Celebrity deaths & everything else: a quick 2016 study

December 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

“2016 was shit” is a sentiment that’s spreading across the web like a mournful chant, perhaps verging on an exercise of group healing. &, yes, it was a shit year; but not for the list of celebrity deaths which is the context in which it normally appears — Bowie, Rickman, Lee, Prince, Ali, Wilder, & Cohen are among the names you’ll come across. As a private phenomenon, I am personally saddened by many of these deaths, but as public spectacles I feel much is betrayed about western society: the way it conceives of death, celebrity, & its indifference to global inequality.

While some celebrities used their exposure to resolutely advocate for important causes — Carrie Fisher for mental illness & George Michael for gay rights, as the most recent “victims” of 2016 — they serve a rather more sinister function: to keep the general public quiescent & unengaged. Following what’s happening in hollywood [purposefully written in lowercase, as capitalisation is a mode of showing respect], allows for the illusion of keeping up to date with the world’s affairs & gives one something to talk about at cafes or parties.

There is a second function of celebrity that doesn’t appear in the hyperlinked Guardian article by George Monbiot which deserves attention. This is to assure the global cultural centre. Looking at that list of celebrity deaths more closely, you will see that not only are they all from North America or the UK, but they are also dominantly male, all cisgender, & all in the entertainment industry. They are embodiments of the values that the global cultural centre assigns. These are by no means universal values, but they are spreading by a process that is variously called globalisation, homogenisation, or cultural genocide/suicide. This is a pseudo-Darwinist approach of interpretation where the most profitable culture will survive — we see already that this culture will be anglophone, gendered with a bias towards men & traditional family models, be white or at the very least marketable to white audiences since they earn & consume the most, & it will propagate vacuous values.

When will we stand up to & against cultural homogenisation? When does profit stop being the measure of survival? Who will take part in a boycott of centrist media & say new york is not my centre, hollywood does not represent my principles? When will we take the project of basing culture on less destructive values seriously? 2017? &, most importantly, when will we respond to the deaths of those people which western culture makes out to be inevitable?*

2016 was shit. To begin with, we might look at some of the institutional failures. The effects of global warming, for example, which continues to be ignored by policy-makers even as the evidence piles up; the un climate change conference [December 2015, admittedly not quite 2016] did not make binding obligations on the 195 participating countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also throughout the year, the european union was consistently losing on legitimacy what with its refugee deal with Turkey, the rise of right-wing leaders in western & central europe, & the actualisation of brexit. Nowhere have we seen immigration policies that comply with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but neither have we seen a sufficient response from activists. Furthermore, the eu has lost touch & influence with geopolitical landscapes in crucial zones, empowering other interventionist sides with fewer checks & balances. In the united states, the beginnings of a race war are no longer under the surface & the election of Donald Trump which will only aggravate this & other issues in the imperial super-power.**

But what truly marks 2016 as shit is the “inevitable” deaths of Others [notice the capital letter here]. Their deaths are treated as natural for the most part; their deaths don’t incite public grieving. The time has come to face this discrepancy in who dies in the eyes of the west [ironically, it is the immortalised celebrities] & who is tallied, for it is this that lets slip the truth of just how narrow the circle of “we” is. The west’s unhealthy ways of dealing & understanding death are a big part of the reason that conflict in Othered spaces can be ignored there. Today, fighting is carefully contained on territories that fall outside of the west’s circle of “we”. As the nature of war changes, civilian deaths are exponentially increasing in number & in order to truly oppose this, we must change our culture around death. The New Inquiry has just published a list of suggestions of how the new global left can respond to imperialism in Syria: “Let 2017 mark the transition toward solidarity with oppressed peoples, not oppressive states, and opposition to depravity without regard for the identity of the wicked”. I couldn’t agree more with the authors Davis, Chehayeb, & Mrie; to their recommendations, I want to add that we need to radically change the way we understand death in order to achieve solidarity with oppressed peoples. There is something terribly wrong if we feel outraged & experience an existential crisis at the death of one unknown person, but ambivalence at the deaths of one hundred thousand [or more].

What’s at stake goes well beyond the dead in Syria or its 4.8 refugees & 6.3 million internally displaced people. We must also address how the project of globalisation, homogenisation, or cultural genocide/suicide forcefully wipes out entire ways of being, cultures & subcultures alike [& therewith take away alternative systems of organization]. “With the triumph of this neo-Darwinian approach to history-making, apartheid under various guises will be restored as the new old norm. Its restoration will pave the way to new separatist impulses, the erection of more walls, the militarisation of more borders, deadly forms of policing, more asymmetrical wars, splitting alliances and countless internal divisions including in established democracies”, writes Achille Mbembe in last week’s important article The age of humanism is ending. There is no indication the new year will be better than the last. The problem is that we have let culture slip out of our influence & enter the closed neoliberal capitalist logic. We must regain control of it & reassign new values that don’t end in one type of authoritarianism or another. But even then, it might be too late. Happy new 2017!


* The “we” here does not refer to our governments, which do take interest in foreign populations though not in the way I mean, but the “we” of popular culture consumers/sharers/creaters. It seems that we’re in the midst of making a new international leftist movement, & we have to protect it from cultural homogenisation

** I had previously published on personality-based rule in democracies; Trump would have been the perfect compliment to the study, but this foot-note nod to it will have to do


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