I wrote this paper for a course on Religion and Popular Culture in the spring of 2019.
‘’It is not actually death, but the knowledge of death,
that creates problems for human beings’’ (Norbert Elias)
A Hidden Spectacle?
Performativity, ‘Lazarus’ and the death of Bowie
On January 10th, 2016, British pop icon David Bowie (1947-2016) died at the age of 69. The moment of this death came at a particular moment in time: two days before Bowie passed away, perfectly timed with his 69th birthday, he released a new studio album called Blackstar. In Lazarus, one of the singles of the album, Bowie mystically sings:
‘’Look up here, I’m in heaven,
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now’’
The Lazarus video clip displays Bowie while he is lying on a hospital bed, pinching his blankets. A white lap with two nodes covers his eyes. Fans and critics alike quickly noted the many parallels between the lyrics, the clip and Bowies actual death, but they did not do so before the tide of his passing away. Bowies relatives publicly acknowledged that Bowie knew about the liver cancer that had sealed his fate, but he had deliberately hidden his illness for the outside world. Only a few people had been aware of what was coming.
One of the presuppositions of this paper is that is indeed possible to conceive of Bowies death as an ‘event’ that was staged, mediated and performed by means of the Blackstar-album, and more particularly, by the song Lazarus. To further support that claim, I situate the Bowie case within a scholarly discourse on the representation and framing(s) of death in contemporary Western societies. Following the work of the Danish sociologist Michael Hviid Jacobsen (2016), I argue that we can further interpret and conceptualize the death of David Bowie through the lens of what Jacobsen coined ‘Spectacular Death’, a term that designates a ‘’revival of interest in death, dying and bereavement’’, in which we ‘’see the rise of new rituals and the reappearance and reinvention of old ones in many ceremonial practices [and] media representations’’. Central to these media representations is a globalized culture of digital media, which makes it increasingly difficult to draw any spatial or geographical boundaries whatsoever.
This paper consists of two parts. An elaborate discussion of Spectacular Death constitutes the first half. I pay particular attention to the work of the French cultural critic Guy Debord, whose notion of the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (1967) informed the terminology of Jacobsen. I focus on Debord’s take on ‘death’ within the broader framework of religion and the denial of death, since it is precisely this theme that forms the core of our case study: Bowie’s death in relation to the song Lazarus. In the second part of the paper, I explain why and how I conceive of Lazarus and Bowie’s passing away as an emblematic example of (a) Spectacular Death. My interpretation does not rely that much on Bowie’s supposed intentions or a specific understanding of the clip; instead, I explain how Lazarus neatly fits the dimensions that Jacobsen attributes to his Spectacular Death-paradigm. I also intend to demonstrate how easily this paradigm can tie into the core features of contemporary celebrity culture, a term that involves both the celebrities themselves and their fans/audiences.
Thinking about death mentalities
The work of the French historian Philippe Ariès (1914-1984) has influenced and informed lots of scholarly publications on (ideas about) death in the West. In his book Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974), Ariès proposes four different ‘death mentalities’, or ways of thinking about death, that stretch from the Middle Ages to the late twentieth century. These mentalities are drastic transformations in the collective and cultural psychology of a given historical epoch. For this paper it is mainly important to be familiar with Ariès’s fourth phase, ‘Forbidden Death’, which covers the twentieth century. In Forbidden Death, several mutually supportive processes serve to make death forbidden, hidden, marginalized and sequestered from (daily) experience. A society that perpetuates the forbidden death-mentality has literally reversed death from something natural and familiar to something pathological and dangerous.
While this paper does not serve to elaborate on Forbidden Death, I do follow Jacobsen in his conceptualization of a fifth phase in, and thus an addition to, Ariès’s scheme of death mentalities. My support for Jacobsen’s notion of Spectacular Death partly stems from my appreciation of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a critical manifesto from the late 1960s that is still valid and useful to study contemporary contexts of digital media and visual culture from a perspective of critique and the identification of power structures. Jacobsen readily admits that Debord’s notion of the spectacle informs his understanding of Spectacular Death. It is to this notion that I now turn.
