Mourning, Denial, and Racial Violence in the COVID-19 Pandemic (Part I)

Jonathan Chou //

This article is adapted from a critical theory paper which I wrote in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020. It is anyone’s guess whether writing that paper was a form of manic defense, intellectualization, or sublimation. I can say now that if nothing else it served to lead me to my present formulation about how in the U.S. we have seen a convergence of the waves of the pandemic and the waves of racial violence.

What I want to propose in this three-part article is first that while we may say that we are used to feeling loss and grief in the pandemic, we have just the same been stopped – by society and by ourselves – and kept from experiencing the full impact and implications of these feelings. Second, if on an individual, personal level we have been able to feel something like loss and grief, as a society, I argue, we have not. Again, we have been stopped, kept from feeling.

To make my argument, I draw on the work of Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, and Robert Stolorow. This quote by Butler from her essay, “Capitalism Has Its Limits,” published on March 30, 2020, two months before Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, offers us a way in. 

It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death. (Butler, 2020)

We cannot ignore Butler’s prophetic word choice: “not worth safeguarding.” What do we do with what we feel – and don’t feel – about the losses we have suffered as a result of the pandemic, and the ways in which those losses disproportionately affect certain nations, communities, and individuals at the expense of others? Concordantly, what do we do with what we feel – and don’t feel – about the continual deaths of Black people at the hands of White police? 

I become inscrutable to myself

“If we have lost, then it follows that we have had” (2003, p. 10). I start with Butler for what she writes about the nature of loss, the differential assignment of “grievability,” and how mourning leads us to “an ethics of nonviolence and a politics of a more radical redistribution of humanizing effects” (2003, p. 9).

I begin with an analysis of what loss is and what we experience in loss:

Each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies – as a site of desire and physical vulnerability, as a site of a publicity at once assertive and exposed. Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure. (2003, p. 10)

Here, loss follows, is a consequence of, our basic ontology, “our being socially constituted bodies.” That we are always already embodied and that our bodies are “at once assertive and exposed” means that we are always at risk of losing. We cannot choose not to lose any more than we can choose not to be born into a body and a world already populated by others and things. We are from the beginning given over, beyond ourselves. 

Indeed, in the era of COVID-19, it feels like we have been beaten over the head with the fact of our constitutive relationality. If anything, COVID-19 has concretized, literalized the way in which I am implicated in your world. We share space. We share the world.

What happens to me, therefore, when I lose you, is that I lose not only you but also my relation to you, and it is this implication in loss that reveals how we are constituted by the Other, dependent on the Other for the very formation of our selves. I quote:

[W]hen we undergo what we do undergo, is something about who we are revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are… If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself… perhaps what I have lost “in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is neither merely myself nor you, but the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related. (2003, p. 12)

When we mourn, we learn not only that we “had” the Other (this being what conditioned our loss), but also that we were created by the Other, possessed by them, and now, in their absence, dispossessed by them – “I become inscrutable to myself.” 

It is a short distance from here to Butler’s ethical argument for nonviolence. If I am because of you, if I lose myself in you, I cannot condone violence against you without denying first a fundamental aspect of who I am and how I came to be this way. Butler writes: 

Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility. (2003, p.12)

Violence turns out always to be violence against myself.

Yet, if it is the case that violence is precluded based on the notions of fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility, how do we begin to explain its obstinacy, the ease with which violence appears in the world, its seemingly endless revolutions? To answer this question, I argue that we must answer the following two: By what means are differential conditions of vulnerability produced and perpetuated? And by what means do we fall into the self-defeating mode that violence requires? 

Regarding the first question on differential vulnerability, Butler writes:

Lives are supported and maintained differently, and there are radically different ways in which human physical vulnerability is distributed across the globe. Certain lives will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the forces of war. Other lives will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as “grievable.” (2003, p. 20)

While it is true that I am dependent on the Other for the formation of myself, I am vulnerable to violence, to the address of the Other, according to the social and political conditions by which my life is “supported and maintained.” All lives matter but some lives matter more. In this way, Butler locates a potential for political change and power in the conditions that produce and perpetuate the tension between the equality afforded by our ontology and the inequality we experience in society. It is a power tied inextricably to the concept of nation (“sufficient to mobilize the forces of war”) and to grief and grievability. To be exact, grievability, defined as the differential extent to which one qualifies as grievable, or worthy of being grieved, confers power, is power. 

Regarding the second question on the self-defeating mode, Butler writes:

If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and so must be negated again (and again). They cannot be mourned because they are always already lost or, rather, never “were,” and they must be killed, since they seem to live on, stubbornly, in this state of deadness. Violence renews itself in the face of the apparent inexhaustibility of its object. The derealization of the “other” means that it is neither alive nor dead, but interminably spectral. (2003, p. 22)

If the Other can be made to be no longer human, no longer “real” in the sense of being real like me, vulnerable like me, I am no longer held in relation to the Other. I am free to kill at no loss to myself. To be sure, this is a contradictory position and truly a self-defeating one, as one never succeeds in negating the Other, and so the Other “must be negated again (and again).” Here, violence begets violence through two parallel operations. First, through the way it seems not to affect me; second, through its ineffectiveness. On the first, it is worth pointing out that the severing of the relation between self and other is achieved through a denial of the Other’s grievability through a mis-historicization – “[t]hey cannot be mourned because they are always already lost or, rather, never ‘were.’” On the second, there is an irony in the way derealization confers an invulnerability to the Other, a “state of deadness,” which is both that against which I am set apart from the Other and that which prevents me from fulfilling my fantasy of a scot-free violence. In the face of the Other whom I cannot kill, I am confronted by both my vulnerability and my ineptitude. 

Who among us has been spared? We are faced with an opportunity “to grieve, and to make grief itself into a resource for politics” (2003, p. 19). Only it is not an opportunity in the sense of something we can choose. We must demand it. That we have seen racial violence intensify and proliferate in recent years is less an indication of a defect in Butler’s argument than a testament to the power and persuasiveness of the ways in which we have been kept from recognizing our collective loss and the effects of this loss. 

I am interested in Butler’s phrasing earlier: “sufficient to mobilize the forces of war.” In Part 2 of this article, I turn to what has been called the war metaphor (I use this term over “the military metaphor” to emphasize how war is waged against an other) and how during the pandemic it has operated to deny us our loss.


Butler, J. (2003). Violence, Mourning, Politics. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 4(1), 9-37.

Butler, J. (2020, March 30). Capitalism has its limits. Retrieved on August 1, 2020, from

Credit: Different signs used during the pooja ceremonies and mourning devotions. Lithograph.

Wellcome Collection.

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