Unmournable Bodies

The New York Times reports the staggering statistic that there are 1.5 million missing black men:

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.

They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars.

This is resonant with Judith Butler’s concept of “unmournable bodies”:

But, of course, what we are also seeing in the recent and continuing assemblies, rallies and vigils is an open mourning for those whose lives were cut short and without cause, brutally extinguished. The practices of public mourning and political demonstration converge: when lives are considered ungrievable, to grieve them openly is protest. So when people assemble in the street, arrive at rallies or vigils, demonstrate with the aim of opposing this form of racist violence, they are “speaking back” to this mode of address, insisting on what should be obvious but is not, namely, that these lost lives are unacceptable losses.

Who we are allowed to mourn and grieve in a society tells us a lot about what we understand about being human. The human is fundamentally mournable; it is life that merits consideration, respect, and a kind of collectivized consensus of value. Mournable bodies that die are celebrated through acts of mourning.

More importantly, mournable bodies are inherently mournable while still living. The consideration and respect extended at death by the still living begins with bodies that can and are respected, considered, and valued while still alive, or still present. To be missing is, in effect, to be dead.

A crucial question here, though, is: who mourns the mournable and who does not mourn the unmournable? We are not talking about families, friends, and local communities of the deceased or the missing, who will almost always mourn their disappearance from family and community life to varying degrees. We’re reaching for a more general sense of who is mourned and who is not, what category of person is mourned for and what category of person is not publicly grievable.

Bodies are fundamentally unmournable not when they die but while they live. For an inherently unmournable body to become a mournable body in society he or she must transcend their “unmournability” and become a part of the public consciousness to an extraordinary degree, becoming serviceable or useful to the majority population in such a way that they merit respect, consideration, and value disproportionate to those who remain in obscurity. Even here, though, their value is one of utility, not full humanity.

There is a certain horrifying privilege involved in learning second or third hand about those who are missing, a screen through which we view this kind of manufactured death that is akin to experiencing it on film. If we mourn, we mourn from afar, at an existential distance that doesn’t only not touch this kind of death, but helps contribute to the conditions that make it possible in the first place. Most of us in this position were thrown into it, of course. But if we ever wake up, the least we can do is begin to talk about it.