The Will to Remember: Problematizing the Ethico-Politics of Mourning and Melancholia

By Lucy Brisley.

Published by The International Journal of Civic, Political, and Community Studies

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The millennial “memory boom” has given rise to debate concerning the ethics of remembering the past. Much interdisciplinary theory has centred upon Freud’s seminal essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), although it has tended to subvert his original binary, rejecting normative modes of mourning in favour of an ethics of melancholia. Melancholia is now frequently posited as an ethico-political mode of grief because the traumatized ego disavows loss by preserving the lost object within its psyche. This repudiation of loss is interpreted as a “will to remember” on the part of the self, reinforced as it is by the claim that melancholia preserves the alterity of the other. Yet the depathologization of melancholia relies on a necessarily partial reading of Freudian theory: it is, after all, an unconscious response to loss that entails the ego’s identification with-or as-the object. Even if we take Freud’s subsequent naturalization of melancholia in “The Ego and the Id” (1923), the unconscious relationship between ego and object still remains its core mechanism. This paper explores the vicissitudes of both mourning and melancholia as modes of remembrance, before arguing that it is germane to seek different ethical approaches to “working through” the past and its losses that attempt to move beyond the binary of mourning and melancholia.

Keywords: Mourning, Melancholia, Memory, Ethics, Freud, Memorialization, Working Through

The International Journal of Civic, Political, and Community Studies, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2012, pp.61-72. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 355.129KB).

Lucy Brisley

DPhil Candidate, French, Department of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK

I completed my BA in French and English literature at the University of Leeds and my MA at the University of York, where my dissertation focused upon the trope of haunting in contemporary Algerian literature in French. I am currently a third-year DPhil candidate at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, and my thesis, “Beyond Melancholia: Algeria and its Spectres”, problematizes the recent turn to melancholia and haunting through the novels of Algerian authors Assia Djebar, Yasmina Khadra, and Boualem Sansal. I am currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University.