‘(Counter)topographical’ Reflections with Grief

by CIW

Life is populated by landscapes including those of fear (Tuan, 1980), loss (Hockey et. al., 2001), and mourning. As of the 9th January 2021, 1,906,606 people have died from COVID-19 worldwide (WHO, 2021). These deaths intensify the mark of a dark smudged thumbprint violently pressed against our foreheads1. This is the reality to which we must admit defeat and continue to live. This is what mourning is, “admitting defeat” (Flynn, 2007: 111) by Death. The story of my topography is a reflection on the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning. The methods I used to investigate these topographies were film, photography, and participatory interactions with non-human actors (trees). In the film, I particularly used the absence of sound (silence) to communicate, alongside imagery, the significance of Death and death I was reflecting on during the November lockdown. The countertopography of lockdown is one of crisis, both global and personal, political and existential. Countertopographies that illuminate the restrictive impacts of lockdowns on mourning practices have been effective in driving demand for increased bereavement support, while creative pursuits, like film, have widened and digitised mourning’s dimensions. Mourning is a landscape that colours the background of the contemporary world in a more palpable way because of the acute prevalence of Death and death at this time. This piece is dedicated to the ‘work of mourning’ – trauerarbeit (Freud in Min, 2002: 245) – and argues that it is an essential process to experience, in combination with an evisceration of SARS-CoV-2 cases and increase in vaccination capacities, for the pandemic to be resolved. Without trauerarbeit, in person or through digital methods, we will be ‘Generation Lost’, a spectra of peoples who continue to fear the great closure of life.

Figure 1.2

Topographies of grief and mourning

“Grief is the sequence of affective, cognitive, and physiological states that follows directly after an irretrievable loss; mourning, on the other hand, is a complex and lengthy process that begins with denial of the loss and, in its optimum course, proceeds toward the acceptance of both the external loss and the integration of multiple intrapsychic shifts” (Graves, 1975 in Graves, 1978: 875).

Grief is an ocean, vast but deeply personal. It “comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate daily life” (Didion, 2005/2006: 27 in Cornell, 2014: 302). Sometimes that watery grief spills out from your eyes. Other times it stays inside you, filling your lungs and eradicating your ability to vocalise. There is no one way to feel grief, but it is a feeling known and dreaded by all.

Mourning is a landscape whose shores we ebb closer to as the process of letting go, remembrance, acceptance, and surrender begins. We stumble across mourning until we reach new horizons for life’s encounters or new oceans for relapses into grief or new grief. And on the cycles goes ad infinitum. Mourning is work, active, kinetic. Grief can be perceived to be stasis, necessary to prepare for trauerarbeit. The journey is a cyclical movement of stasis and kinesis, which colour our map and shape our perceptions of the world.

The method of filmmaking as processual mourning

What is it one mourns? Death with a capital ‘D’ is the loss of physical life (Flynn, 2007: 108). Whereas deaths – lowercase – are the “many radical changes over which the individual” has no control (Flynn, 2007: 108). They “precede the Death that ends our becoming” (Flynn, 2007: 108). These can be things such as puberty, pregnancy, pandemics, or intellectual development. The small death is, therefore, transformation. These transformations occur whether the individual wants them to or not.

There is no one way to mourn, but the goal of ‘acceptance’ is commonly considered the conclusion of mourning. For Flynn, “it is possible to admit defeat [to the inevitability of Death] without accepting it or feeling peaceful about it” (Flynn, 2007: 111). Being able to remember deceased loved ones through images, memorials, and story sharing “signals the relocation of the knowledge about a person from present-tense to past-tense” (Flynn, 2007: 112). However, this is something prevented by the pandemic, when families cannot memorialise their loved ones. The mind, may, in these cases become stuck in grief, unable to move around towards mourning. Processes such as creation and co-creation of audio-visual pieces can be a step towards trauerarbeit. They allow a documentation of feeling, a sharing of images, something to mark and memorialise the dead.

I did not realise I was using film as a mechanism through which to mourn until I revisited my creation. Film worked well to etch the contours of grief and mourning because “mourning is a creative force” (Carel, 2007: 85). The particular techniques of my film that this analysis focuses on are silence, the lack of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, its interplay with darkness, the role of the more-than-human in facilitating the mourning process. My film is a particular kind of “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). Topographies “are simultaneously the detailed description of a particular landscape and the landscape itself” (Katz, 2004: xiii). As a research methodology, topography produces “‘thick descriptions’ of social relations, material social practices, and the construction of meaning…” (Katz, 2004: xiii). In my case, the topography is the description of the interactive oceanscape and landscape of grief and mourning, respectively through film. It is a singular experience within a countertopographical experiential web. With that in mind, let us walk into the silence and darkness together.

