Diana Manesi - Towards Athena Athanasiou, Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black

Athena Athanasiou, Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017)

Diana Manesi

Bionote: Diana Manesi has conducted her doctoral studies in social anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London on queer and lesbian feminist social movements and subjectivities in Greece. She works at the intersections of queer anthropology, queer and feminist theory, biopolitics, affect and theories of subjectivity.

Goldsmiths College, University of London



How do feminists respond in times of war violence, ethnic hatred, neoliberal governmentality and technocratic NGO-ization? How can mourning turn from a language of proper gender and national identification into a disruptive agonistic performance? How to develop a critical form of agonism that remains accountable to the other’s loss and pain without occupying the position of the self-willed, independent and rational subject of resistance? How to “re-write” already-erased others into public memory? How to assume a responsibility you do not own and you develop in response to another’s call who is erased from the polis and its normative ethnic, gendered, sexual and racial configurations? How to imagine sovereignty differently? How to think beyond the affirmation versus vulnerability scheme in relation to political subjectivity and critical agency?

In Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black, Athena Athanasiou reflects on the above questions through an ethnographic account of the anti-nationalist feminist movement Women in Black (Žene u crnom), or, the ŽuC feminist group, in Belgrade during the Yugoslav wars and after the rise of militaristic nationalism during the Milošević era. The book urges us to re-imagine political community, justice and critical agency through dissent, reflexive relationality and non-sovereign unbelonging. In particular, Athanasiou explores dissident politics of mourning as a radical form of political action that gives rise to a non-sovereign political subject, who is always already vulnerable, ek-centric, self-estranged, other-estranged, a spectral ghost acting with no guaranteed outcome and opening to the other by “letting go” of the self.

This book constitutes an important contribution to the field of social anthropology and feminist ethnography by offering a situated and deep exploration of feminist activism in Belgrade from the 1990s to the early 2000s; yet, it also provides ethnographic examples of women’s activisms and performances of mourning in Argentina and Mexico. By opening the questions of nation, gender, memory and the rise of ethno-nationalism to other socio-cultural contexts whilst theorizing the embodied practices and affects of agonistic mourning, the book fleshes out a theory of performative mourning that is also relevant to feminist and queer activisms in other countries of the global periphery. A recent example includes the public debate on the queer politics of mourning and loss that emerged in Greece in the aftermath of the murder of the drag queen, gay and HIV activist Zak Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh on September 2018.[1]

Athena Athanasiou is professor of Social Anthropology at Panteion University of Social and Political Science and a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University. She is the author of Life at the limit: Essays on Gender, Body, and Biopolitics (in Greek, 2007) and co-author of Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (with Judith Butler, 2013). She has edited and co-edited many volumes (in Greek and English) on gender, feminist and queer theory, biopolitics, affect, nationalism, and memory, among which Rewriting Difference: Luce Irigaray and the Greeks (with Elena Tzelepis, in English, 2010) and Feminist Theory and Cultural Critique (in Greek, 2006).

This book is divided in four chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. In the first chapter, entitled “Mourning Otherwise,” Athanasiou sets the sociohistorical ground of the years following Tito’s death in 1980 to frame the emergence of Women in Black alongside other grassroots feminist and women’s groups, noting their tensions and disagreements over violence and the signification of war rape. Through a reflexive engagement with the stories of ŽuC activists, who recount their losses and longings, all at once, social, political, as well as profoundly personal, Athanasiou discusses the group’s practice of public mourning as a form of counter-memory that does not align with discourses of ethnic reconciliation or state memorability. In the introduction, she identifies the prevalent discourses in, through and against which Women in Black emerge after the dissolution of Yugoslavia: on the one hand, “state-centered neoliberal governmentality of managing and normalizing the past” (37) and, on the other, “the legal and psychological traumatic realism of reconciliation” (37). Athanasiou sees the activism of Women in Black as negotiating between these two poles to construct a “disturbing heterotopia that de-normalizes the way in which the nation takes place as the exclusive sharing of a common space and time” (71).

