I was asked today if I would consider writing something about the death of David Bowie and about public mourning. This is awkward timing. The subject of mourning has become a vexed and maybe unwelcome one for me. Having collaborated some years ago to produce the book Mourning Diana, I have from time to time received requests to comment on the public response to the death of public figures, on the meanings of public modes of observance – the laying of flowers for example, and on the psychology of celebrity and fandom, that are at times galvanised into public spectacle and popular discourse. In these earlier contexts, I often talked about transference and projection — the ways in which the passing of public figures and their mourning could stand in for more personal losses, or create moments of unexpected catharsis and identification with those things about which we cannot bring ourselves to speak, when they are close and touch us personally. We live in a culture that repudiates death even as it is cultivated through public policy – austerity is nothing if not a harbinger of social excommunication and lonely death. In public conversation, death is frequently discussed as an existential wrong (no child should die of…), or as ‘giving up’, or as a ‘lost battle’. Or perhaps it is not death that is repudiated, or not only death that is repudiated, but mourning – the accepting of loss, its empathetic identification, its non-heroic grievability – to draw inexactly on Judith Butler.
Of late, however, I have come to have a new vantage point on these questions. Like many others before and besides me, I have found a way to turn my own precarity into words and work, albeit in my case with a studied and distancing focus on culture rather than myself per se, or my relationship personally to that precarity. My most recent article for example, concerns the public culture of cancer as deployed through advertising and the pervasive idiomatics of survival – emblematised as a heroic figuration — the indefatiguable warrior of cancer survivalism. I see this as a cult, an insistent fantasy of the will – an offering, quid pro quo of willing life so as to have it. This is in distinction from the far less glamourous reality of those who survive it for a while, maybe for a long while, and of those who don’t. I’m not sure which one of those I’ll be personally.
My methodology for research has been immersive – I intensively embed myself in multiple media milieux in order to gain a larger insight about the rupture points and anxieties of the larger culture. I follow multiple trajectories and topics in the reportage arena for example – of which cancer is one of my designated topics. I collect, read and code every article about cancer that I find and that arrives via my personalised news-amalgamation apps. Strangely, this activity gives me distance from my own situation, even as it embeds me in its immediate context. I have found that I particularly like the Onion’s diabolically funny and contrarian treatment of the cancer culture – I find it bracing. I have greatly enjoyed Erin Gloria Ryan’s diatribes in Jezebel against ‘pink crap’. I like Clive James’ dilemma that he has outlived his own death – and how awkward this is. I think I enjoy these examples because they don’t require me to mourn. Indeed, they assist me in the endeavour of not mourning. There is something about mourning that crosses a threshold, where one must re-imagine without oneself, as if it is me who dies, if I mourn a death.
On the terrain of dying, I have found myself bothered most by two sorts of article – First are those written either by doctors grieving their patients or family members grieving the loss of loved ones, or sometimes their own impending deaths. With these, I find myself in a strange transference – identifying with those left behind, not the dying or dead themselves. Second are those that announce the death of public figures – a litany of deaths, relatively young, or perhaps not so young, but so vital in the public imaginary, that their loss strikes harder. I’ve been collecting them, wondering sometimes if that makes me a bit unhinged. These are public losses – people whose art or influence or even just name recognition mean that their departures leave a sudden, palpable, recognisable empty space.
When Diana died so suddenly, even so prosaically, the drama both evoked and sustained what was experienced by a great many as a suddenly, shockingly evacuated space in the fabric of the public imaginary. That she was so young was only part of it. That she was so pervasive was the other part. Even more than that her idiosyncratic way of being had already catapulted her public persona into a place of mourning – lauded and repudiated — her evidenced, mourning of the precarity of others, and of the grievability of those ‘othered’ by exclusion or injustice. At the time, I theorised that this in particular attracted and generated the vox populi of personal loss. That for those who experienced it that way, this was a loss of not only a sympathetic public figure, but one who was spectacularly so. And as such, it was a death that both contained and exposed ineffable griefs and that made speakable, filtered in many instances through a language of political hope, a myriad of social grievances – the desire for a better society, for equality, for empathy, for common humanity.
The death of David Bowie – which reportage suggests was not sudden for him – was nevertheless sudden for us. A death that has followed on the immediate heels of a birthday album. The release of this album, with its attendant rave reviews, presaged his next incarnation, his most recent reinvention in a career of amazing reinventions, the veritable rennaisance of his person as much as of his art — it could not more forcefully have bespoken aliveness. And then, suddenly, we are told he is gone. Maybe it is that dramatically misaligned juxtaposition that wrenches apart both the imagined intimacies and the structural distances between artists and their fans, or artists and their fellow artists, or public figures and publics. Some of the public mourning comes from those who, themselves part of the public realm, have lost a collaborator, a fellow artist, a history of sound and spectacle that informed their own in some way. Some comes from the multiple layers of fandom, those who found intimately beloved the soundtrack of their earlier selves or present selves. And some comes from those, like me, who would not mourn ourselves if we could help it.
Deborah Lynn Steinberg January 11 2016
Clive James’ columns in The Guardian at: <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/clive-james>
Kear, Adrian and Deborah Lynn Steinberg (eds). 1999. Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief. London. Routledge
The Onion. ‘Cancer Researchers: ‘Don’t Get Cancer’. November 18 2013. Vol. 49, Issue 47 <http://www.theonion.com/article/cancer-researchers-dont-get-cancer-34599>
Ryan, Erin Gloria. 9/11/13. NFL Should Ditch the Pink Crap and Recognise Domestic Violence Instead. Jezebel. < http://jezebel.com/nfl-should-ditch-the-pink-crap-and-recognize-domestic-v-1633196427>
Steinberg, Deborah Lynn. September 2015. ‘The Bad Patient: Estranged Subjects of the Cancer Culture’ in Body and Society Special issue ‘Estranged Bodies: Shifting Paradigms and the Biomedical Imaginary. M Shildrick and DL Steinberg guest eds. Vol 21(3) pp. 3-19