Friday, 1 April 2016

Ubiquitous Obituaries

An early feature of 2016 has been the popular belief that it's turning into a shit year because so many famous people have died in the first quarter. Newsweek called it a "celebrity death epidemic", as if mortality was now an aspirational disease. One explanation is that we mark certain years as black-edged in response to wider gloom, such as 2009's "Summer of Death". Another explanation is that it's due to Aaron Ramsey scoring goals, though as he is now out injured we must look to pin the blame for Ronnie Corbett's demise on another footballer. At one level this is just an atavistic desire to find meaningful causation in a baffling universe. At another level it's just a hilarious wind-up. The mundane truth is not that the ranks of celebrity are being disproportionately affected, as they were during the late-80s and early-90s due to AIDS, but that there are a lot more people who count as "slebs" today (I had never heard of Denise Robertson before her death) and a greatly expanded range of media churning formulaic content.

There are also structural forces at work that reflect the change in media consumption. As Paul at When Cowards Flinch notes, "the recent upsurge of celebrity deaths is probably not because lots more people with talent worthy of celebrity status are dying than normal, but that we are moving into an age where people who became celebrities on TV are dying". This is not just because the medium of TV increased the population of celebrities from the 60s onwards but because it provided greater emotional engagement, even for a casual viewer. Before TV, an author's death would be of limited interest beyond his or her readers, while a stage-actor at the RSC could be widely unknown if she had never appeared on screen. The death of a TV personality (like stars of cinema since Valentino) would generate wider interest simply because many viewers were likely to have watched him or her at some point and would recognise the face. The power of TV can be seen in the fact that the obituary coverage of writers now correlates with screen exposure, both of the person and the work. For example, the reports of Harper Lee's death featured as many pictures of Gregory Peck as of her.

There was an earlier example of this lagging effect in print media when British newspapers entered the golden era of the 1950s and 60s following the end of paper rationing. This period was distinguished by, among other things, an increased focus on celebrity deaths as news and a parallel expansion in the scope of obituaries beyond the establishment figures that had provided the traditional focus of papers like The Times. Now, alongside the soldiers and diplomats that only an elite were familiar with, newspapers published obituaries of popular entertainers, sportsmen (and a few women), and various middle-tier worthies from politics and industry. By the 1980s, this had extended to career criminals, counter-culture figures and notable terrorists. This development can be traced back to the growth of the mass-market dailies that had done so much to publicise the careers of these new subjects during the century (The Daily Mail was first published in 1896, The Daily Express in 1900 and The Daily Mirror in 1903).

While TV obituaries remain elitist, investing a lot of attention in a small number of people, there has been a shift in newspapers towards what were called "common man" obituaries in the pre-Internet years, for example the 'Other Lives' section of The Guardian. This has increased the number of people deemed worthy of note but with a bias towards the celebration of bureaucratic achievement or community activism. Given that obituaries are ideological exemplars, this "democratisation" still reflects class division, with the plain folk quite literally in their place at the bottom of the printed page. The further expansion of the print space devoted to obituaries in the 1990s reflected two related trends: the dying-off of the wartime generation, with their fascinating back-stories, and the growing popularity of social history seen through the prism of individual lives (i.e. relegating class and structural factors).

It also reflected the expansion of the professions and the welfare state in the postwar years, which produced many more people whose lives were defined by public service or administration. Together with the growth of the "popular" entertainment industry, from sport to TV, this helped redefine the concept of public esteem from individual excellence and spectacular achievement to "doing one's bit" and peer-group admiration, which chimed with the British taste for under-statement and the nostalgia of "our finest hour". A typical obituary from around the millennium would have featured a "good war", marriage and kids in the 50s, career success in the 60s and 70s and charitable works thereafter, with perhaps a tangential reference to a "beloved" football team or holiday cottage. While there is still room for polar explorers and other consciously anachronistic heroes, we are now in a golden age of obituaries of well-liked teachers and reliable civil servants.

The attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 marked a further development with the emergence of the comprehensive group obituary, most famously The New York Times' Portraits of Grief project, in which every victim of a mass-killing was honoured with a thumbnail sketch that hovered between a plain death notice and a eulogy. As seen in the recent examples of Paris and Brussels, this is now a standard feature of the coverage of terrorist attacks in the West, leading to anxiety if even a single person is omitted or left as a silhouette in the gallery of victims. In contrast, terrorist attacks elsewhere, such as the recent suicide-bombing in Lahore, where more than twice as many died as in Brussels, tend to include only selective references to representative victims within a news story, suggesting both a lack of perceived individuality and an insignificance beyond a Western agenda.

What the inclusive development marked by 9/11 suggests is that an obituary is becoming an expectation for many in the developed world, not least because social media has further democratised the idea of a written summing-up of our lives: "Dying is no longer a private act; it takes place on Twitter and Facebook, where users’ personal pages become makeshift memorial sites after their passing". That quote's suggestion that nothing can be wholly private is contentious, but there is a truth in the idea that your social media presence is effectively a preparation for the final accounting, and should be curated with that goal in mind. A similar valorisation of "sharing" is evident in the belief that the public career of a distant celebrity allows us to "know them" sufficiently well to write narcissistic pieces along the lines of "What David Bowie meant to me".

Given the growth in online reputation management and the development of news-writing software, it is surely only a matter of time before a bot is capable of crafting an obituary for a majority of people in the developed world based on their digital footprint. It probably won't be any less misleading than the traditional newspaper obituary, many of which were censored by the subject in advance or by the surviving family (or press agent) at the time of death. In this sense the democratisation of obituaries can be thought of as an analogue of financialisation: the extension of debt to most members of society and the associated increase in the importance of personal credit-ratings and public trustworthiness. We are all leading lives of performative significance and dying is our final act of reputation management.


  1. Herbie Kills Children3 April 2016 at 11:26

    "development with the emergence of the comprehensive group obituary, most famously The New York Times' Portraits of Grief project, in which every victim of a mass-killing was honoured with a thumbnail sketch that hovered between a plain death notice and a eulogy."

    This is telling. If they tried to do that with the millions killed by US imperialism there wouldn't be enough people on the planet to gather the appropriate data!

    1. It's worth noting that this development is not just limited to officially-sanctioned martyrdoms but has begun to spread to areas where the liberal wing of the establishment critiques the autoritarian, for example The Guardian's project on deaths due to police killings in the US: The Counted.

      What this shows, I think, is that "obituarisation" is a broader social phenomenon rather than just a means of distinguishing laudable lives for ideological purposes.

    2. I think it's another step in the 'socialisation' of grief and victimhood that has been steadily rising, probably since the death of Princess Diana. If you're not publicly demonstrating your sympathy for the deceased, either by laying flowers, writing in books of remembrance or changing your facebook profile, then you're judged to be callous or even secretly glad about the death(s) in question.

      The idea that coping with death can happen in private or that different people deal with grief (or stress, or disappointment) in their own way is very difficult for many to contemplate, as is the notion that it is not necessary or beneficial to mourn for people you don't know.

  2. Herbie Kills Children4 April 2016 at 17:12

    We also see at it football matches when some supporter of the club dies and their image is posted on the big screen. I am sure this is somehow linked to things like Facebook and how that has changed the cultural landscape.

    But there is a distasteful element to every example, where clearly some lives matter more than others and in many cases, some lives matter not one jot!

    It is very clearly politicised at the state level, in that it has become a tool to influence the way people think. When I see how the French and Belgium flags were displayed at state events or minutes silence were called for in those cases I didn't think, oh, how nice. I immediately thought, here is an example of how the state attempts to control what people think. On the whole I think state mind control works pretty effectively. It also gives a sense of the collective, but from a left point of view, collective in the worst possible sense. The problem with modern communication is that these brainwashing techniques are far more effective and the old problem of totalitarian regimes not having enough control have now been overcome.

    It should be noted that the self proclaimed free states, such as the US, are the worst offenders when it comes to using totalitarian measures. We are getting to the stage where there claims to freedom are as ridiculous as the former communist states calling themselves democratic.

    On a wider note, I found the ice bucket challenge totally objectionable because it seemed more like twats showing off than any genuine care for anyone and often comes down to a deserving poor and undeserving poor. Not to mention the waste of water. What really put it into context was the rubble challenge, where Palestinians poured the rubble of their destroyed houses over their heads. As critiques of Western values go, this was pure genius!