In her analysis of ŽuC’s performative mourning, she goes beyond the binary “affirmative militancy - regressive grief” (77) and looks at critical agency through the perspective of “political catachresis” (73): Women wearing black and standing still and silent in the middle of Belgrade’s Republic Square re-enact the normative figure of the Balkan mourning mother while also “undermining the role assigned to women by nationalism and kinship normativity” (71). Following Butler’s theory of subjectivation,[2] Athanasiou understands ŽuC’s performative mourning in terms of complicity and citationality. In many ways, these staged performances of public mourning involve acknowledging one’s complicity with power structures and maneuvering the complexities of national and gendered identifications: it is all about working with, through, and against nationalist, ethnic and heteronormative discourses.

Athanasiou perceives ŽuC activists as bearers of the Derridean incision, “their counter-memory bears the traces of the other’s death” (82), yet, they transform it into a kind of “revolutionary melancholia” (22) that re-inscribes the other’s trace on the body of politics. Furthermore, she contends that Women in Black develop a kind of Benjaminian “anamnestic solidarity” (83) by remaining open to disavowed others and their ungrievable losses. To develop a reflexive responsiveness to the other’s loss and pain, one has to refuse to escape or simply work through the wound in order to reach closure and reconciliation. Agonistic relationality, which brings along the fears and violence of touching the pain of the other, involves courageous, long-term, open-ended engagement: “[i]t should never stop coming,” she concludes (85).

The second chapter, “Gendered Intimacies of the Nationalist Archive,” builds on these themes to situate the counter-memory work of Women in Black within the nationalist archive. The latter is re-staged and re-imagined through national myths, public spectacles, commemorative ceremonies and turbo-folk icons. The engagement of Women in Black with memory, public space and loss of the enemy-other works “to delegitimate the monological bereavement mandated by the epistemic violence of national archive” (93). In this direction, Women in Black consciously occupy the position of internal gender-enemy to bring into trouble “the very structure of the archival drive - its troubles, its passions, as well as its omissions, specters and promises” (95).

Athanasiou’s analysis of ŽuC’s counter-memory work, Derridean at its core, points to the moment of the possibility of an impossibility, which does not refer, as she suggests in her article “When the Arrivant Presents Itself,”[3] to an event yet-to-come or a time that is not-yet-here but will suddenly reveal itself but to the ongoing agonistic presence of the “here and now,” which affirms new political potentialities and “lets the impossible form the horizon of continuous agonism and infinite justice.”[4] Women in Black develop a feminist notion of responsibility as response-ability according to which the demand for justice becomes a site of continual contention, an indefinite demand open to a horizon of potentialities (which is not to be reduced to juridical action).

In this context, ŽuC’s silent mourning vigils do not constitute a nostalgic re-collection of the past or an unattainable, yet-to-come, utopia but an active and embodied engagement with the haunting remains of the past that have been brushed off the corpus of archived history (146-47). Through their counter-memory activism, working within, through and against the archival grain, ŽuC feminist activists excavate the strange temporality of haunting - what Derrida calls the “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present.”[5] By unsettling the linear temporality of state memorability and ethnic reconciliation discourses, ŽuC activists develop, as Athanasiou suggests, a phantasmatic relation to historicity; by re-activating traces of losses for disavowed others in the “then” and “there” and turning them into turbulent moments in the “here” and “now” they construct relational life-worlds across time and space.

