Look and Despair: Probing an Apolitics of Mourning Look and Despair: Probing an Apolitics of Mourning

Visual artist: Chess Mclean

Death and the City#2 Death and the City

Simon van der Weele

Joanna Newsom
New York City

Look and Despair: Probing an Apolitics of Mourning

Death saturates my impressions of the city I live in. I see death when I mindlessly gaze at timeworn buildings, when I hurriedly pass public statues, when I skim faded memorial plaques, walk by museums, or trudge past monuments and other historical sites. Time has left its traces in the city, and its traces are death and loss; the sense of things having ended. Wandering the city means being constantly reminded of the passing of time and confronted by appeals to mourn the many lives concluded before ours, even before the start of ours.

Yet even if death has shaped my city, its visibility is not a given fact. Cultural historian Andreas Huyssen understands our deathly cities in terms of a ‘contemporary public obsession with memory’ (17): he thinks we counter our fear of a swiftly changing world with a reflex of memorialization, desperately hanging on to traces of the past to retain a sense of continuity with this past. This obsession with memory has us build countless monuments in remembrance of the dead – monuments we hardly notice or outright disregard, as they blend in with the miasma of images that drench us as we traverse the modern cityscape.

Paradoxically, then, our inclination to render concrete and visible the pain of historical losses in an attempt to preserve some idea of where we come from achieves only the opposite: the erasure of these memories from our day-to-day impressions of the city. In this way, mourning becomes something trivial, the performance of which is carried out by some architectural form in lieu of any work of mourning we do ourselves. Although we build monuments to remember, their bland ordinariness ironically fails to reach out to us, blank-faced when facing yet another marble inscription or vaguely abstract granite statue. The sheer ubiquity of death has us forget the lives we lost.  

When Joanna Newsom sings and warbles her characteristically wordy Sapokanikan (2015), her performance marks an attempt to excavate and expose the layers of death and loss we have, as it were, erased from our cityscape by exposing them in full view. In the video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Newsom hops and skips through New York City while narrating (or at least alluding to) some of the obscurer fragments of its history: she mentions the native American burial grounds hidden beneath Washington Square Park, the sudden death of the ‘boy mayor’ John Purroy Mitchel, and the Lenni-Lenape king Tammanend, who presided over the titular village Sapokanikan that once stood on the land now known as Greenwich Village.

For Newsom, the invisibility of these histories relegates their long-lost protagonists to one and the same place. In the fantasy of Sapokanikan, she conjures up a repository of lost and forgotten lives, where the mother and child that hide behind Titian’s Tobias and the Angel find themselves ‘interred with other daughters / in dirt in other potter’s fields’. Here, they join the potter’s fields that are surmised to be harbouring about 20,000 graves beneath Washington Square Park, the populace of which, as Newsom imaginatively notes, now hears ‘above them, parades’ whose pounding ‘mark the passing of days / through parks where pale colonnades arch in marble and steel’.

These marble colonnades join together to form Washington Square Arch, the monument that serves as Newsom’s main object of reflection throughout Sapokanikan. The arch was built in 1879 to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s presidency. An inscription of his words girdles the monument’s roof: ‘Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.’

Newsom laments this hand of God, which for her figures as the course of history, the inevitable passing of things and their eventual disappearance, either in flesh or in memories. Even a monument as sturdy and durable as Washington Square Arch is fated to be buried beneath ever more layers of sandy, dusty, muddy history. In the video, we find Newsom perched on a bench in the snowy Park as she sings how ‘the snow falls above me’, threatening to bury, flatten and efface her just as Sapokanikan is now ‘sanded and bevelled / the land lone and levelled’, a secret hiding beneath Greenwich Village’s vibrant art scene. Surrounded by a thick pack of snow, her presence is already beginning to falter, the video intimates.

Of course, the erasure of the Native American settlement of Sapokanikan from what we think we know about New York City is above all a political fact informed by centuries of oppression, but Newsom is not primarily interested in politics here. Indeed, when in the climax of the song she fantasizes about a post-apocalyptic hunter who stumbles upon the ruins of Washington Square Park to ‘look and despair / and see with wonder / the tributes we have left to rust in the parks’, she is concerned with how forgetting can be arbitrary and cruelly capricious, not with how it can also be highly systematic, even actively steered – especially through the erection of monuments like the Arch.

