Recently, while taking a walk, I decided to phone my grandmother. I try to stay in touch with her as much as possible, usually through weekly or bi-weekly telephone conversations. And usually, upon hearing my voice, following her neutral “hello?,” there is a noticeable spike in the happiness of her tone. But when I called on this particular occasion, there was no neutral “hello;” nor was there a corresponding perking up in her voice. She was crestfallen, and I could tell that she had been crying. To hear my grandmother so out of sorts, so melancholy, my heart was gripped. When I asked why she had been crying, she responded by telling me that she had just been watching the televised memorial service for the recently deceased Whitney Houston. This struck me.
Upon hearing the news of Whitney Houston’s death, I admittedly felt very little emotion other than surprise. She was a figure beloved by millions, but not by me. And though I know her only abstractly as a celebrity figure, godhead to those taken in by what is, in my mind, “bad” music, my acknowledgment that she, as a human being, ceased to exist, frankly under-whelmed me. Though I hadn’t considered my lack of compassion regarding her death, I understood my reticence exactly: we can only make connections to certain people in particular situations; our subjectivity is shaped by the nature of local environments and the emotions of those few people we make lasting connections with. So was I heartless to care so little about the death of Whitney Houston, a distant abstraction in my mind, removed from the purview of real, immediate relationships? How could my gentle grandmother resonate so deeply with the death of the same abstraction?
Rather than trying to understand this quandary in terms of a tired critique of our celebrity worship, I think about the scenario in somewhat different terms: those of irony and death.
My distance from such figures as Whitney Houston, and the for the most part, the general climate of popular culture is, in a sense, an ironic move. In a way, I believe that my distance from figures like Houston is a way of ascribing to myself a sense of superiority. Though my inclination towards egalitarianism makes me shirk at the thought of describing myself as someone with good taste, I recognize that my cultural proclivities and intellectual endeavors betray a sense of distance that tells something of my perception of what it means to fill the cultural role of superiority. Such recognition is ironic, because my choice to generally decry popular culture runs against my competing belief that what one reads, watches, or listens to does not mark one as a better person. So how then could I conceivably reconcile this flagrant contradiction with the visceral feeling of hearing my grandmother crying at the experience of sharing in the event of Whitney Houston’s death?
What I take to be my implicit sense of superiority (though I like to act as though it’s not there) was brought to the fore of my mind when I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. With a lugubrious yet elegant tone, she described to me how beautiful the service was, how profound the outpouring of support, how moving was the impressive attendance. As I listened to her speak and lament, I became suddenly aware of not only my pretense, but how that pretense was undergoing what Jonathan Lear calls “ironic disruption.” That is, I became conscious of myself as a person aspiring towards something, in my actions and held cultural sensibilities, through an uncanny reconsideration of what that aspiration means; that sense of myself returned to me as something both familiar and profoundly disorienting. Stanley Cavell calls this the experience of the “ordinary.” And what attended this reconfiguration was the mournful yet placid sound of my grandmother’s voice, in profound appreciation for a woman she only knew as an exceptional celebrity. It was her sonorous sounds of mourning that arrested my pretense, my desire to control the fact that a human being had died through some snarky derision about her drug use or sordid life. In her voice was something approaching faith; and in my disruption was death saying hello.
When we are lucky enough to experience these moments of the ordinary, these experiences that remind one of faith’s possibility (and we all experience these moments), the thought of death inevitably emerges. With reminders of death, with births, in tone of voice and bodily comportment, death emerges as that one thing that makes us all the same. On this understanding of death, we dance arm in arm with its inevitability, present at all points of our life. But this “being unto death,” as Heidegger put it, needn’t be tragic. It is profoundly ironic, an anchor for both our pretense and grounds for the disruption of that pretense, the disruption of the rational will. When William James spoke of this disruption in his essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” he was, I think, suggesting something we can use to understand this ironic orientation toward our death:
“Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale.”
Our inattention to the other, an undue attention to our practical interests or rational reflections, can make us blind not only to others, but to the moments of disruption, the “becoming worthless,” that attunes us to death and anchors us to the joys of life. Such attunement is like an ironic dance with death, the possibility of transcending our pretense in connections with others.
But what do we make of these connections in the twenty-first century, when so much of what this possibility entails is implicated in the wonderful and horrible juggernaut of instant technology and globalization? My first inclination is to recoil. I want to see others face to face, hear sounds and see images somehow unmediated. But perhaps this is a misguided, quixotic ideal. In our fulfillment of social and cultural roles, in our questioning of those roles, we are always mediated; not simply by language, but by that human insecurity about what it means to live a meaningful life in the face of immanent death, by those disruptions that call into question the relationship between one’s distance from Whitney Houston and one’s closeness to one’s grandmother.
This insecurity will never leave us as long as we remain human. And now we liberate ourselves from this insecurity online, in the capacious world of hitherto unseen images, unheard music, and unmet people. The imperative toward local community and its attendant emotional dynamics may in fact be a foregone conclusion, but we still shape our identity through the tremulous search for connection and affirmation that betrays our ironic orientation toward death, the search for that connection that disrupts our sense of self, that makes worthless our practical roles.
To return to my grandmother, then, I think about how a woman much closer to death than I meaningfully engaged with the memorial service for Whitney Houston, and how hearing of her grief disrupted my sense of self. I still don’t feel moved by Houston’s death. But I think I understand better why we cannot ever escape our ironic stance toward death, why we can only continue to take it by the hand in waltzes; why the disruption of our pretense, our claims on the world, has to be, and is taking shape around us in new and profoundly interesting, perhaps even liberating, ways.