In chapter three, “Spectral Spaces of Counter-Memory,” Athanasiou unfolds the concept of agonistic mourning, drawing from her reading of Arendt, alongside Derrida, to discuss the practices of Women in Black and reflect on modes of embodiment as well as the affective intensity of their performances that work to haunt the “organized remembrance of the polis” (155). The signification of stasis, the affective nuances of black clothing alongside the affective assemblages of mourning and merriment, hope and joyful togetherness are developed and analyzed through the lens of the Derridean spectral ghost and Arendt’s notion of polis and the agonistic subject. Furthermore, Athanasiou discusses ŽuC’s politics of appearing as “taking place” and “making space.” This notion of appearing, which diverges from the conventional approach of appearance as visibility and transparency, builds on Athanasiou’s previous work with Judith Butler in Dispossession: The Performative in the Political.[6] There, Athanasiou and Butler shift Arendt’s notion of “spaces of appearance” to “spacing appearance,” where space is by no means synonymous with fixity, but rather implies a performative plane of “taking place” which should not be reduced to a mere surface in that it acknowledges the conditions that produce the performable and the unperformable.[7]

The spatial poetics of Women in Black’s “standstill” performances in the middle of Republic Square, a space fueled with historical and sociopolitical significance, are further explored through the narratives of activists. The stories of being harassed, ignored and attacked by police and passers-by indicate long-term political divisions and ethnic traumas encompassing the streets, buildings, monuments and statues of Belgrade. Drawing on Nicole Loraux’s work, Athanasiou discusses the group’s performative “stasis” in public space as “standing still,” but also as “taking a stance” and “taking the stand,” signifying simultaneously “an occasion for revolt” and “an occasion for contemplation” (183).

The notion of the spectre, the ghostly arrivant, receives a lot of attention in this chapter. In particular, Athanasiou suggests that by appearing out of place - by assembling together, standing still and silent in the middle of Republic Square - reappearing and being exposed as internal enemies (“hysterical” women-traitors of the nation) standing in solidarity to those who cannot appear, ŽuC feminist activists “become ghostly” (158). In her article “Non-Sovereign Agonism (or Beyond Affirmation versus Vulnerability),”[8] which draws from her ethnographic work with Women in Black, Athanasiou discusses instances of “unauthorized appearance” which evoke the spectral presence of the uncanny stranger, the ghostly arrivant, whose appearance in public space creates noises, cracks and disruptions; the arrivant, who is always haunted by the “demon of otherness” (213) affects the matrices of power that uphold the public space’s “make-believe-ness” (172).

However, what should be noted is that Athanasiou’s analysis of “becoming ghostly” productively shifts the notion of the Derridean specter from “the realm of the unreal/unrealized”[9] to that of “an emerging and enduring state of appearance within and against existent political arrangements”[10]; ultimately, the specter is “haunting the interior of edifices, ontologically upsetting their terms of possession and making them susceptible to other inhabitations.”[11] With this re-articulation of the specter, Athanasiou suggests that spectrality occupies “an ambivalent position between event and actuality” (213) which evokes “a response-able memory” (215) towards disavowed others and “fragile temporalities of potentiality” (213). By becoming ghostly and “making space” as internal enemies, ŽuC activists seek to politically mobilize, touch upon and make room for disavowed others with the aim “to grant them the right, if it means making them come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other unconditional arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome.”[12]

Chapter four, “Political Languages of Responsiveness and the Disquiet of Silence,” explores the bodily and vocal aspects of ŽuC’s activism, drawing from Adriana Cavarero’s work, as well as from Spivak and Foucault, to suggest that performative silence functions as “a sign of the unspoken and unspeakable aspects of discursivity” (243) and as “a sign of the impossibility of voice in the face of exposure to sovereign violence” (243). The group’s performative silence is loud; it exposes the limits of language to record the unspeakable as well as the impossibility of taking the other within the self. In this chapter, Athanasiou brings together multiple threads of the book to analyze further the notion of political responsibility as responsive openness to others, conditioned by the aporia in the heart of the political, which averts closure and problem-solving orientations to the social.

