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Agonistic Mourning

Political Dissidence and the Women in Black

Athena Athanasiou

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How might mourning turn into an event of agonistic performativity?

Drawing on a range of philosophical, anthropological and political theories, Athena Athanasiou offers a new way of thinking about agonistic performativity with its critical connections to national and gender politics and alongside the political intricacies of affectivity, courage and justice. Through an ethnographic account of the urban feminist and antinationalist movement Women in Black of Belgrade during the Yugoslav wars she shows that we might understand their dissident politics of mourning as a means to refigure political life beyond sovereign accounts of subjectivity and agency.



Undoing grief as "feminine language"
Biopolitics, sovereignty, nationalism
Researching the affective life of a political subjectivity
Towards non-sovereign agonism

1. Mourning Otherwise
Feminism at war
Emergencies and emergences
Activism of loss, loss of activism
Counter-memory, living on
Critical agency and political catachresis
"Anamnestic solidarity" and "wounded attachments"
2. Gendered Intimacies of the Nationalist Archive
Restaging the archive
Proper memories, proper names, proper victims
Claiming the dead body of the national hero
Desiring the nation, worshipping the leader
Making "women" appropriate to the nation: fairies, witches, and mothers
Demographic anxieties, gendered epidemics
Singing the nineties
Remains and spectres

3. Spectral Spaces of Counter-Memory
Ghostly emergences
In the square and beyond
Every Wednesday, at half past three in the afternoon
"Serbian Bastille" between national imaginary and performative displacements
Agonism "at a standstill"
Stasis as dissensus
Public mourning and its (gendered) discontents
(Not) Taking space as "woman"

4. Political Languages of Responsiveness and the Disquiet of Silence
Inaudible voices, disqualified discourses
Aporias of (un)speakability
Speaking for others? Relational structures of address
Activism as responsiveness
The labor of witnessing
Vocal registers of the political
Political performativity between subjugation and insurrection
Critical practices of political response-ability
Silence as an event in language

Epilogue: Agonistic re-membering of the political


About the Author

Athena Athanasiou is Professor of Social Anthropology and Gender Theory at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece. She is co-author, with Judith Butler, of Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Polity Press, 2013). She is the author of Life at the Limit: Essays on Gender, Body and Biopolitics (Athens, 2007) and Crisis as a State of Exception: Critiques and Resistances (Athens, 2012). She is editor of Feminist Theory and Cultural Critique (Athens, 2006), Rewriting Difference: Luce Irigaray and 'the Greeks' (SUNY Press, 2010) and Biosocialities: Perspectives on Medical Anthropology (Athens, 2011).


This book is a theoretically exciting, rare example of Arendtian storytelling, a theory of the political at its best. While telling a story about intersecting processes of agon and mourning, it raises the political investment of the uncompromising feminist movement Women in Black to a new level of presentation.

- Daša Duhaček, University of Belgrade

This is a brilliant and readable book that has the great strength of bringing social and political theory together with engaging ethnography.

- Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley
This is a powerful book in many ways: Athanasiou has accomplished something that is not to be underestimated in bringing a substantial archive of political, social and anthropological theory to bear on her ethnography of Women in Black.
- Sara Murphy, New York University, Contemporary Political Theory

This is a passionate, engaged and philosophically complex book. It is a powerful meditation on the politics of mourning. In one place, Athanasiou recalls interviewing Slavica Stojanović, a member of ŽuC, who tells her: 'Ours is a cruel mourning. It is a mourning without sentimentality.' This radical vision of agonistic mourning – which involves public dissidence and the creation of haunting symbols and compelling counter-memories – is what animates Women in Black throughout the globe. In our century, it is one way to forge more socially just worlds.

- Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck, University of London, Times Higher Education

The somewhat dense prose that results is brought to life by Athanasiou's sensitivity to ethnographic detail, through which an activist's preference for black clothing or her passion for reading Virginia Woolf, for example, become pivots around which a complex theory of radical politics speaks to the lived experience of activist subjectivity. Agonistic Mourning might be considered a robust defence of theory as a way to speak not only about but also with our interlocutors.

- Fiona Wright, University of Cambridge, Social Anthropology

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