Silence, darkness, and the more-than-human

During editing, I found disturbance in the film’s original audio. I removed all audio with the intention of adding in a score alongside narration, but when it came time to edit in non-diegetic sounds I reconsidered. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were not hearing me tell them about my thoughts, but as they read the subtitles in their inner voice, the thoughts were simultaneously inside them and me. These thoughts, shared across time and space, contained infinitely differential meanings depending whose ‘mind’ is turning them over. Thus, the lack of audio is not inherently analogous to silence.

“A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact…the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech…and an element in a dialogue.” (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 11).

Though my voice is absent, I can still be heard. Images move us which we feel at the corporeal level. When images inspire emotions, affects, and thoughts we must continue “to the end of each emotion or thought. And after the end, what supervenes…is silence” (Sontag, 1996; 2009: 23). Through this immersion, watcher and creator die (transform) alongside each other. The synthetic removal of diegetic sound, creates acoustic space for thought-words, not spoken ones. Together, viewer, creator, deceased ancestor, and all the little deaths float together on silent waves, with only our thoughts to accompany us. We transform. Cultivating silence, stillness, is itself a task and, like mourning, is work.

The reason for addressing the auditory dimension first in this piece is that there exists an ocularcentrism in Western European life (Jay, 1993) which privileges the visual as “the noblest of the senses” (Jay, 1993: 31). Modern knowledges in Western culture “depend on a scopic regime that equates seeing with knowledge” (Rose, 2001: 7). To create images without using pictures to represent personal Deaths I encountered in 2020, I used a black screen with the word “(Good?)bye” (figure 2) which explores the interplay of darkness and silence.

Figure 2

The darkness of November yields the unknown but makes it simultaneously intimate, enveloping the body. Even though light can symbolise hope, it can also be exposing. When we feel grief, it feels as though the world darkens, the pandemic may be considered a ‘dark time’, but in Crawford’s (2020) Fear of a dark lockdown, darkness is inverted. Her topography notes how darkness can instead incite rest, creativity, and transformation. Darkness, therefore, is an opportunity for restoration and creation. Themes that colour the backdrop of this frame.

This frame plays smoothly when viewing, but in editing was spliced into four to represent the four familial (extended and immediate) Deaths that occurred during 2020 for me. The reason no distinction was made between the four is because memories blur into one as Death has permeated every moment of the cycles of lockdown. This intra-cyclical shot compresses the Deaths and their temporalities into visual and orthographic representation to mirror that there were no spoken goodbyes.

[…]

Perhaps, there is no need for speaking. Western cultures suffer from the social compulsion to speak for the sake of speaking (Connerton, 2011). Indeed I question (“?”) the adjective “good” in goodbye – the main word we are supposed to say – because bidding adieu to loved ones never feels good. And yet, the Death of another family member resurrected a stream of connection with my cousin that had broken down a decade ago. Even in the elimination of the earthly body, an individual may die twice. Once, with their Death and again, with the Death producing a death (transformation), bringing people together again. There is no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the ‘bye’ – just an intimacy that touches us in different ways.

The most intimate Death, my grandmother’s, happened in May. However, upon the Death of my grandmother, I had not died (transformed) though a mark in time – a distinction between life with and without her physical presence – had been made. My death came a year earlier, when I returned home early from my travels to care for my grandparents. I became ‘woman’ through this role reversal of care-receiver (child) to care-giver (adult). This was in amongst and upon the background score of the pandemic. It throbs, the new soundtrack to these years of life, with grief and mourning providing healthy and painful melodies.

Indeed, when looking across to other topographies in the countertopography of lockdown, deaths are represented almost entirely with sound, through voice and melody. Inglis’ (2020) piece focuses on duality of walls and screens as incarceration and shield (figure 3). It greatly juxtaposes my own topography, with words articulated through song. His melancholic expression of the small deaths (the transformation of walls and screens) is achieved through the melodies and French, Spanish, and Basque vocals which provide him with escape, his own lamentation of the death of freedom.

Figure 3. Inglis (2020). The duality of transformation (death).

