Fragments of Grief, part 2

Here is the second of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

The attempt to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration, is surely also to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way (Undoing Gender, 23).

In Precarious Life, Undoing Gender, and Frames of War, Butler repeatedly emphasizes the importance of grief and vulnerability. She discusses the value of grief in relation to those who have been denied the right to grieve their loved ones and/or have had their own lives considered not worthy of grieving, and therefore not fully human. She also describes how grief, as a state of being and as a non-violent response to others, is urgently needed if we are “interested in arresting cycles of violence” (Precarious Life). Much of Butler’s discussion of grief is in the context of two specific historical, cultural, social events: the AIDS crisis and GLBTQ communities’ inability to grieve their lost loved ones and post 9/11 and the U.S. government’s quick and very violent response to the terrorist attacks in New York City. In these situations grief is the thing needed because grief has been so unjustly or unwisely denied and/or foreclosed.

But, even as Butler devotes considerable attention to specific contexts in which grief needs to be promoted, she has grander aims for how and why we should value grief. She believes that grief is a valuable state to be in and is an important part of what it means to be human. Grief, and the vulnerability and sociality of the self that it reveals, help to guide us as we struggle to develop less violent ways to exist in the midst of/beside others.

I was always so tired. I had been living with my mom’s impending death for 3 years and she was really starting to look bad. My dad warned me that it would probably get a lot worse. My daughter had just turned three and was entering a new phase, the “I hate you” phase. With no warning and for no apparent reason, she would matter-of-factly state, “I hate you.” It was really hard to hear. I wondered, how can I be a good mother when I am sad all of the time? What is it doing to my daughter to live in the shadow of this death and my grief over it? Were her repeated declarations of hate more than a phase that all 3 year olds go through? Was she trying to warn me that I was failing as a mom and remind me that I was more than a daughter losing a mom, but also a mother who needed to care for her daughter?

While I agree that being in a state of grief is valuable and can help to remind us of our vulnerability in the midst of others, it can also place unrealistic and unhealthy demands on us. It is difficult to balance the need and/or desire to grieve with the demand to care for others. Are there other resources, aside from grief, that can guide us as we navigate the difficult terrain of being a daughter losing a mother and a mother raising a daughter?

The first two years of my mom’s terminal illness weren’t too bad. Even though she had been diagnosed with a death sentence (6 months to live), she was able to qualify for surgery and undergo chemotherapy. She experienced a miracle recovery, welcomed two new grandchildren into the world, and traveled to Paris and Sydney. Then the tumor came back. Slowly she deteriorated. First one of her wrists became numb so she couldn’t do any of her artwork. Then her anxiety and the morphine she had been taking daily for two years already made it almost impossible for her to read. Then she started falling down a lot. Suddenly one day she couldn’t walk. My sisters and my dad arranged for hospice at home. We thought she was about to die, but we were wrong. She looked terrible. She couldn’t talk. She could barely eat. She slept a lot. Yet she continued to live. To me she was already gone. I wanted desperately to grieve her loss, but I couldn’t; she was still alive. I was tired of being in a state of grief, yet not able to grieve. Tired of witnessing her suffering and feeling helpless and unable to alleviate it. Four years of waiting, with uncertainty, for her death is a long time.

As someone who has spent the last four years grieving for a mother dying an excruciatingly slow and painful death, I am not interested in mining the ethical and transformative possibilities of grief. I don’t want to keep grieving; I want to stop grieving and I want to think about what other resources I have for guiding me as I attempt to recognize and live with my vulnerability. What about humor, joy or even wonder? Are there ways to think about risking uncertainty and our unknowingness that are not connected to violence and grief as something that is only negative and that always signals loss–-of control, of autonomy, of stability?

Fragments of Grief, part 1

Here is the first of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

…one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possible forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance (Undoing Gender, 18).

The idea of undergoing a transformation that one cannot know in advance is a central one for Butler and her vision of social transformation. In Undoing Gender, she discusses the value of unknowingness and of not trying to securely and definitively establish one’s plan of action prior to acting (227). For Butler, grief is central to this experience of unknowingness and the risks that we take to maintain and embrace it. Overwhelmed with sadness and exhaustion and unable to compose ourselves or deny our vulnerability to loss, we cannot pretend that we have control or that we can always know with certainty how to act or who we are. In risking unknowingness, we are transformed into individuals who don’t know, but who are willing to act anyway.

Up until the last year, when she could barely speak, my mother and I loved to talk. Frequently our conversations were inspired by my mom’s curiosity and her wonder of the world and ideas. Having been a teacher for over 20 years, she asked lots of questions and always liked to learn more about what I was reading or what I thought. Her curiosity was not motivated so much by a desire to know, but by a desire to feel and experience as many different ways of understanding as she could. She found joy in contemplating the why and how and seemed to be energized by what she didn’t and might never know. Somehow she had held onto that wonder that children seem to have, but often lose as they grow up. I inherited that wonder from her and I witness it in my daughter Rosie J everyday.

