing the potential political dimension of painful and traumatic experiences, the contributions gathered in the following pages aim to draw attention to the transformative powers of grief – formed in relations of violence yet also holding the ability to transcend them. We raise questions concerning the resistant potential of negative affectivity as well as the obstruction and reappropriation of mourning in connection with historical forms of violence.

Judith Butler – who is referenced by several of the contributors – has argued that mourning is always already political, being mediated and structured by normative processes of recognition and projections of community. A divide emerges between those who are publicly mourned and those who are considered ungrievable and excluded from collective mourning. Meanwhile, the experience of loss and vulnerability also reveals the fundamental relationality of the subject, its constitutive dependency on others and other things. Building on – and going beyond – Butler’s work, this issue seeks to outline a perspective that enables us to identify forms of agency and resistance in the “zones of ungrievability”: How do individuals who are deemed unworthy of being mourned assert that worthiness? In light of these concerns, the contributions address questions of loss and working through trauma in the context of racist and right-wing violence and shed light on cultures of memory in film, literature, and visual art.

Combining affect theory with a critique of racism, the sociologist Çiğdem Inan develops the theoretical notion of “dispossessed mourning,” which she applies to the long history of racially motivated victim-blaming in Germany. Her essay discusses affective and political dimensions of mourning and proposes a different form of grief work that not only exposes the structures of denial employed by racists and the Right but also constitutes a site of resistant modes of affect against racist immunization. The writer Cynthia Cruz similarly examines the site of an ungrievable loss, in this instance, of the working class. Synthesizing psychoanalysis and a critique of capitalism, Cruz studies melancholy as the specific form of mourning of a working class whose existence is denied by the hegemonic discourse, and she inquires into possible avenues of emancipation that might be charted from a position of “nothingness.”

Tying in the idea of a depathologization of melancholy, the cultural and media theorist Elena Meilicke picks up on the concept of “prolonged grief disorder,” a fairly recent addition to the psychiatric diagnostic toolset, to ask how the resilience paradigm has come to inform notions of “appropriate” grief. Articulating a critique of resilient mourning, her contribution advocates a deliberately and radically open work on grief as a potentially transformative process. The artist Eliana Otta, for her part, takes the Chicago-based Feel Tank’s motto “Depressed? It Might Be Political!” seriously, mapping biographical and political narratives of depressive states along Greece’s austerity policies and Peruvian Indigenous groups’ experiences of violence during the government’s military crackdown on guerrilla groups between 1980 and 2000.

In her autobiographical book The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander writes about grieving the death of her partner. Embedding reflections on the role of art in the process of mourning, the book reaches beyond her personal loss, resonating with collective forms of remembering and mourning in the wake of racist violence, as the writer and historian Edna Bonhomme argues in a rereading of the 2015 memoir. Likewise, the artist and writer Njoki Ngumi objects to the kind of expectations that circulate in the debates over the restitution of African cultural assets. Without denying the grief over the loss of objects looted during the colonial era, Ngumi’s essayistic intervention shifts our perspective: refusing to be cast, with all Africans, as a perpetually grieving supplicant, she insists on a subject position that reframes the premise of an encounter with the expropriators.

Continuing the work of the decades-long discussions around the restitution of looted cultural assets, a young generation of activists and artists has been raising demands that have yielded immediate changes: Ngumi is a member of the Kenyan artist collective The Nest, a key contributor to this year’s Documenta. The 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art’s decolonial concept was developed by a team bringing diverse biographical and disciplinary backgrounds to the table. Restitution has long come to mean more than the demand that objects be returned; it includes processes of the negotiation and redefinition of cultures of memory. What can mourning teach us in this context? How can forms – and especially creative forms – of commemoration and recollection be conceived that accommodate the dynamics, process-based quality, and perhaps forever-inconclusive nature of grief? In a roundtable conversation moderated by the scholar and curator Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, the artists Fatma Aydemir, Talya Lubinsky, Gladys Kalichini, and Henrike Naumann discuss problematic forms of the politics of mourning and memory and challenge us to recognize the transformative role that artistic practices play in this connection.

When we started making plans for this issue, the world was emerging from a coronavirus pandemic that had dragged on for more than two years; the biopolitical management of the worldwide spread of an infectious disease had thrown the intersectionality of capitalist crisis phenomena into sharp relief. Since February 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine has left no doubt about the Russian government’s neo-imperialist strategies. These are two fresh events in a long and global chain of ongoing violent conflicts that have caused suffering and grief but also sparked struggles and concrete expressions of solidarity. Both events continually remind us not only that life is precarious and vulnerable but also that the grief in the experiences of pandemic and war is rife with social inequality. We must begin to understand mourning as a process – one that is open-ended and perhaps constitutively incapable of closure. Mourning and the reflection on mourning will remain constant political challenges.

Çiğdem Inan, Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, and Elena Meilicke

Translation: Gerrit Jackson