This is an important book in many ways: Athanasiou has accomplished something that is hard to achieve within the field of social anthropology. She has skillfully balanced social theory, philosophy and anthropological literature with the narratives of her participants. A very common fear in anthropology has to do with the interpretation of ethnographic material followed by an emphasis to fieldwork and the field as a separate and rich sphere of knowledge production. As mush as this is true, anthropologists tend to offer thick descriptions of their field sites in line with Clifford Geertz’s approach to fieldwork.[13] In some cases, thick descriptions lead to new and important anthropological and social conceptualizations. However, what should be noted is the latent tendency of anthropologists to avoid bringing their ethnographic material in close proximity to critical political theory and philosophy. This has to do with the epistemological battle over the boundaries of disciplines and their relevant methodologies - anthropology, sociology, philosophy. This tendency also reflects the difficulty to balance theory with ethnography within the text. The fear of imposing a sovereign authorial voice and overshadowing the voices of participants is hard to overcome and requires a continual reflection on and awareness of self/other boundaries, academic/activist spaces and sovereign/non-sovereign modes of knowledge production.

This challenge brings us to the inherent violence of ethnographic representation and of any type of writing per se which aims to represent the other, as Blanchot[14] suggests. In Athanasiou’s text, there are times when the balance between theory and ethnography seems slippery and fragile, yet the voices of her participants are always there, compelling, engaging and profound to affirm, disrupt, challenge and re-formulate the conceptual framework of Butlerian performativity and Arendtian agonism. The author’s presence is subtle given the fact that multiple philosophical and ethnographic voices and silences emerge throughout the text. However, an intimate engagement in relation to Women in Black but also within, against, and through the text per se could have exposed her writing to “unauthorized” instances of openness to other forms of textuality and, effectively, to “inhabit” the borders of ŽuC’s agonistic performances from the position of otherness. More specifically, Athanasiou’s writing with its rhetorical and stylistic coherence does not leave enough space for the emergence of fluctuations between the affective realms of joy and mourning, which are inherent to ŽuC’s activism. I am drawing here from Butler’s notion of a “political form of lyricism”[15] and Culler’s[16] notion of the “literary in theory” to suggest that a kind of effusive and intimate writing can inform theory differently and, like Derrida, help to develop a kind of writing that does not disconnect what is said from the way it is said, that is, write about mourning by “opening” sentences to mourning itself.

This book is crucial for the following reason: It attempts to address ethnographically an ongoing debate in feminist philosophy between affirmation and vulnerability. In her article “Affirmation versus Vulnerability: Contemporary Ethical Debates,”[17] Rosi Braidotti, drawing from Deleuze’s rhizomatic analysis of emotions and Spinoza’s thinking on passions, purports for an ethics of affirmation that involves the transformation of negative into positive passions (resentment into affirmation; pain into compassion; loss into a sense of bonding) that will accelerate the subject’s capacity for self-knowledge, awareness, connection to others and quest for change.[18] In the epilogue, Athanasiou situates her ethnography within this debate by further developing critical agency in relation to natality (instead of mortality) and arguing that vulnerability is inextricably embedded into (affirmative) agency. In particular, she urges us to think of vulnerability as aporia and look at how the aporias of “who” to mourn and “how” to mourn in the case of Women in Black enact non-sovereign forms of political action that go beyond the affirmation versus vulnerability scheme. Her concluding thought on the co-extensiveness of agency/vulnerability, affirmation/negativity, activity/passivity goes hand in hand with the notion of complicity (with power) found at the heart of subject formation and perceived through the lens of deconstructive performativity. For Athanasiou, critical agency does not “merely affirm or negate” (308); Women in Black neither negate trauma nor affirm their longing for a world “not-yet” here, instead, their agency activates and is activated by an openness to disavowed others and by letting the impossibility to mourn for the unspeakable guide them.