To acknowledge that we don’t know, that we are uncertain about how to proceed, doesn’t always produce anxiety and isn’t always best understood in relation to grief. To be open to undergoing a transformation of who one is in ways that one can never anticipate isn’t always to risk unknowingness. It is an invitation to wonder, to be curious and to imagine the world in new and mysterious ways. My experience of being beside my mom as she was dying and then died transformed me, to be sure. But it was more her persistence in life and how she envisioned uncertainty and unknowingness in terms of wonder and joy instead of anxiety and loss that transformed me, not her death and my grief over her loss.

More of my thoughts on this fragment: The idea of not knowing in advance, of being in a state of unknowingness and uncertainty, resonate with me and my project of staying in trouble as a virtue. They also resonate with my earlier work, in my dissertation, on Butler and radical democracy (which emphasizes the unrealizability of democracy).

In an earlier draft of the fragment I added a few more lines about another way to read risking unknowingness: as a form of faith. How does thinking about that risk as faith affect how we read the first part of Butler’s passage: “one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you…”? What are some other ways to read this acceptance?  Does Butler offer any ways (outside of psychoanalysis, that is)? The idea of rethinking unknowingness as wonder and curiosity could also be read in terms of religion and/or spirituality and faith. Did I mention that I have a BA in religion and an MA in theology, ethics and culture?

Thinking about curiosity in relation to unknowingness and staying in trouble are central to my recent work on troublemaking. I refer to them repeatedly on this blog and even structured my undergraduate class, contemporary feminist debates, around the value of feminist curiosity.

In terms of wonder and its connection to children (which I mention in my brief fragment about my mom and our conversations), I am reminded of what Cornel West has to say about it in an interview with Toni Morrison for The Nation from 2004, entitled, “Blues, Love and Politics”:

I want to come back to your point about immaturity because I want to make a distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” You see, the blues and jazz are childlike, the sense of awe and wonder and the mystery and perplexity of things. “Childish” is immature.

Structuring my essay with being beside and besides

As I indicated in my previous post, I am struggling with my essay. I got stuck thinking about how to write about Butler’s complicated and highly theoretical notion of grief and its value for politics and political and ethical projects for social transformation. Reading over the manuscript again, I feel like I am getting bogged down in the theory and losing my ability to respond and connect to Butler and grief. The section on Butler and grief seems so disconnected from my introduction of the three Judiths. Then, it came to me; I don’t want to write a straightforward academic paper in which I articulate Butler’s argument concerning grief, making sure to fully contextualize it and to properly present it, and then critically interrogate how it does/doesn’t speak to my own experiences with grief and loss. While I imagine this as a valuable project, it doesn’t fit with what I want to do right now. To write with such an overwhelming academic tone not only encourages abstraction (I am always already too prone to thinking abstractly), but it might discourage a wide range of non-academic readers from engaging with my words. This essay is not only for an academic audience. It is for anyone who reads my blog, it is for my sisters, and, most significantly, it is for the two most important Judiths in my life: my mom and my daughter.

In addition to wanting to ensure that this essay is accessible and compelling, I want to use it to experiment with how to think about my academic self (the one who is most often beside Judith Butler) in relation to the daughter self (the one who is most often beside my mom, Judith Puotinen) and the mother self (the one who is most often beside my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen). My experiences with relating these selves is that they don’t always fit together easily. I frequently find that I can’t and don’t want to integrate them. Yet, even so, they somehow exist together, informing and responding to each other in unexpected ways. I think the idea of being beside and besides is instructive here. To be beside something is not to be the same as or even to be fully integrated/combined/connected to that something; it is to be next to it and/or in addition to it, but to still be connected and not fundamentally separate from it.

I think that my experiences of living with and beside grief exemplify the complicated and contradictory ways in which I negotiate these roles. I want those contradictions and complications to be represented in this text. I want to play with my different voices—voices that aren’t really fragmented or schizophrenic, but aren’t fully connected and integrated–and put them next to each other, but not always in direct conversation with each other. What would it look like to do this? Perhaps my last blog entry provides some clues. In that entry I put big chunks of Butler’s prose next to both my academic explanations and my italicized musing/asides about the texts. Maybe I should keep in the asides, along with a few story fragments of grief as a scholar, daughter and mother. For the purpose of this manuscript, I envision this placing of voices next to each other to be fairly uncomplicated. Maybe I will use different fonts or italics to represent the distinctions. In future versions of this project, I want to experiment even more—STA had a lot of cool suggestions on how to visually represent and place these texts beside each other. I can also imagine it as a wonderful digital storytelling video.

Randomly, I feel compelled to include this quick youtube clip. It makes me laugh, something I always look forward to in the midst of writing/thinking/experiencing grief.

This clip is just one of many; yes, dramatic animals is a youtube genre! I am particularly fond of the dramatic sloth and dramatic lizard.