The spectacle is the actual presentation of life as an immense accumulation of images that steers and determines social relations between people. These images are at the same time split from reality and an integral part of it; the spectacle is the fake world of representations that has merged with or even replaced our material world. Debord presents the world as it is as a world that is upside down. The true is a moment of the false and the false is a moment of the true, precisely because the spectacle is the direct reflection of the inherently deceitful system of economic production: capitalism. The spectacle is the final realization of capital into an omnipresent illusion of appearances. It is the continuous visibility of everything that has been commodified and the general expression of boundless consumerism. For Debord, the spectacle is inseparable from its situatedness in contexts of power, because it presents the means by which the dominant political and economic system sustains and justifies its existence. I quote: ‘’The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.’’
A lot can be said about Debord’s Marxist mode of thinking and his reformation of 19th century-terminology (alienation, commodification, accumulation, and so on). For now I focus on one particular Marxist term, which is (religious) illusion (or false consciousness). Marx’ conception of religion as opium for the people has been interpreted in various ways, but one observation may still stand out: if one conceives of religion as an invention of the ruling class that serves to appease the people, the spectacle can indeed manifest itself as the material reconstruction of (the religious) illusion. Debord suggests that the ideal paradise of the working class is no longer a transcendental projection. Instead, it is embedded in earthly life itself; the images of the spectacle serve their masters as the fruits of eternal tantalization.
Debord typically opens his manifesto with a quote from Feuerbach. When the highest degree of illusion (the spectacle) equals the highest degree of sacredness, religion can only function as a signifier of the capitalist system of power. The mythical and sacred order merely serves to cover its overarching ideology, which has been normalized through the spectacle. This reductionist and outspokenly negative conception of religion brings me to the question that connects the philosophy of Debord to the terminology of Jacobsen: what is the function of death in a spectacular context? Can the term even have any meaning at all, now that we have – in a Marxist-Debordian sense – unpacked the notion of religion within the boundaries of the material realm?
The death and rebirth of death
In his fifth chapter, ‘Time and History’, Debord situates death as a once meaningful project that has been made meaningless by the spectacle. In a life that is no longer understood as a journey towards fulfillment and, indeed, death, every single discourse in society economizes the potential of youth while excluding and banishing the thought of getting old. Death has to die. Here Jacobsen has to come in, however, because Debord did not completely foresee that the advanced spectacular world of the early twenty-first century would actually reinvigorate death as a perfect metaphor for the spectacle itself. I come back to this statement in my conclusion, since it requires a much closer look at the Spectacular Death-paradigm and my case study.
Jacobsen sketches five dimensions that are central to his current conception of Spectacular Death. In spectacular contexts, death is (1) continuously mediatized. Through news reports, death enters our living room, while our entertainment industry has institutionalized ‘violent death’ as a source of spectatorial satisfaction. Violent death guarantees the (2) commercialization of death as a feature of the spectacle. And precisely because death is now all around, people (3) (re)invent rituals that fit their public fascination. In the meantime, (4) a revolution in palliative care stressed a significant change in the way in which people dealt with actual bereavements. Many books and articles have already been written about these and other developments; (5) death is food for academics. Jacobsen himself contests his conceptual invention by means of an intriguing and challenging question: is it indeed true that the current nature(s) of Spectacular Death coincide(s) with the demise and gradual disappearance of Forbidden Death, or are we secretly dealing with a mentality that is equally obsessed with a denial and sequestration of death? The second part of this paper was written with this particular question in the back of my head. In any case we will see that all five dimensions of the ‘new’ Death circumvent the Bowie case study.
In the Gospel of John, we read how Jesus Christ visits Mary and Martha of Bethany, whose brother Lazarus has recently passed away. The climax of the narrative is Jesus’s visit to the tomb, where Lazarus is summoned to ‘come forth’ and live again. Some (Western) catholic communities still commemorate the resurrection of Lazarus on December the 17th, the exact date at which David Bowie digitally pre-released his single Lazarus in 2015.
I already quoted the first couple of sentences from the song, which already provide us with a call for attention (‘look up here’), a supposed location (heaven), an endless mystery (‘scars that can’t be seen’) and a bold statement (‘everybody knows me know’). The song, it turns out, is the instrument that the late Bowie uses to communicate to the world, now that he is gone. Of course we can only guess, but in a way Lazarus perpetuates its own argument that it has nothing to do with the living Bowie. The Bowie that we see in the clip already resurrected himself before he actually went to heaven, so that he compellingly sing his own words of revelation; ‘look up here, I’m in heaven’.
