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Being Through Loss: A Queer Performative Reckoning With Grief

ida hillerup hansen
Monday, April 3, 2023, 3:00 pm

This dissertation presents a framework for ‘being through loss’ whose impact is illustrated in engagement with three bodies of contemporary text that depict grief in relation to the loss of a loved other. In investigating literature that occupies prominent positions in contemporary debate in Denmark and the US specifically, and in Western Europe and North America at large, ‘being through loss’ reframes the conditions of engagement with grief by illustrating how an experienced sense of being in the world takes and alters shape through grief and loss. Via close readings of a body of biomedical research literature on grief as psychiatric diagnosis (e.g., Simon et al 2011; Shear et al. 2013; Castelnovo et al. 2015) and two autobiographical accounts of loss by Danish author and poet Naja Marie Aidt (2019) and American author and journalist Joan Didion (2005), this project makes four main contributions to contemporary debates on grief and scholarship on loss and death.

First, the dissertation opens by identifying what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the “ontogenetic” premise that subtends current grief debate, which I argue is given expression in a predominant focus on how to correctly define the phenomenon of grief and hence respond to it. Based on this observation, I draw on queer performativity to build an alternative framework, which, in the words of Sedgwick, appreciates the “ontological tenuousness” of phenomena. This framework understands grief as an organic and contingent phenomenon that does rather than is and it draws further on queer and feminist poststructuralist uses of psychoanalysis to explore the conditions that enable grief’s distinct renderings and responds to their impacts. As a consequence of this approach, grief alters from a site at which available knowledge and claims about what this phenomenon is are rehashed to instead provide prisms through which to explore how an experienced sense of being in the world takes shape and alters through loss.

This dissertation’s second chapter turns to a body of literature in support of a psychiatric model of grief that occupies an authority position in the contemporary debate against which critique and alternative definitions are launched, resulting in the ontogenetic impasse described above. Challenging claims made by scholars and experts pertaining to grief’s formation as diagnosis, this chapter opens by illustrating the centrality of a biomedical perspective and more specifically a neuroscientific understanding of mental illness to the formation of so called “prolonged grief disorder.” Having made this observation, I propose that in a biomedically poised psychiatric model’s reparative approach to the bereaved subject, we can notice an anxious effort to contain life in a sovereign, humanist form. My reading thus shifts from a more critically dismissive or punitive engagement with the pathologization of grief to foregrounding how this tendency indirectly teaches us about the organic and open quality of being as phenomenon. From this diagnostic insight, the following chapters set out to further explore how being takes and alters shape through loss.

Chapter 3 of this dissertation engages with Naja Marie Aidt’s account of the loss of her adult son Carl. Based on a combined analysis of Aidt’s style of expressing grief and the reception of her book in Danish media and public, I propose that currently available expert and vernacular models of mourning are unequipped to acknowledge the lost other as being. Indeed, taking the homogenous compassion reviewers and journalists show Aidt and their reduction of Carl’s presence to a symbol of the severity of a “mother’s grief” as illustrative of this inability, I argue that their responsiveness to the mourning subject relies on the erasure of the lost other. The chapter proceeds to trace the origins of this erasure to a metaphysical presupposition that subtends psychoanalytic accounts and continues throughout contemporary models of mourning. By pertaining to the ways in which Aidt relates to Carl after the moment of his death, I propose that if acknowledged the being of the lost loved other alters an ethics of loss.

Lastly, the fourth dissertation chapter turns to Joan Didion’s account of the death of her husband John and the life-threatening illness of her daughter Quintana Roo. With an analysis of Didion’s notion of “world without end,” I propose that she utilizes her grief to point beyond the level of personal experience, offering instead a situated perspective on a world that, according to her, operates as loss. Based on this proposition, I make an argument for an anti-autobiographic reading of Didion’s account of grief whose significance I illustrate by exploring what being might feel and look like from this perspective of a world whose unfolding is defined by change, unreliability and loss. With this shift in interpretive perspective, I challenge a perception of grief as a psycho-emotional state of exception. Grounded in my analysis of Didion’s efforts to control herself and bring a sense of structure to a world that is devoid of such, I further utilize Didion’s existential insights for a closing methodological reflection on the risks and challenges entailed in enacting an onto-epistemological framework, which informs this dissertation’s overall approach to grief.

Taken together, this dissertation’s four chapters foreground the relevance of feminist poststructuralist and queer uptakes of psychoanalysis to contemporary research on mourning and in particular to the field of queer death studies. My dissertation illustrates how these conceptual frameworks expand our understanding of and engagement with contemporary psychiatry as well as the models of mourning and loss that are currently available in expert and vernacular discourse. Furthermore, ‘being through loss’ identifies the “ontogeny” that subtends and locks the contemporary debate in an exchange about right and wrong definitions of grief, and its three analytic engagements with contemporary grief literature illustrate an alternative queer performative approach to grief that not only reframes our understanding of this phenomena, but also provides us with a poetic sense of the organic and entangled qualities of an experienced sense of being in the world.

Defense committee
Supervisor: Hyaesin Yoon, CEU
External examiner: Nina Lykke, Linköping University
Internal examiner: Jasmina Lukic, CEU
External reader: Beatriz Revelles Benavente, University of Granada
Chair: Guntra Aistara, CEU