Being Beside Oneself with grief, part 2

Right now I am writing about Butler, being beside oneself with grief and being/coming undone. For some reason, this section is giving me a lot of trouble. I think it is partly because it can be easy to get lost in Butler’s theorizing about the subject–I find myself struggling to determine when something is really important and compelling and when it is merely an intellectual exercise.

Here is what I have so far (note: my notes about this section are included in italics):

In Undoing Gender, Butler describes feeling so overwhelmed and overtaken by losing a loved one that we are beside ourselves with grief. Our feelings of sadness and loss become too much to contain and we cannot hold them in. We lose our composure and we can no longer easily or successfully control ourselves. Try as we might to deny it or to be in control of how we experience it, grief undoes our efforts to handle ourselves properly. Butler writes:

I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One find oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why (18).

My use of the word “properly” is deliberate here. In keeping in line with my larger project on troublemaking, I am interested in what it might (or is supposed to mean) to grieve properly. What happens when we fail to do it in the ways that we are supposed to? What is the “proper” way? I am struck by how I feel, even as I constantly hear/read from others that “there is no one way to grieve” or that “everyone grieves differently,” that there are specific expectations–coming from whom?–about what grief should look like. It is important for me to think about the value of grieving improperly–this can be taken up in a lot of different ways, from “proper” rules of grieving etiquette to “proper” modes of caring for and loving the one who is dying/died.

There are all sorts of ways to interpret what it means to be undone and beside ourselves with grief. For example, we can read it as a temporary state, as something that exists fully outside of, or in complete contrast to, our ordinary existence. Or we can read it as evidence of how debilitating and damaging grief is. Or we can even read it as a challenge that is thrown at us in order for us to prove our worth and our strength of character. With all of these interpretations, grief is understood as something to endure, but to be gotten over, preferably as quickly as possible.

Butler’s invoking of the Protestant ethic is great here–makes me think of the idea of getting over it or just dealing with it. I just read, “Good Grief, It’s Plato,” a chapter from Elizabeth Spelman’s excellent book,Fruits of Sorrow. Spelman discusses Plato and his vision of proper grief as moving on and learning from that grief (as opposed to engaging in any excessive displays of grief–like crying or wailing–which is considered to be too womanly/feminizing).

Butler reads coming undone differently. She envisions it as “one of the most important resources for which we much take our bearing and find our way” (Precarious Life, 30) and argues that it reveals an important aspect of what it means to be human. Being beside ourselves with grief, in which sadness and a sense of loss, undoes us, reminds us how we are always already, by virtue of being human, “in the thrall of our relations with others that we cannot always recount or explain,” or, I might add, control, shape, or determine (19). In other words, grief reminds us that we are more than autonomous willful individuals who have complete control over ourselves–how we act, what and when we feel, and how we represent ourselves to others. It also reminds us that we are never just a self; there is always something or someone beside and besides us.

In continuing her description of how grief works, Butler speculates on that something/someone else:

Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan or project, larger than one’s own knowing. Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (18)?

Butler’s language is significant here. In using tied and seized, she is interested in getting beyond the idea that we merely exist in relation to others, that we are connected to others. Right after this passage, Butler moves into her brief description of being beside ourselves and ecstasy as a better way (than relationally) for understanding how we exist in relation to others. In the interest of staying focused, I am thinking that I shouldn’t include this discussion in this essay. Still not sure…

This something or someone to whom we are tied and to whom we are seized indicates that we are vulnerable beings, always in the midst of others and always potentially undone by those others. We could, and often do, respond to this recognition of our vulnerability with varying degrees of violence: we deny that vulnerability and attempt to shore up our own sense of the invulnerable self, we lash out at those who remind us of that vulnerability, or we attempt to prove, through forceful acts, that we are not really vulnerable, or won’t ever be again. These are not the only possible responses to grief and coming undone, however. Butler wonders,

Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief…and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence?…If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some fear? Of are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another” (23)?

Here Butler is thinking specifically about the United States government’s response to 9/11 and their violent retribution which she mentions in her chapter in Undoing Gender but really gets into in Precarious Life. Just consider this quotation that is featured on the back cover of that book: “If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war”

For Butler, recognizing our vulnerability and refusing to conceal, contain or get rid of it, is an important task of the ethical (and political) subject-self. It is central to her vision of the human and to her political and ethical projects for social transformation. And is is “one of the most important resources form which we must take our bearings and find our way” (23).

So, that’s it for now. My next section will be about why Butler’s vision/version of grief doesn’t fit with my own experiences.

By the way, I am currently writing this at Overflow Espresso Cafe–a coffee place not to far from the U of Minnesota. It’s pretty cool and relaxing, especially when school is out for the month. Check out STA’s review of the place.

Here’s one more thing I meant to add into this entry earlier. As I was writing this entry, I found myself wondering about semicolons and when and why to use them. STA directed me to this great poster. I think I want it for my office. I love these queer dinosaurs!