SubStance 32.3 (2003) 175-179
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Eng, David L. and David Kazanjian, eds. Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. 448.
Consider Walter Benjamin's angel of history, propelled helplessly and blindly towards an unknown future, his anguished gaze fixed on the ruins of the past. In Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David Eng and David Kazanjian suggest that our gazes share the angel's shocked fixity. How can we move beyond the twentieth century's "losses of bodies, spaces and ideals" (5) without such movement replicating the angel's helpless immobilization in the face of catastrophe? The eighteen essays in Loss attempt to relieve this fixity, to reimagine the wreckage in catastrophe's wake, and to reclaim loss as a productive, creative force. Engaging with loss, write Eng and Kazanjian, "generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future" (4).
For the purpose of this anthology, "loss" is very broadly conceived as "a placeholder of sorts" that includes "both individual and collective encounters with twentieth-century historical traumas and legacies of, among others, revolution, war, genocide, slavery, decolonization, exile, migration, reunification, globalization, and AIDS" (2), as well as the psychic and social mechanisms through which these catastrophes are engaged. The attraction of the volume is Eng and Kazanjian's model of loss as an active, creative, productive force, rather than an inevitable, solipsistic, helpless attachment to an irrecoverable absence, and their objective of formulating a "politics of mourning," which they define as "that creative process mediating a hopeful or hopeless relationship between loss and history" (2). The question is whether these objectives can be sustained by the theoretical paradigms that inform them. Eng and Kazanjian articulate these politics of mourning as the work of melancholia, by conjoining Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia" with Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Melancholia's "adamant refusal of closure" (3), they argue, animates the work of Benjamin's historical materialist, figuring the past as an object of melancholic longing which, unlike the object of mourning, will not assume a kind of fixity that enables its disattachment from the ego. Freed from its association with pathology, melancholia becomes a mechanism for maintaining a productive engagement with the past that weds the personal with the cultural. "As both a formal relation and a structure of feeling, a mechanism of disavowal and a constellation of affect, melancholia offers a capaciousness of meaning in relation to losses encompassing the individual and the collective, the spiritual and the material, the psychic and the social, the aesthetic and the political" (3). While this is a compelling reading, it is also a very narrow one; further, no context for the choice of these essays or of their authors is provided, leaving the reader to [End Page 175] formulate her own hypotheses. This reviewer would suggest that "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917) and "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940) were chosen because each was written in the sinister light of a world war. Though neither WWI nor WWII appear as the object of discussion in Loss, the centrality of Freud's and Benjamin's essays to Eng and Kazanjian's project may implicitly acknowledge the centrality of the phenomenon of "World War" to the anthology's engagement with the "pervasive losses" of the twentieth century (2).
The "Introduction" also includes an "Intellectual History of Loss," in which Eng and Kazanjian trace the development of melancholia from ancient times through the medieval period to the Renaissance. Locating the origin of melancholy in the "black bile" of classical humoral theory, the "Intellectual History" lends mourning a crucial corporeal dimension that effectively situates the body in and as the social, illuminating the many ways that "loss takes effect by materializing as—or as materialized—social constraint" (7). Moving gracefully between Aristotle and Agamben, Descartes and Dürer, the "Intellectual History" offers some facinating insights on the interrelation of subjectivity, corporeality and socialization. One such insight traces the concept of "complexion" from classical humoral theory through Christian productions of subjectivity, to...