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Mourning Celebrity: The Public Sphere of Emotional Surrogacy

Unlike many of my peers who are struggling with the loss of George Michael on Christmas Day, I am conflicted by the reactions to Michael’s death.  From Owen Jones’ piece, which urges the reader not to “sanitise” Michael’s life while he does precisely this with an astonishingly omission of 1990s gay politics, to the Twittersphere, which abounds in the masses who express their shock over “the unusually high number of celebrity deaths” this year.  And then there are those voices which point out the obvious: that people are disproportionately concerned with high profile deaths over say, the 4,300 people shot in the city of Chicago this year.

Certainly, when we speak of untimely deaths, we must keep this term in perspective as should we with the word “mourning.”  Last week we witnessed the death of even more refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean bringing the figure thus far for 2016 to approximately 5,000 dead in that one sea alone.  And by the end of this year, the death toll in Syria will be well over 400,000 while in the UK today, two women per week are murdered by males.  And I could go on and on to list the many dead of 2016 such that the deaths of George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds might be put in their rightful perspective—namely that of the politicised deaths of celebrity whereby the only mourning that can truly occur are for those who actually knew these individuals.

Yet, we have witnessed various theatres of public mourning the in the west whereby members of the public beat their chests and cry while uttering, “Why?”  We first witnessed this with the death of Princess Diana when the first twenty thousand notes and flowers were laid at Kensington Palace in 1997 in which the British public was wrapped up in what Jonathan Freedland has term “seven days of bogus sentimentality.”  And this site of mourning was re-inscribed as the sacred, an inescapable totem against which nobody could contest, least of all shopkeepers who were pressured to keep their businesses shut on the day of Diana’s funeral.   Publisher and author, Carmen Callil states: “But at the time it all turned into group hysteria. It was like the Nuremberg rallies. I don’t like that sort of crowd reaction to things. It’s incredibly painful to watch and it’s not healthy and the populist media stuff really was a little sick. There was something quite awful about it.”

And sadly, this model of public mourning to include the letters, poems, wreaths and other floral arrangements along with physical public manifestations at the residences of the deceased has since become this ritual within the UK and the US. And dare anyone attempt to speak to the reality of the situation, especially on social media, the flame wars begin with people slagging off those who attempt to underscore that virtually nobody commenting on the death of the latest star actually knows them. At all.  And I am left reading these interactions only to ask myself what is actually going on here? Could it be that the death of a celebrity is co-opted by the public, in public platforms and social media as a surrogate to another sort of social intimacy? Could it be that the lack of the IRL (in real life) social has resulted in the alienation of humans from their actual real, live and local communities?

While one can argue that years are or are not arbitrary units of time or that what is deemed as an important death to the subject is entirely social and cultural, what is inescapable is that the celebrity life and death today has come to overtake all other matters within what used to be serious journalism. While certain media outlets like the BBC does not surprise with its populist quality of journalism, The Guardian has begun in recent years to likewise fawn over all things royal by covering stories that were once the subject matter of Hello or the Daily Mail.

In a study of the British press, Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill noted that  celebrity was one of the redefinitions of the “taxonomy of news values for the twenty-first century” (2001).  O’Neill revisits this thesis in 2012 and demonstrates how the British press has been effected by the value of celebrity:

Celebrity/entertainment news values would appear to have risen much higher up the hierarchy of news, guaranteeing extensive coverage if combined with other news values such as surprise and bad news. The findings give rise to a wider debate and concerns about the colonisation of celebrity news and dumbing down in so many areas of British journalism, and the implications for the public and educators…To argue that celebrity news is both empowering and an economic necessity, led by public demand, especially among younger readers, is both disingenuous and irresponsible: journalism shapes public consciousness as much as it reflects it. In a complex world that needs making sense of, educators and academics should not be endowing celebrity reporting with the same status or moral equivalence as public interest journalism (26-42).

So while major media covers the latest in celebrity breakups, the complexity of celebrity schedules, and various musings about “the meaning of” these deaths, the space between the intimate knowledge of the dead from lived, social experiences and the spectacularisation of death vis-à-vis the media has become blurred. Just as I can claim any identity today, I can likewise assert the pain of losing George Michael.  Reality, however, reveals another narrative entirely.  While our feelings of pain might be attached to the fact that an icon of on-screen and off-screen literary female empowerment has left this planet, the mourning has something very much to do with the self and not the unknown star whose personal essence was known only to her family and friends.  Our society must grapple with this synapse between our fantasy of the other—precisely why we publicly mourn a human unknown to us simply because of their resonance within media—and the reality that most people in the west are entirely disconnected from any tangible, physical community.

I must wonder if the waning of real life experiences and community are what have exacerbated the perception of the increasing numbers of celebrity deaths in 2016 when in reality—if we can dare speak of reality any longer— the media focus on celebrity life and death in an era where clickbait economically drives the news, thus allowing the reader to feel the loss of her community and of her own reality.  Indeed, this reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s construction of the hyperreal in his description of Disneyland:

You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit. In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that sufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect. The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total. Or rather: inside, a whole range of gadgets magnetize the crowd into direct flows; outside, solitude is directed onto a single gadget: the automobile. By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade. (593)

A world constructed of images that refer to the real while actual reality involving humans is shockingly absent, in remission to a preferred projection of media images of a person we would prefer to know over our bleak present of unfortunate economic and social actualities.  Indeed fantasy is preferable for many, but it is politically and socially disengaged and shockingly individualist as we revert to our social media bubbles to snipe at each other in The Guardian comment sections.  Long gone are the café discussions of once upon a time.  Or, as a psychiatrist friend told me a few years ago, “Now when I have clients who tell me about their boyfriend or girlfriend, I now have to stop them to ask if they have ever met this person in real life.”

In a series of monographs about American life based on his fieldwork in New England in the 1930’s, American anthropologist, W. Lloyd Warner noted how Memorial Day rites “are a modern cult of the dead and conform to Durkheim’s definition of sacred collective representations” (163).  Observing that the graves of the dead are the visual artefacts which “unify all the activities of the separate groups of the community,” Warner explains how Memorial Day is a “cult of the dead” which elaborates the sacrifice of human life for the nation whereby the “deaths of such men also become powerful sacred symbols which organize, direct, and constantly revive the collective ideals of the community and the nation” (164).

In this way, we might understand the totemic force of media today which attempts to render celebrity familiar through interviews with Oprah, previously unseen photos, and Twitter RIPs, structuring this imagined community of faux intimacy around the shared memories of a song, a movie, or a musical.  What a greater diversion to the aporia of our own emotional lives and escapism from the current political realities  than to have a week-long verklempt-fest over a person who, like many others, has died.  The Internet is quickly replacing the graveyard just as the literary salon has long ago faded behind firewalls.

At the end of a week of many deaths around the planet, I choose to interpret George Michael’s “Outside” beyond its original sense: a fuck off to the the Hollywood police which arrested him for his allegedly “lewd” act.   “Outside” is not only an invocation for everyone to cease hiding their sexuality and sexual acts—this song encourages everyone quite literally to “go outside” and flaunt their living, sexual, and social bodies.

Outside, in real life, and far, far away from our computers.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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