Meta-Mourning: Were We Truly Grieving Whitney Houston?

Meta-Mourning: Were We Truly Grieving Whitney Houston?
(Photos courtesy Getty Images / Illustration by ARTINFO)

“Is Whitney Houston really dead?” This Tweet — the very first word of Houston’s death online, and possibly in any media — expressed little more than disbelief, and was shared exactly three times. The news, reactions, and rememberances went Big Bang from there; by the time the Grammys rolled around, there was a whole universe, from black holes to inhabitable planets, of Houston sharing. The nature of this universe’s growth — and indeed, its very existence — raises some philosophical-type questions.

In a thought-provoking piece replete with graphs (Twitter trends) and historical context (Victorian era), Atlantic writer Megan Garber asks why the public now cycles so quickly through its grief.

We've had our allotted phase for re-watching the national anthem video and remembering that scene from The Bodyguard and reminiscing about our first cassette singles of "So Emotional" — but that phase has been quick, and the quickness has been carved not by cultural agreement, but by our abbreviated attention spans. We talk a lot about the sped-up news cycle — the new news, with its new metabolism — and its effect on the way we relate to information. What we talk less about is how the new speed of the news cycle is changing the way we relate to each other, culturally. Impatience is becoming the dominant emotion of the discursive Internet. We want our conversation fodder fresh, exciting, and yesterday.

In other words, cultural agreement — the mourning rituals of, say, the late-1800s England — has given way to a free-for-all of instant, quick-evaporating reaction. Garber suggests that the dead therefore get short shrift.

Tablet’s Liel Liebovitz says we shouldn’t mourn in this way at all. Or at least, not without a pause, an approach he bases on the teachings of one Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik:

While we usually think Judaism’s chief edict when it comes to grieving is shiva — the communal congregation at the home of the deceased for the benefit of the surviving family — the eminent Orthodox thinker reminds us that Jewish bereavement has two stages. Before we get to aveilut, or mourning, we have to go through aninut, or acute mourning, the period between first receiving the bad news and completing the funeral rites.

Such mad sorrow, Judaism teaches us, such impotent rage, is not only permissible but normal … To that end, friends and family members are discouraged from offering their condolences until the deceased is buried. “Do not console a person whose deceased relative lies before him,” Pirkei Avot, the compilation of rabbinical wisdom and teachings, commands us. Cool J should’ve listened.

(By “Cool J,” Liebovitz means LL Cool J, who started the Grammys with a prayer for Houston.)

But Cool J, of course, was mourning not in private but on TV, his words broadcast and tweeted in real time and recounted on scores of blogs. And he was speaking a day after Houston’s demise, by which time the pop legend had been the subject of hundreds of tributes and obituaries on the Internet. We socially mediated moderns have no time for aninut. Death excites us to comment, publicly and immediately, even if what we have to say is not a howl of horror but a muted murmur, drained of warmth and meaning.

Liebovitz ends, hilariously, by suggesting that the internet just shut up: “So, until we can figure out how to speak about Whitney Houston’s death with distance and depth and insight, let us observe this period of aninut and say nothing more.”

Part of us wants to applaud this bold suggestion. So many people shared so much about Houston so soon that fatigue set in almost immediately. The sharing was so widespread that it felt rote, and that will be especially true in retrospect, once no one says anything about her unless it’s connected to new gossip. But it’s nice to have an excuse to revisit favorite songs, maybe discover an artist you didn’t know, and really unpack someone’s legacy.  You can’t argue that Houston wasn’t given her due, that virtually everything that needed to be said (and many things that didn’t) was offered up in her memory.

Both Garber and Liebovitz miss something central about the Houston phenomenon: It’s not mourning. People were surely saddened by her death. But processing that death is nothing like processing the death of someone you actually know. Commenters on her passing observed — or flouted — the conventions of mourning, because language as it is propogated in the media still mimics interpersonal exchange. But they were offering condolences to a void, as if everyone were searching for the receiving line at a wake and, finding none, instead turned to each other to shake hands and hug. (It is a similar search that led people to leave flowers outside of Apple stores following Steve Jobs’ death.)

Houston’s family and friends were surely moved to see the outpouring over her death. But what all those gestures really spoke to was the discovery, however fleeting, of a common ground in an increasingly fragmented world of cultural exchange. It’s a similar impulse that sparks Twitter trends whenever a more minor celebrity dies — a group of people basically recognize each other for being aware of the same person, and for noticing news of their passing. What’s being called mourning here is in some ways a simple celebration of a celebrity. But more than anything, it is a hunt for connection between non-celebrities.