Mourning and the Other: Excess, Debt, Exchange

What are the productive possibilities of mourning, can mourning operate as both a politics and an ethics? To Freud mourning is infinite, a fetishized object that necessitates ownership, something to be imperialized. The substitution is a constant, an endless chain, which seemingly is the effect of a narcissistic satisfaction derived from each next iteration of attachment. Loss, then, even in the Freudian construction of mourning is both selfish and violent, a circuitous undertaking, that seems inescapable. Emerging from an understanding of Freudian mourning can one recuperate mourning as a productive political action? The previous vignette sought to seek a way out of bare life by means of a sacrificial mourning. Perhaps a similar logic might wield the linguistics of economy to theorize a productive politicization of mourning.

To Baudrillard, death is a simulacrum, an anti-economy that is couched in a logic of debt. The cultural construction of death in his formulation relies on this logic of debt, in which the normalization of a separateness of life and death underlies the inequities of capital. The great faults of leftist politics, then, have been their clamoring for access to the means of production. Their fault is a failure of Marxism par-excellance that has refused to acknowledge the code as the great producer, not the worker or the factory. Labor in this system is merely a ritual, a going through the motions that reproduces the symbolic mechanisms of hegemony, a ritual that relies on a rationality that compartmentalizes and excludes the dead. One is meant merely to survive. As Baudrillard says, “little by little, the dead cease to exist. They are thrown out of the group’s symbolic circulation. They are no longer beings with a full role to play, worthy partners in exchange and we make this obvious by exiling them.”

Derrida argues in The Gift of Death that “One must give without knowing, without knowledge or recognition” for if “it [the gift] is touched by the slightest hint of calculation, the moment it takes account of knowledge…or recognition…it allows itself to be caught in transacting: it exchanges, in short it gives counterfeit money.” A kind of mourning that sacrifices that which is most dear, “without knowledge or recognition” would be necessary to enact a form of justice that Derrida calls for. Pure ontological mourning, however, which Derrida argues is always the modus operandi of mourning, always seeks to localize and to ontologize and cannot pass muster. The mourner in this configuration calculates in their desire to make the dead static, to keep them in the grave and no where else. Perhaps the closest approximation of an uncalculating mourning is what Derrida calls for in Specters of Marx, which would espouse a Derridean form of justice one can glean letting the ghosts of the past speak. This would provide a perfect soundboard for that hauntology, in which the voices of phantoms, so often construed in the passive sense, made out only as victims, are allowed to project their experiences to a future they have in another sense been denied.

The idea of the calculation, of exchange, and what Derrida and Baudrillard both refer to as debt in its relation to death presuppose an economy (or in Baudrillard’s case an antieconomy) of life and death. In particular, Derrida’s invocation of the gift and sacrifice are instructive. In this vein Derrida asks “What is the relation between se donner la mort and sacrifice? Between putting oneself to death and dying for another? What are the relations among sacrifice, suicide and the economy of this gift?” As Derrida argues, the gift of death is not a transferrable object, nor can one escape their own eventual death. The way death is mobilized, however, particularly around a sense of absolute duty can become a means of recuperation. Derrida via Kirkegaard asserts,

Absolute duty…implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that reaches toward a faith beyond both debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. This is the dimension that provides for the “gift of death” which, beyond human responsibility, beyond the universal concept of duty, is a response to absolute duty.


Bataille argues something similar in his work Death and Sensuality, instead mobilizing death as the foremost fulfillment of an economy of excess. To Bataille, a general economy of excess, whether through the transgression of eroticism or the unsettling of a boundedness of death subverts the logical order of capital. Likewise a Baudrillardian concept of reversibility also acts as a means to subvert the normalizing logic of the code, to repudiate the hegemony of debt and instead recognize the work of symbolic exchange, particularly in and around death. Thinking through life and death in economic terms, even if only to refuse the disciplinary mechanisms latent therein, allows one to also formulate alternative politicizations, namely in and around mourning and responsibility. What Derrida, Bataille, and Baudrillard give us that Freud does not is a means to escape the narcissistic and/or pathological consequences of mourning/melancholia and instead see the possibilities in the gift, in excess, and in recognizing the code.


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