On Alfred Frankowski’s Postracial limits…

Here is the text of the talk I gave today at the American Society for Aesthetics’ book session on Al Frankowski’s The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning

Before offering a commentary on Alfred Frankowski’s sublimely monumental book, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning, let me first share my reading of it by taking up the key elements of its title. I will then offer a Freudian account of the melancholic aspects of the very memorial culture that Frankowski describes without ever using the word melancholia.


The term post-racial occurs throughout the book as a modifier for all manner of matters: post-racial discourse, post-racial politics, post-racial society, post-racial violence, post-racial memorialization, and post-racial memory; yet it is never taken at face value. Rather, in every use of the term, Frankowski sets it in italics. While he does not comment upon the typography, the meaning becomes clear: post-raciality is not a fact but a trope, one used to hide the reality of ongoing racism, a trope that attempts to erase what needs to be remembered. Its use always marks a contradiction: “The contradictions of post-raciality are clear,” Frankowski writes, “the bodies of the racialized are prefigured in their exploitation and create the material symbols that hold up a society that appears to be post-race and yet are politically thoroughly racist” (9). The effect of this contradiction is material, it leads to “a transition of meaning, in which violence is learned, adapted to, and framed out of thought both in terms of what counts as knowledge and whose lives count as world-historical” (9).

Post-racial discourse,” he writes, “is always already implied within the ways we represent oppression and implicit in how we perceive and come to know both the oppression of the past and the oppression of the present” (107). Usually this is by way of depicting past oppression as over and reconciled and by neglecting ongoing phenomena of oppression. The past is neatly relegated, the present context neglected.

Limits of Memorialization

Whenever memorials, however well-meaning, are erected in an attempt to reconcile with the past, to announce that things are better now, to provide closure, then memorialization itself becomes post-racialized. Frankowski points to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, unveiled in 2012, as the first post-racial memorial. It is so, Frankowski writes, in its attempt to situate racism safely in the past, calling for a forgetting of the many struggles to which white society was and continues to be un-empathetic (2-3).  Memorial culture attempts to both address and evade violence, but it attempts closure too neatly and too soon.

In Frankowski’s compelling account, memorials fail when they attempt a tidy representation and a reconciliation. “Representations function to both aestheticize the out-moded content, while depoliticizing its context” (39). Such a memorial attempts to halt memory in its tracks. It announces an achievement, an overcoming, and a time to heal old wounds. Pure representation offers a path toward reconciliation: this is what happened, with this memorialization we signal peace, and now racism is no more.

The alternative is to find a way to memorialize that does not evade or disavow ongoing troubles. Frankowski finds the key to this in Kant’s theory of the Sublime. Unlike the Beautiful, which “is a movement away from tension and toward illumination” (72), the Sublime unsettles: it is a “diremptive force” that “unsettles us [so] that we present to ourselves that which outstrips our ability of representation” (89). Where the beautiful becomes silent in relation to the Sublime, Frankowski follows the thread of silence to “develop further…a political sense of mourning” (89). Where there is silence, there needs instead to take place questioning, reconfiguration, and tarrying with what is unsettling, uneasy, and incomplete.

One of the several examples Frankowski offers of this sort of memorial is Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit”:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Holiday’s musical memorial, Frankowski writes, “serves to remember exactly what is being displaced in the space of memory” (51). It is not set in the exact past of the lynching, but in the aftermath that takes place in the song’s present. “Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck.” Uncannily, here it still is indeed, too often relegated to a history too easily unnoticed, packed away, post-racialized. Billie Holiday’s musical memorial opens up the past to haunt the present.

Toward a Political Sense of Mourning

The words of the subtitle “toward a political sense of mourning,” recur throughout the book. By mourning, Frankowski has something specific in mind: “[W]e keep our practices of resistance alive by suspending the idea that mourning will bring about resolution—instead we focus on living within and living through our context” (107) … which means “taking up action against those conditions that mark those lives as always already dead to begin with” (108).

As he closes the book, Frankowski suggests that mourning is political in that it is a way to “rethink our strategies, our agency, and our practical relations to concrete forms of oppression” (108). “It is not merely an intervention,” he writes, “but a way of rethinking the texture of our life and the activity of our position” (108).

Mourning begins to look like forgiveness when Frankowski writes that it allows us “to reclaim our political agency by accepting how every person, as a result of our contemporary existential condition, is entangled in processes that produce oppression toward others and result in our own identity as an object of oppression itself” (109).

