Panel Abstracts

The Existential Terrains of Gender and Death Online

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argued that in Western culture there is a deep felt connection between femininity and death. Through birth, corporeality and materiality, femininity has been associated with death, and masculinity with the soul, eternity and immortality. In the burgeoning death online field the internet has been described as eternal and as ‘heaven’ (Jakobi 2012) and could by consequence be deemed a ‘masculine’ medium. But according to students of software, the internet is culturally encoded as promiscuous and leaking and hence read as ‘feminine’ (Chun & Friedland 2015). In addition, as it is mainly women who are involved in communities of bereavement online, the masculinist tenancy of the existential realm seems to be challenged. What does being-toward–death online (Heidegger 1927, Kasket 2012) mean when cancer bloggers and members of support groups are very often women who share existential concerns, communicate with the dead, and thereby ponder our finitude as well as the beyond?

By aiming to remedy what seems like a neglect of gender within the death online field, and by developing an existential media analysis, this panel will bring these contrasting and paradoxical features to the table. It will address question such as: What type of feminist new materialism could account for the suffering female bodies who grab onto – while simultaneously constituting through embodied connectivity – mediated lifelines of shared vulnerability, online? What is the gender of the ‘right way to grieve’ within the continuing bonds-paradigm emerging in the death online context? How does the hyper-publicness of a previous taboo as those bereaved by suicide chose to mourn online, affect the culture of shame surrounding the topic, and does gender play into these normative shifts? And what is the role of online memorials for mothers in Russian society, where death culture evolved from archaic traditions of female mourners to the Soviet male funeral ceremony administrators, and back again - online.

The panel consists of four papers that represent work in progress within the research program ‘Existential Terrains: Memory and Meaning in Cultures of Connectivity’ at the Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University:

 

  1. Amanda Lagerkvist (& Yvonne Andersson): ”The grand interruption: death online and mediated lifelines of shared vulnerability”
  2. Timothy Hutchings: “Instrumental and emotional grief – gendered norms of mourning online”
  3. Michael Westerlund: Shame in transition: bereaved by suicide in the digital territory”
  4. Katya Linden: “Mothers mourning together: online memorials as a social network”
  5. Charles Ess: “Good Grief! Death, existenz, and the virtues of a post-digital era”

Presenters

Amanda Lagerkvist: The Grand Interruption: Death Online and Mediated Lifelines of Shared Vulnerability

This paper aims to shed light on two online phenomena in the contemporary Swedish context – blogs about terminal illness and support groups for bereaved online – and explore what they mean for those who chose to share their vulnerability online. We will show that in the shadow of the grand interruption – the moment when the life narrative itself is cut off because of imminent death or sudden loss – the studied online activities of mourners and the illness stricken, but also and more profoundly, the internet itself become literal lifelines, both individual and collective.

Studying various renditions of life line communication both enables and requires a re-conceptualization of our culture of connectivity as an existential and ambivalent terrain, in which we need to re-envision the media user as a vulnerable, relational and mortal exister (Lagerkvist 2016). With Web 2.0 death has returned to everyday life (Walter et al 2011/2012, Christensen & Sandvik 2014). But since the studied practices are dominated by women, they furthermore interrupt a type of masculinist tenancy of the ‘existential’. They partake in what Karl Jaspers (1932/1970) calls a truly ‘existential elucidation’ in both words and deeds, but also importantly through ‘affective encounters’ online. While we maintain that the ‘existential’ can bring important issues to the table in the debates surrounding digital media, we see the need to bring it into conjunction with our contemporary digital times, by forging perspectives from humanism and posthumanism into a productive if not tensionless conversation. In fact, for scholarship in the burgeoning field of death online, which focalizes the posthuman condition in a ‘thanatosensitive’ manner, debates on affect that stress the processual and vital character of being, and downplay death as overrated in human existence (Braidott 2010), evoke several questions: What of the end? What is the status of limits within the affective turn? And what can be said about suffering and inevitable death – the grand interruption – in this lively debate?

Timothy Hutchings: The Authority of Grief: Religion, Fatherhood and Loss

Since the accidental death of his infant son in 2016, this individual has engaged in a diverse array of online and offline work, directing his grief into theological reflection, public health advocacy and memory work. I will focus particularly on his use of Facebook, where he engages with an audience of many thousands of followers, and my analysis will be supported by interviews and conversations with the individual himself. We will use the work of Doka and Martin (2010) on grief and gender to explore how fatherhood is constructed in this communicative work. We will also reflect on the distinctive religious dimensions of this construction. 

