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Celebrity Death, Mourning, and Objects - Samiran Culbert

In Response to Henry Jenkins

Published onOct 06, 2020
Celebrity Death, Mourning, and Objects - Samiran Culbert

Celebrity Death, Mourning, and Objects

Samiran Culbert, Newcastle University

When I first read Jenkins’ paragraph, I was struck by how objects are one of the most important, but sometimes overlooked, components of media studies. In my research area, celebrity death, music, and social media, it is easy to slip into the assumption that physical objects are redundant, as we establish ourselves in an ephemeral and online space. However, in the loss created by death there is a search for tangibility. Objects provide a vessel through which people can funnel their mourning, to give it meaning, focusing on something present and ‘real.’ 

When faced with mourning a celebrity, the search for meaning is transferred to the objects we have near us. In the social media posts, I study, people post objects as surrogates of their mourning. For the majority of popular music’s history, we have meaningfully centred ourselves around media objects as fans. Records, concert tickets, photos of the artist, fan art, have all become means through which we celebrate our love of the artist, shaping our identity, memory, and values, in the process. When faced with the death of the artist, the ways in which we loved them, turn into the ways we mourn them.  

So why these objects listed above? Different forms of value, personal, collective, and cultural, are placed on different artefacts in these fan communities. We meaningfully, maybe accidentally, accumulate the objects which represent the artist to ourselves, with each embedded with a personal meaning or use. Records are obviously the means through which we listen, and connect, to the music, while concert tickets remind us of gigs we have been to and memories we have shared. Like an antique, provenance is a key facet of these values. If you have a photo of yourself with the artist, it holds more social value than a generic artist picture. While vinyl records hold more cultural capital than a plain old CD. This all exists in a complex mix of cultural value, fandom, and mourning behaviours.  

These objects also act as a bridge between the artist and the fan. They of course represent the artist, but also represent the meanings, identity, and biographies we have instilled into them. Value in these objects is personally linked, with each object presenting and representing something more than the object itself. Objects aren’t just personal however, as we exist in a blurring of the offline and online worlds, living experiences, mediating them, and then remediating them. The ‘stuff’ around us becomes a way to express ourselves outwards, tapping into the socially constructed nature of fan communities and a collective memory of affective objects.  

As each object is instilled with a different meaning deeply related to the personal biography of the mourner, it is intrinsically linked with the ways in which we want to be seen by the outside world. These objects don’t just live in the corner of our homes but are used as props; endless photographs are taken to get the right shot, endless positions are played with, as we curate our own lives. The online realm allows mourners to mediate objects together, where our offline and the online lives are displayed, engaged with, and remediated.  

Whenever an artist I love dies, I instantly look for the objects around me in which I can express my mourning. These objects help maintain, express, and present, my identity, my mourning, and my life in the aftermath of these deaths. In the process of displaying this mourning outward, the object allows me to tap into an online society of fans, each with their own objects to show. The object ultimately has two lives, acting both as a conduit for my memories and mourning, and as a shared object in our collective memory.  

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