To decide whom we remember and whom we mourn through our monuments is a political decision first and foremost. The story we tell about ourselves through the deaths we choose to remember can often serve to destroy even more lives that will go unremembered. In a response to the discourse of mourning that emerged in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Shruti Iyer rightfully notes that ‘[a] public sphere in the nation-state is constituted on the understanding of whose deaths are not to be publicly honoured: those in whose death the state has a measure of culpability, those in whose lives the state had no interest.’ Some lives appear more likely to be mourned than others, and whether or not we mourn them reveals much about whom we care for and whom we are willing to defend, by blood if necessary. This is what Judith Butler has called the grievability of a body; and this grievability is determined politically first and foremost. The magnitude of the public response in the West when confronted with terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris in the same week was telling enough: one passed by, virtually unnoticed, another had us paint our profile pictures in shades of national pride and solidarity.

But Newsom approaches the problem of grievability altogether differently. She worries not about the ways in which we fail to remember some lives, but about how we end up failing to remember any lives at all. ‘Look and despair’, she coos, almost whispering, as the song draws to a close: look at what we are bound to lose. Newsom responds to the unwavering, unerring ‘hand of God’ that buries all that we love under the rubble of time by embracing what I call an apolitics of mourning. ‘Do you love me? / will you remember?’, she implores, managing to sound both mournful and cheerful at once; and then: ‘I fell, I tried to do well but I won’t be / will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me?’ Newsom sets out to counteract the triviality of loss – and the threat of her being lost – by pleading for intimacy, for the loving memories of a ‘you’ who is close to her (her lovers, her friends, her audience). She pleads for a work of remembering and of mourning, not through the faceless pomposity of public displays or monuments of grief, but through the loving, warm, affective gesture of mourning in me, for you, in recollection and remembrance.

Newsom’s call for a more intimate, private grief is apolitical in the sense that she ignores the conditions that determine the operations of remembering and forgetting. But it seems to me that when Newsom calls on the intimacy of mourning, what she is after is not to depoliticize mourning as such, but rather to rescue mourning from pure impossibility. Her melancholy is not self-indulgent. When mourning becomes banal, like it does in my city, which begs for my grief at every other corner of the street; when a monument’s pleas for mourning go unnoticed by city dwellers, who let their surroundings wash over them in endless streams of not-quite-stimulation – in these circumstances, perhaps mourning ceases to be a political question, as it ceases to be anything at all. Newsom’s desire to be remembered, not publicly or institutionally, but quite simply by the one she loves, also hints to me at a way of overcoming this banality of grief, imbuing our tired notions of grief with new affect, new life. Sapokanikan proposes to mourn intimately and profoundly to counter the vicious violence of forgetting that comes with public discourses of mourning.

This apolitics of mourning cannot address how and why certain lives are more likely to be remembered than others. It cannot begin to replace or repair a public discourse of mourning, and neither should we expect it to. Yet at the same time, I do believe that empathy begins in intimacy, in the privacy of close encounters, before it might branch out and reach the lives of others unknown to us. Loss is banal, perhaps, but it is not general and it is not slight. It matters who is lost, and when, and how. An apolitics of mourning might help us to appreciate the specifics of loss, beyond the lists of names, beyond the fading inscriptions, beyond the onslaught of visual representations of death and injury.

Certainly, Sapokanikan is one attempt to give such a face to the object of our grief. Newsom eloquently weaves together disparate memories to form a fabric of mourning and remembrance, invoking the lives of New York City’s earliest inhabitants (the 20,000 now resting beneath Washington Square Park) alongside King Tamanend, the ‘boy’ mayor John Purroy Mitchel and several covered-up characters of famous paintings. With each performance of Sapokanikan, this parade of forgotten losses is no longer forgotten – even if still lost. What saves this parade from turning into yet another monument with faded inscription is a certain generosity in Newsom’s prose: as she lavishly embellishes her lyrics with descriptive and narrative detail, her prose allows her characters to retain some of their eccentricities and particularities, so important for what I have called intimate mourning. There is nothing bland about Sapokanikan, nothing facilitating more blank-faced readership. As Newsom continues to perform Sapokanikan, so its characters will be spared of the insipid ordinariness of monumental anonymity, of being forgotten.

Perhaps we cannot mourn for Sapokanikan’s protagonists as we might mourn for our loved ones. But through mourning our loved ones, we might learn to mourn for them.


Note from the author:

I am indebted to the Genius.com community for helping me to figure out the meaning of some of the references in Joanna Newsom’s dense, eloquent, and richly detailed writing.

Simon van der Weele is a writer, researcher and care worker from Amsterdam. His obsessions include the politics of care and the ethics of grief. He is currently looking to publish his MA thesis, Mourning Without Loss, which deals with the impossibility of mourning strangers.


Works cited

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.   

Iyer, Shruti. “The Labour of Memory.” Novaramedia.com. 15 November 2015.

Newsom, Joanna. “Sapokanikan.” Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Drag City, 2015. Youtube.com.