Grief and the politics of memorialization

As I write this blog post, the sounds of war are deafening; we are watching a genocide in the making. I can’t help but think about all of those who are dead, killed by senseless violence. In the mainstream media, they are just numbers, nameless, faceless victims. Yet on digital social media, many of these victims have names, identities, and relations. This is what makes digital social media platforms so effective to those who share in the networks of mourning. They allow us to participate in a form of para-social mourning (Refslund-Christensen & Gotved, 2014; Klastrup, 2015), engaging in digital affect cultures that are in alignment with our sorrows (Döveling et al., 2018).

Social media platforms have, as Sumiala (2022) argues, ‘vernacularized’ death. They have brought it out of the closet of taboos, into the public sphere. At the same time, they have often contested regimes of worthiness that enshrine ideal victims. By doing so, these platforms bring to the light of history those who are considered unworthy, ungrievable (Butler, 2004; Harju, 2015; Morse, 2018), without having this agenda hijacked in the interests of prevailing hegemonies as is so often the case (Jiwani, 2014). Bonilla and Rosa (2015: 5) contend, “The increased use and availability of these technologies has provided marginalized and racialized populations with new tools for documenting incidents of state-sanctioned violence and contesting media representations of racialized bodies and marginalized communities.” Critically, these technologies have also allowed for forms of subjugated knowledge(s) and suppressed voices and experiences to come to the surface and challenge state-sanctioned amnesia for those who have and continue to be oppressed.

Digital memorial practices and the ‘obligation to remember’

Grief is not a discrete and staggered process; rather, it is a continuous process though its manifestations may differ as time passes. Memorialization, whether it is political or personal, or personal and political, allows memories of the deceased to be harnessed strategically – to continually press on the survivors, the ‘obligation to remember’ (Simon, 2005; see also Haskins 2007, 403).  It is this obligation to remember that drives my research on digital memorial practices which are both vernacular (Sultana et al., 2021) and spectacular in the sense of high-profile murders. At the same time, it is worth recalling Savoie’s (2010) analysis of how the particular (a single memorial) links to and reproduces the universal (the memorial culture), such that memorial culture evolves into a sedimented cultural artefact that is created, re-created and reproduced over time (see also van Dijck, 2007). It is a culture replete with micro-stories, as Giaxoglou and Spilioti (2020) argue, that are resonant with the social and political climates of those who are grieving.

While text and context are important in deciphering the content of digital memorials, equally important is the pace at which these memorials go viral and become condensed symbolic layers thick with meanings. Hashtags are a good example of this process as they act like an intertextual indexing system (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). Digital artefacts like memes, graphic illustrations and other artistic representations, constitute solidarity symbols that serve to cohere affective networks of sociality (Harju & Huhtamäki, 2021). These networks are underpinned by communities of practice, that are also memory communities (Silberman & Purser, 2012). Examining the symbols they utilize and the digital artefacts that they carry, offer us ways in which we can, through ‘thin description’ (Love, 2013), access the assemblages of mourning/witnessing that cohere around particular vernacularized and spectacularized deaths (Papailis, 2016: 442) Remembering is a political act.


Further reading

Giaxoglou, Korina, and Tereza Spilioti. 2020. “The Shared Story of #JeSuisAylan on Twitter: Story Participation and Stancetaking in Visual Small Stories.” Pragmatics 30, no. 2 (March): 277-302.

Harju, Anu. 2015. “Socially Shared Mourning: Construction and Consumption of Collective Memory.” New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia 21, no. 1-2 (December): 123-45.

Haskins, Ekaterina. 2007. “Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37, no. 4 (September): 401-22.

Jiwani, Yasmin. 2014. “Posthumous Rescue: The Shafia Young Women as Worthy Victims.” Girlhood Studies 7 (1): 27–45.