Jacobsen’s Bowie: the five dimensions incorporated
Bowie’s death has thus been ritualized (in Bell’s sense of a ‘strategic way of acting’) by means of a planned performance of death, which was carefully directed and then released on a very specific date. The significance of the 17th of December and the actual song title reveal the indispensability of mythical narrative to Bowie’s own act of (re)telling his story, with a performed death predating Bowie’s actual passing away. Despite its transcendental aspirations, however, Lazarus is nowhere without its material situatedness. Death is indeed mediatized and commercialized; by means of film and audio recordings, albums and singles can be sold as signifiers of the mundane. And of course, the Spectacular nature of Bowie’s death informs the academic that is currently writing about it.
I must admit that it demands some creativity on my behalf to assume an explicit connection between the Bowie case and the palliative care revolution, the fifth and latest dimension that we see reflected here. On the other hand, the legacy of Lazarus is a worldwide audience that is dealing with a kind of grief that is both distant (did we actually ‘know’ Bowie?) and very close to heart (we might have dedicated our lives to him). The overload of books (Dylan Jones, 2017) articles and even documentaries (Francis Whately, 2017) that appeared in the wake of Bowie’s death did not solely obey the laws of capital (de één z’n dood is de ander z’n brood’, a Dutch proverb teaches) ; it also demonstrates that the death of the other affects us. This brings me to the relation between Spectacular Death and celebrity culture.
The stars of apparent life
In Debord we already find the statement that celebrities are specialists of apparent life. Spectators are willing to identify with them because their lives appear to be whole, and can thus compensate for their own fragmented existence in power constellations of specialized production. The problem is that stars are also carefully constructed illusions. When a star enters a stage as a model to be identified with, he or she actually denounces all qualities attached to autonomy and individuality in order to obey the spectacle’s general law of the dogmatic appearance and continuous succession of things. In the spectacle, ‘’individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real’’.
In a 2017 article on global newspaper coverage of Bowie’s death and the immediate worldwide negotiation of his legacy as a star, the British sociologist Jack Black uses the concept of reification to demonstrate how both media representations and public responses to a celebrity interdependently work to objectify this person as a thing, i.e., a reified form. Fans and journalists alike generalize their shared knowledge of Bowie and their supposed relation to him into a spectacular entity that they can all individually own and consume. Bowie himself contributed to these (paradoxically both separate and joint) processes of reification; while he was still alive, he was able to maintain a performance of on stage-authenticity that encouraged ‘us to look for his real self behind the mask’. In this respect, a whole book could be devoted to the way in which Bowie’s career mediated the extremes of authenticity and performativity by means of his different stage personas. Here the core argument is that Bowie’s death, which was staged and very real at the same time, allowed his admirers to grant him a sacred, mythic status that instantly eternalized his spectacular identity, and to feel utterly involved in that very same process. Not one of these admirers was there when Bowie passed away; his actual death actual remained hidden. It was only be means of the spectacle that we could see the scars that could not be seen before. And whereas Bowie might have proven himself not to be immortal, Lazarus may actually have died to live again.
In a way, Bowie’s death can be explained as a spectacular death in at least three different ways. It is a Spectacular Death, because it fits Jacobsen’s paradigm. It is a spectacular death, because it tells the story of a man who spectacularly staged his own death as a double feature of reality and performed reality. And it is a spectacular death by means of its attachment to the spectacle, in which Bowie’s own mythical, sacred order cannot be separated from its material location and its function as a commercialized (album-)product.
The underlying challenge – which goes far beyond this paper – of this threefold conclusion is to consider whether Bowie’s death is possibly exemplary for the ways in which the performances of celebrities and pop icons are generally mediated in our digital age – or better, to adopt Debord’s terminology, our global society of the spectacle. In this paper I stated that the advanced spectacular world of the early twenty-first century would actually reinvigorate death as a perfect metaphor for the spectacle itself. We have seen that the spectacle represents what is not actually there. Its capitalized images, and even its concrete appearances (of stars, tv hosts, and so on) perpetuate a discourse of permanent absence. Whereas Debord argued that the spectacle had made death meaningless, Jacobsen’s understanding of the Spectacular Death-phase demonstrates that the appearance of death has been eternalized and made meaningful as an ultimate good. In this context, death has become a metaphor for the spectacle because it refuses to reveal itself despite being everywhere.