Melancholic Memorials

So now I turn to my own thoughts on the text, which I have to admit are haunted by Freud, who makes his appearance in a few passages but is otherwise hardly present. I find it curious that in a book on the political work mourning, especially given what Frankowski notes are recurrent failures to mourn, the word melancholia never appears. There is the shadow of despair, there is sorrow and neglect, but there is no mention of what Freud referred to in his essay on mourning and melancholia as the shadow of the object:

Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification.[1]

Where in mourning, the libido is de-cathected from the lost object and finds new objects, in melancholia the libido withdraws into the ego, which undergoes an identification with the lost object. The libido is no longer object seeking; it has withdrawn, and with it the shadow of the lost object, where residual ambivalence, unfinished business, engulfs the ego, which then can never be done with the lost object, whose long shadow diminishes the ego’s self-regard. Where true mourning allows for a process of grieving; melancholia forestalls grief and nurtures grievances and self-hatred.

I tread cautiously in connecting this Freudian account of mourning and melancholia to the issues Frankowski is taking up; and frankly I worry that a facile comparison could go badly: that some might call for those who have been wounded to stop nurturing their grievances and move on. That would be a terrible reading. Moreover, a comparison is unwieldy because there does not seem to be a neat parallel:  it is not clear that there is a particular lost object for which mourning is called. We have an idea of who suffers a loss but not exactly of what has been lost. The lost object seems to have no name. There is neglect and its sign – longing – but naming the lost object seems impossible. Sometimes all we have is silence.

“The Sublime and mourning are ways of articulating life in relation to the unreconcilability of something coming to an end and still living on at the same time” (92). There are ample signs of the crime, including all those collected in the curious museum of racist artifacts, but what they conjure up is only disorienting, like figures of the sublime that Frankowski describes toward the end of the book, objects that show how blacks had been depicted and objects that still show how these motifs are still at play (88), making sensible what is unrepresentable (93):

The museum does not work like memory so much as it plays off of allegorical modes of silencing. And silence too needs to be thought of in more ways that link it to the activity of resistance, the activity of contextualizing violence and what is lost in our collective past and collective sense of our present. For something to go silent does not mean that there is merely a nonexistent content or a passive content at lay. Silence may also be that orientation toward that which all of the content, all of the words, fail to appropriate. (88)

Of course, while we may not be able to point to a lost object or some particular internalization of its loss, there have been grave losses, traumas, and wounds: the slave trade, the Middle Passage, families torn apart, loved ones murdered and terrorized; Jim Crow, all anti-black racism that continues to this day, have robbed, killed, destroyed, stolen. As Frankowski argues throughout the book, these all call for mourning.  But throughout the book I was frustrated by the absence of any specificity about what exactly has to be mourned or when it would be done. Frankowski seems to be calling for perennial mourning, which lies on the border between Freud’s mourning and melancholia. Where the mourner finds new attachments and the melancholic will not grieve old ones, the perennial mourner continues both to hold on to and to grieve its losses. I am not sure if there is a good way out of this quandary. So long as racism stays in the present, then mourning must remain perennial and unfinished.

And as for the absent word, melancholia, maybe its avatar is post-racialization. Perhaps melancholia is not being nursed by those oppressed who fail to grieve but by post-racial discourses that announce no need. Perhaps what is melancholic are not oppressed peoples but whole cultures that encrypt loss in memorial tombs. My way of putting it fits well with Frankowski’s. Recall his account of the MLK memorial as a post-racial memorial that attempts to erase any need to grieve. It attempt to situate racism safely in the past, calling for a forgetting of the many struggles to which white society was and continues to be un-empathetic (2-3).  In attempting to both address and evade violence, it seeks closure too neatly and too soon. Such memorials cast a melancholic shadow, disavowing any need for grieving. The work of mourning, then, is a work that needs to be undertaken by all affected, on all sides of the ledgers of loss.

This brings me to a question I had throughout the book: Who is the “we” that Frankowski invokes on nearly every page? Throughout the text, the author calls on the reader to take up the project, using the pronoun “we”—but I never was sure whom the “we” scooped up. In the final pages, Frankowski begins to answer it. “We are oppressed/oppressing subjects, and as such we need to take the oppression of others as matters that imply our own fate” (108). For Frankowski, this involves “suspending the progressive cultural narrative around issues of our cultural violence” (108). (I would like to hear more about what he means here.) He points to a “shared neurosis when it comes to issues of racism” (might this be melancholia?) that can be ameliorated by taking up “the task of reconfiguring our own activity … as a practice of living with ourselves and others and living through our context” (108).

All of us in this we, Frankowski further suggests, whites and blacks, oppressors as well as the oppressed, are collectively afflicted by the neurosis of racism. Might this be melancholia? Working through what gives rise to this neurosis involves the work of mourning, which seems to mean, though he never exactly says this, getting over idealizations of there being saints and sinners, evil and its overcoming, reconciliation and closure. And instead of erecting melancholia memorials, we need to remember in a way that decrypts our collective and internal tombs of loss.

[1] Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916), 249.


By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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