Upon rewatching and re-exploring my own topography, I realised how I embraced letting go through non-verbal conversations with the more-than-human. I was experiencing a trans-species mourning. In a small grove a tree leaned over, split open all the way from base to crown (figure 4). The empirical landscape has its own audio-visual markers of Death and decay.

Figure 4.

I sat listening to its creaks and groans as it told me its story without words. A cracked body, invaded by a fungal pathogen, soon to return to humus. This type of injury is grave for a tree. Though it may appear alive for many more decades, it is dying.

I remember wanting to restore its health, but the damage is so severe. I had to accept that it would die, but visual methods have allowed me to immortalise this tree in pixels. The shared experience of Death across species boundaries brought acceptance and a sense of surrender to the inevitable. We sat silently talking for a long time.

This trans-species interaction features in other topographies. Thomas’ (2020) audio work describes listening to a fig tree as he tracks its journey into being: “climbing up the wall from past to future” (2:09). These ancient guides teach us what it is to be and to die. This realisation was ‘magical’ (Millner, 2013) to me in that “‘magic’ is what happens when we allow the more-than-human world to invite us into participation on its own terms” (Millner, 2013: 39). I noticed the tree because the tree noticed me.

Interacting with the more-than-human has brought me to the realisation that there is no forward. Only around and across the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning, while this journey edges us closer to some semblance of acceptance or surrender.

Limitations of topographies and countertopographies

Topographies have a situated nature which, like situated knowledge, “assumes knowledge at a single point, the knowing subject, and the particularity of that subject’s vision is both its strength and its downfall” (Katz, 2001: 1230). My rendering of grief and mourning is a particular experience, but it is limited if unconnected with another topography. Connection is also essential in mourning; it is made easier by the “understanding and accompaniment of another” (Cornell, 2014: 308) and so other topographies that represent the different deaths and Deaths encountered during the COVID-19 November lockdown depict – in audio or visual senses – the commonality of acute D/death. Countertopographies that dialectically speak to one another can be healing for creators in addition to the catharsis individual topographies may provide.

What unites the topographies of the November lockdown is that they all – through their varying techniques – showcase an element of the countertopography of crisis. However, perhaps a strong limitation of countertopography is that one may identify a common experience in different localities that manifests differently, but in the matter of a pandemic (as unique as it is) these topographies are just as isolated as their creators. The pieces do not intimately interact in and of themselves with another creative piece. Had, however, they had exposure to one another and then revised versions were produced to generate comparative countertopographies, the project could incorporate the uniqueness of an individual’s qualitative lockdown experience and the solidarity individuals find in sharing a commonality with one another. This is not the same as retroactively finding links between topographies.

Without the communication between topographies, there is a significant risk that the knowledge of the countertopography’s existence is only known by the researcher. The countertopographical method would only therefore be meaningful to someone who presupposes there is a countertopogaphy to analyse, which may score deeper the divisive lines between researcher and researched.

Political value of co-created countertopographies

Countertopography was invented to be subversive and the political aim of countertopography is to “link different places analytically and thereby enhance struggles in the name of common interests” (Katz, 2001: 1230). Countertopographies are meant to counter something, which, here, would be the November lockdown. So, if the countertopography is that of the lockdown one needs to ask what exactly about the lockdown is it countering? The lockdown rules? The homogenisation of the experiential dimension of lockdown? It is not clear and so the political value remains elusive. However, when topographies are located in a theme – such as grief and mourning – it becomes clear where a political value can be found.

In their paper, Aguiar et al., (2020) documented that family members could not visit other terminally ill family, corpses were not able to be dressed for burial but were kept, naked, in waterproof bags (Aguiar et al., 2020). Family members who could attend funerals could not demonstrate physical affection to their family who were in distress (Aguiar et al., 2020). Indeed, standing beside my aunt and sister at my grandmother’s funeral and not being able to hug them as they cried felt like a cruelty. We all stood in our grief, only able to hold ourselves. A result of this separation is that it is “more difficult for the bereaved to grasp the reality of the loss” and, because of this, “grief reactions may intensify” and adjustment to this new reality is more difficult (Aguiar et al., 2020: 543-544). Due to this though, new ways to grieve and mourn may be found (digitising mourning for instance). In healthcare, Aguiar et al., (2020) recommend that “written material for follow-up contacts, the availability of hospital and/or community-based grief support systems, mental health services as well as spiritual and religious care should be considered” (544). These novel supports are being created and demanded in response to the conditions under which people were having to mourn in the beginning of the pandemic. The countertopography of grief and mourning pushes for institutional change.