Does this mean, following Ariès, that death is still forbidden? I think it is, for we are increasingly accommodating ourselves to a spectacular world in which the raw and unpolished reality of death is excluded. Life and death are replaced by apparent life and apparent death. In a spectacular age, death can no longer truly die. Bowie may be gone, but his ghost resurfaces everywhere. In books, on film, on posters. His death is the real entrance gate to the spectacle.
Black, J. ‘’The reification of celebrity: global newspaper coverage of the death of David Bowie’’. International Review of Sociology 27 (1) (2017): 202-224.
Bowie, David. ‘’Lazarus’’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
Debord, G. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Ken Knabb. Accessed online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/guy-debord-the-society-of-the-spectacle.pdf. Accessed April 26th, 2019.
Jacobsen, M.H. ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’- Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death’’. Humanities 5, 19 (2016): 1-20.
Rayner, Gordon and Hannah Furness. ‘’How David Bowie turned his own death into a piece of art after keeping terminal cancer a secret’’. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/12093704/How-David-Bowie-turned-his-own-death-into-a-piece-of-art-after-keeping-terminal-cancer-a-secret.html?2. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
Ross, Eleanor. ‘’David Bowie: Robert Fox says nobody knew that star was ill because ‘that’s what he wanted’’. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/david-bowie-robert-fox-says-nobody-knew-star-was-ill-and-thats-what-he-wanted-a6817816.html. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
Wagner, R. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge, 2012.
 Small parts of this introduction are taken from a former essay of mine, which can be found here: https://timbouwhuis.nl/essay-performing-death-ngg-conference-religious-studies-2018/.
 It could very well be that there actually are articles or news reports that cover the themes or meanings of the album in a speculative context between January 8th (the album release) and the coverage of Bowies actual death on the 10th. As to today, however, they are not known to me.
 What’s important to (side)note here is that although Bowie knew he had terminal cancer a few months before, he didn’t know the exact moment of his death. While this may seem obvious, the ‘planning’ or ‘staging’-debate flourished when the release of Blackstar had turned out to be the prelude to Bowie’s real death. See: Eleanor Ross, ’’David Bowie: Robert Fox says nobody knew that star was ill because ‘that’s what he wanted’’’. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/david-bowie-robert-fox-says-nobody-knew-star-was-ill-and-thats-what-he-wanted-a6817816.html. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018. G. Rayner and H. Furness, ‘’How David Bowie turned his own death into a piece of art after keeping terminal cancer a secret’’. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/12093704/How-David-Bowie-turned-his-own-death-into-a-piece-of-art-after-keeping-terminal-cancer-a-secret.html?2. Accessed Wednesday 28th, 2018.
 M.H. Jacobsen, ‘’’’Spectacular Death’’ – Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death’’, Humanities 5, 19 (2016), 2,12.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 2-3.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 5.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 5,7.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 10.
 All references to Debord are taken from the Knabb translation. I refer to corresponding manifesto numbers rather than page numbers.
 G. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Ken Knabb. Accessed online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/guy-debord-the-society-of-the-spectacle.pdf. Accessed April 26th, 2019. 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 34, 42.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 24.
 For Debord, the spectacle indicates the next stage of the worker’s alienation from their own products. The spectacle actually alienates the workers from each other. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 32.
 For a (Dutch) essay on Marx and religion, see: https://timbouwhuis.nl/paper-inleiding-religiestudies-karl-marx-visie-op-religie/. Accessed June 21st, 2019.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 20.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 20.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 25.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 160. For a good read on Debord’s understanding(s) of time, see 126-158.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 7, 10-11.
 Elaborations on the five dimensions can be found in Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 10-14.
 Jacobsen, ‘’Spectacular Death’’, 2.
 John 11: 1-25.
 Bell quoted in R. Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (New York: Routledge, 2012), 56.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 60.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 61.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 17.
 J. Black, ‘’The reification of celebrity: global newspaper coverage of the death of David Bowie’’, International Review of Sociology 27 (1) (2017), 203-204.
 Quoted in Black, ‘’The reification of celebrity’’, 212.
 Black, ‘’The reification of celebrity’’, 208.