Throughout the book, Athanasiou purports for a theory of dissident political action, which draws from Honig, Mouffe, Arendt and the ethics of Levinas, and is based on activists’ reflexive response-ability to others and recognition of the limits of the ethical. From a Lacanian perspective, Athanasiou’s ethics of dissent is pertinent to the ethics of psychoanalysis in that it is an ethics that relinquishes the fantasy of harmony - there is no aspiration to reach redemption in ŽuC’s agonistic mourning - and embraces the disharmonies of agonistic democracy and the ambivalences of political action. Following theorists of agonistic democracy and deep pluralism (Connoly, Laclau, Mouffe, Honig) Athanasiou purports for an ethics of dissent based on the aporias of political performativity - “the conditions of impossibility as conditions of always deferred possibility” (310) - that activate forms of non-sovereign agency, “reflexive responsiveness to the other” (225), “self-estrangement” (306), “becoming beside oneself” (305), “not-at-homeness” (305).

The problem with this approach towards non-sovereign agency is that it resides too much in dis-identification (as misrecognition)/identification (with the other) schemes, which hinder the formation of a non-totalizable relation with the Other. What has to be highlighted is that to maintain openness to the other and develop a reflexive responsiveness that averts closure to the social and acknowledges its impossibilities, “we must relate with the lack in the Other and not with the Other per se.”[19] Yet, there are times when an acute awareness of the lack in the Other emerges in Athanasiou’s contemplation of the limits of language and recognition to speak for those “let to die” (237): “How to respond when speaking is impossible, but silence is as well” (226). This haunting question, drawing from Spivak and Foucault, puzzles Athanasiou’s reflection on ŽuC’s agonistic relationality and surely it will haunt the reader and mobilize her/him to think differently about agency and political action.

In all, Athena Athanasiou’s Agonistic Mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black is a stimulating book that puts forward insightful analyses of how agonistic mourning can help us reconceptualize, reconfigure and reimagine feminist political action and critical agency. The book unravels the ways in which agonistic mourning as disruptive heterotopia, as haunting dislocation by the other, is, in fact, a gesture of aporia, which goes beyond the activity/passivity, agency/vulnerability schemes and brings to the fore a non-sovereign political subject, who is always aware of his/her limitations, and remains open to otherness. The crucial question that the book inspires and explores is how to develop a language that touches upon disavowed others, those lost, those already expelled from public memory. The close exploration of the “not-yet” at the heart of the political - its promise and its limitations, its longings and its constitutive limits - through a deep engagement with the role of mourning and vulnerability in the discursive reconfiguration of the political, is the great merit of this book.


[1] A cycle of open discussions, lectures, talks and public debates, entitled “Queer PublicMemory”, is currently taking place in Athens. This initiative is run by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and organized by Athena Athanasiou and Dimitris Papanikolaou with the contribution of various researchers, activists, poets, artists, performers.

[2] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (California and Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[3] Athena Athanasiou, “When the Arrivant Presents Itself,” L’Internationale, Alter Institutionality thread (November 25, 2014).


[4] Athanasiou, “When the Arrivant.”

[5] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (New York and London, 1994), xviii.

[6] Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Malden and Cambridge: Polity, 2013).

[7] Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession, 194.

[8]Athena Athanasiou, “Non-Sovereign Agonism (or Beyond Affirmation versus Vulnerability)”, in Vulnerability in Resistance, ed. by Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016), 256-277.

[9] Athanasiou, “Non-Sovereign Agonism,” 264.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 265.

[12] Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 220.

[13] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3-30.

[14] For a thorough exploration of the relation between French philosophy and literature, see for example Maurice Blanchot, The Book to Come, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (California: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[15] Judith Butler, “Capacity,” in Regarding Sedgwick, ed. by Stephen M. Barber and David L. Clark (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 109.

[16] Jonathan Culler, “The Literary in Theory,” in What’s Left of Theory?, ed. by Judith Butler, John Guillory and Kendall Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 273-92.

[17] Rosi Braidotti, “Affirmation versus Vulnerability: On Contemporary Ethical Debates,” in Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2006), 235-54.

[18] Braidotti, “Affirmation versus Vulnerability,” 250.

[19] Yannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 119.


Published on: July 18, 2020