When the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote his memoir Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), he hoped that people who “face the darkening prospects of the twenty-first century” would retain “a sense of historical memory”. Social injustice, he contended, “still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own”.
Hobsbawm’s words came back to me as I was reading Athena Athanasiou’s new book, Agonistic Mourning. Although she is a social anthropologist, she is equally well known as a feminist philosopher, following in the tradition of great thinkers such as Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Costas Douzinas, Michel Foucault and Achille Mbembe.
Between 2005 and 2012, Athanasiou involved herself in the lives of the Women in Black of Belgrade, known as Žene u Crnom or ŽuC. As a transnational feminist movement, the Women in Black was started in 1988 by a group of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian women holding placards proclaiming “End the Occupation”. It spread throughout the world, including Serbia in 1991, where it formed part of a resistance to Slobodan Milošević, as well as bearing witness to the appalling losses entailed by ethno-nationalism, war, sovereign violence and the cult of necrophilia. Their members came from a range of feminist activist groups in Belgrade, including “Women and Society” (dubbed an “enemy of the state” by the Yugoslav government) and “Comrade Women” (with their motto “Proletarians of the world, who washes your socks?”). In the words of ŽuC’s manifesto, “We wear black for the death of all the victims of the war” which, to the fury of Serbian nationalists, included the “ethnic enemy”.
Athanasiou joined the activists, participating in their events and street actions, singing their songs, holding their banners (such as “Always Disobedient to Patriarchy and Militarism”), and immersing herself in the emotional labour intrinsic to passionate political involvement. Like other Women in Black activists, ŽuC’s dissidence takes the form of standing or lying down in major squares or in front of nationalist monuments. In attempting to reclaim these spaces for remembering the dead as well as the suffering caused by militaristic, racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalistic authorities, they are silent. It is, in the words of ŽuC activist Lepa Mladjenović, a “very loud silence…It mocks the silence that is imposed on women.”
It is also, Athanasiou tells us, a performative activity that draws attention to people who have been dispossessed of “an audible voice in the face of incommensurable injustice”.
This is a passionate, engaged and philosophically complex book. It is a powerful meditation on the politics of mourning. In one place, Athanasiou recalls interviewing Slavica Stojanović, a member of ŽuC, who tells her: “Ours is a cruel mourning. It is a mourning without sentimentality.” This radical vision of agonistic mourning – which involves public dissidence and the creation of haunting symbols and compelling counter-memories – is what animates Women in Black throughout the globe. In our century, it is one way to forge more socially just worlds.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of Wounding the World: How the Military and War Games Invade Our Lives (2016).
Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black
By Athena Athanasiou
Edinburgh University Press, 360pp, £85.00 and £19.99 (e-book)
ISBN 9781474420143, 0150 and 0174 (e-book)
Published 31 May 2017