As we shall see, this Christian individual draws on his experience of loss to position himself as a source of religious authority and pragmatic expertise. Through the hyper-publicity afforded by social media, he presents himself to his large online audience not just as a grieving father but as one who speaks with fresh insight about God and parenting.       

Michael Westerlund: Shame in transition: bereaved by suicide in the digital territory

Background: Digital communication on the internet has radically changed the possibilities for people to manage and communicate different types of grief. The ability to communicate virtually around the clock, to receive and provide emphatic support, to share experiences and to discuss taboo and stigmatized issues are key factors as to why bereaved people join digital grief groups. Some aspects of grief appear to be especially poignant after a suicide, such as shame, guilt, shock and rejection, which in some cases can lead to complicated and disenfranchised grief.

Aim: To examine how bereaved people are affected by shame after a relative’s/close friend’s suicide.

Methods & Material: A web based survey was made available on a suicide bereaved organisations website and Facebook group. The final sample consisted of a total of 327 bereaved respondents. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used to analyse the responses.

Results: Two thirds of the respondents used digital resources in their grief work. The respondents showed very high values for all perceived negative consequences after the relative’s suicide (e.g. depressive mood, meaninglessness, anxiety) except for shame, which was rated relatively low. A plausible explanation could be that the increased communication about suicide and its underlying causes on the internet have contributed to reduce the shame, taboo and stigma, at least for the participants in the present study, who to a majority were users of digital resources living in the ‘secular’ Global North. This was also present in the qualitative thematic analysis, where the respondents pointed to that communicating about suicide bereavement on the internet have had a ‘normalizing’ effect on the subject.

Conclusion: The observed reduction of shame and stigma can have an impact on disenfranchised grief, in that the grief after a suicide gradually may be more socially accepted and sanctioned.     

Katya Linden: Mothers mourning together: online memorial as a social network

In the age of social media, there are social networks for mourners as well. “Forever with us” (‪www.vechnosnami.ru) is however the only existing online memorial website for the Russian speaking world. Aside from allowing users to create memorials, it offers a variety of interaction possibilities. The absolute majority of its users are women who lost their children. They talk to each other in a very encouraging and sentimental style, however in practice, their communication is less of a constructive dialogue, but instead an exchange of presents, poetry, and pictures. The symbolical language of this network of bereaved mothers is special: the usual subjects are heaven, angels, sun, rain, flowers, tears, sweets, hearts and candles. Using the virtual currency mourners boost their memorials to the top of the main page, and present the deceased ones with their favorite pastries, or brands of perfume. My presentation will follow the history of Russian death culture from archaic traditions of female mourners to the silent Soviet male funeral ceremony administrators, and, finally, to the latemodern age of digital grief, where nothing is a taboo (Walter 1991). On “Forever with us” all types of mourning are acceptable, as far as there is someone who “likes” the newly published angel, lights a candle, and adds a memorial to “favorites”, creating an effect of constant connectivity (Hoskins 2009), and thus forming a peculiar picture of vernacular religion online (Bowman & Valk 2012).

Charles Ess: Good grief! Death, existenz, and the virtues of a post-digital era

I first review examples of grieving death and memorializing life online, including striking new forms of healing and comfort, as well as examples of people abandoning social media in favor of “real life” grief.  These link with broader developments. One, in both religious and existential traditions, acknowledging our mortality is essential to our creating our identity, relationships, and sense of meaning. Here I highlight recent work in the DIGMEX project, as focusing precisely on “the existential terrains” of meaning and memory in a digital era. Two, these existential turns cohere with the renaissance of virtue ethics and feminist ethics of care in Information and Computing Ethics, ICT design, and Digital Religion.

Next, I sketch similar connections with two larger turns, beginning towards a “post-digital” era as one that restores attention to the core roles of “the analogue” and feminist emphases on embodiment – explicitly countering Augustinian / Cartesian dualisms defining 1990s’ celebrations of the virtual as divorced from body and contemporary transhumanist dreams of digital immortality.  Two, the return of body, existenz, and mortality likewise counter broader Baconian and Cartesian visions of modern science and technology as restoring a Paradise free of labor, pain in childbirth, and death (again as defined by Augustine).

The reappearance of death online is thus a salutary turn away from largely destructive dualisms and the hybris of modern technologies, in favor of embracing our mortality, affirming the goodness of our existenz as embodied beings, and cultivating the virtues coherent with these, beginning with loving itself.