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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Community and the politics of mourning in the work and world of David Wojnarowicz Giffen, Sheila Jane


This thesis analyzes the writings of New York artist, David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and the forms of activism that were inspired by his work as sites through which to examine the contours of politics and community in late 1980s and early 1990s New York. In his collection of autobiographical essays, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991), Wojnarowicz proposes an alternative model of selfhood and confronts his own mortality, thereby disrupting the category of the bounded individual in favour of a self that is beholden to others. His text offers an ethical revelation by asking why some deaths matter more than others – more specifically, how the death of a queer man from AIDS is perceived to be less tragic than the death of a middle-class child in America. Wojnarowicz’s reflections on the politics of mourning were taken up by activists following his death in 1992. In particular, passages of his writing insisting on the need to make mourning public inspired a series of political funerals and protest actions. My project questions an argumentative logic that insists artists and activists directly refute and undermine biomedical regulation through their work. Engaging with such arguments, I advance a reading of both Wojnarowicz’s writings and the protests his work inspired that considers the difficulty of formulating acts of resistance within a biopolitical order. Wojnarowicz’s art and the public memorial actions that followed his death enable a reimagining of community and politics through mourning in the midst of the AIDS crisis. They do so by enacting an alternative model of selfhood, confronting mortality and inspiring a politicization of grief.

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