Commonly “the process of mourning is so often forestalled, medicated, or pathologized. It so often seems easier to hope for a quick recovery, to look away and avoid the anguish” (Cornell, 2014: 309). Being able to be beside the Dead compresses grief in reassuring and uncomfortable ways. It allows us to say goodbye and reminds us of our own eventuality. Being silent slows time (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 17); it “is a practice of emptying, of letting go…hollowing ourselves out so we can open to what is emerging” (Weller, 2015: 96).

Mourning ‘around-ward’

There is no end to this reflection. It is a phase in my trauerarbeit. What has arisen out of the exercise is a realisation that those pains of grief punctuate the experience of life. Pain shows us how people touch us, how they move us, how, despite all our best efforts to convince ourselves of our independence, we need people and we need nature too. The pain of grief is a temporal, affective marker that reminds us of the alive-ness, value, and contribution to the earthly life of those Dead creatures and people. It reminds our bodies, by being something we feel, to appreciate that pain as much as the joy. It is what it is to be alive. To laugh, to cry, to hurt, to feel.

Until we meet again, in the next life and as the dust of the Earth…

This creative process and visual methodology has allowed me to start to say

Goodbye

Goodbye

Goodbye

Goodbye

[…]

Notes

1The cycles of birth, death, and rebirth are recognised in many cultures and religions. This particular imagery refers here to the dictum: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:9).

2 Figures which are shots from my topography are deliberately untitled. The reader is invited to read it in relation to their own affective response.

References

Aguiar, A., Pinto, M. & Duarte, R., 2020. Grief and mourning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Portugal. Acta Médica Portuguesa, 33(9), pp. 543-545.

Carel, H., 2007. Death and the Other: the ambivalence of mourning. In: A. Kasher, ed. Dying and death: interdisciplinary perspectives. Amsterdam: Brill, pp. 81-91.

Connerton, P., 2011. The spirit of mourning: history, memory and the body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cornell, W. F., 2014. Grief, mourning, and meaning: in a personal voice. Transactional Analysis Journal, 44(4), pp. 302-310. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0362153714559921.

Crawford, C., 2020. Video: Fear of a dark lockdown, University of Bristol, School of geographical Sciences, unpublished video, Bristol.

Flynn, M. P., 2007. Death and mourning: logistics and mystery. In: A. Kasher, ed. Dying and death: interdisciplinary perspectives. Amsterdam: Brill, pp. 107-118.

Geertz, C., 1973. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books. Genesis 3:9, Holy Bible: King James Version.

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Psychiatry, 135(7), pp. 874-875.

Hockey, J., Penhale, B. & Sibley, D., 2001. Landscapes of loss: spaces of memory, times of bereavement. Ageing and Society, 21(6), pp. 739-757.

Inglis, D., 2020. Dylan Inglis video project, University of Bristol, School of geographical Sciences, unpublished video, Bristol.

Jay, M., 1993. Downcast eyes: the denigration of vision in twentieth-century French thought.

Berkeley: University of California Press.

Katz, C., 2001. On the grounds of globalization: a topography for feminist political engagement. Signs, 26(4), pp. 1213-1234.

Katz, C., 2004. Growing up global: economic restructuring and children’s everyday lives.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Min, S., 2002. Remains to be seen: reading the works of Dean Sameshima and Khanh Vo. In:

D. L. Eng & D. Kazanjian, eds. Loss: the politics of mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 229-250.

Rose, G., 2001. Visual methodologies: an introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London: SAGE Publications.

Sontag, S., 1966; 2009. Styles of radical will. London: Penguin Books.

Millner, N., 2013. Incantations. In: J. Brigstocke & T. Noorani, eds. Listening with non-human others. Lewes: ARN Press, pp. 37-44.

Thomas, B. G. J., 2020. Ben GJ Thomas_Qual assignment 2, University of Bristol, School of geographical Sciences, unpublished audio work, Bristol.

Tuan, Y.-f., 1980. Landscapes of fear. Oxford: Blackwell.

Webster, C. I., 2020. , University of Bristol, School of geographical Sciences, unpublished video, Bristol.

Weller, F., 2015. The wild edge of sorrow: rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief.

Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

WHO, 2021. WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. [Online]
Available at: https://covid19.who.int/ [Accessed 9 January 2021].

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