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The ways we mourn when stars pass
by Chris Lee

Two weeks ago I attended a memorial for someone I’d never met: José Esteban Muñoz, NYU Tisch School professor, queer theorist, dog lover, forty-six at the age of his passing. Known to his friends as José, to his students as Professor Muñoz, I was neither to him, more so a stranger, never once crossing paths, unless I was fortunate enough to have been unknowingly graced with his presence along some crowded city street.

Muñoz played outsized roles in growing the fields of queer and performance studies; as numerous obituaries have now noted, his impact as a scholar is difficult to overstate. I have felt a tremendous sorrow at his passing, in part because of this great importance of his work, in part because his death marks a premature end to a prolific body of scholarship, and in part because he has and will continue to direct my own tenuous forays into academia. It is a grand, global loss, and while I can reason through this sweeping, symbolic grief, I haven’t yet been able to shake the feeling that I miss him, like I wish he was here with me, despite the fact that he was never really ‘here’ for me in any literal sense, and despite the fact I’ve already missed him, since our chances of meeting have been lost to fate.

Muñoz voiced an experience of being-minor, of not belonging, of being forced out or excluded. When an author writes about ‘Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,’ as Muñoz did—he grants his readers affect and attachment, some of them brown themselves, queer themselves, or otherwise fugitive in the manifold ways society enacts abjection. Thus I knew Muñoz, as many did, through his writing. Because of his words, because I felt they were written to me, for me, and on my behalf, I developed feelings for him and his work. “The here,” he wrote, “is a prison house… we must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.

When Muñoz employed the ‘we,’ as he did often, it resonated less formally, less authoritatively than its academic usage, which is to say that Muñoz’s ‘we’ felt encompassing and intimate, not at all alienating, and only a little (and appropriately) royal; his uses of ‘we’ came attached with ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds,’ as if to lay out an ethical charge, infused with care and solidarity, never distancing but quite the opposite, bringing an ‘us’ closer together as the imagined pairing of reader and writer.

In the midst of Muñoz’s memorial, seated with his family and friends, my place was not so certain; what does one call mourning for a writer with whom you have felt virtual and imagined relations? How does one mourn for those we’ve never met, and yet cared deeply?

A funny thing happens when ‘stars’ happen to pass, and Muñoz was certainly a star of the albeit niche fields of queer and performance studies. While not at all the same kind of star that, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman was, Muñoz and other figures of monumental importance have ways of intervening in our daily routines when they die, introducing occasions to reflect on loss. Fandom isn’t the right word for these sorts of processes—and if it is, it needs to be exonerated of its exaggerated, comical, and schmaltzy character.

Fandom raises suspicions of clamoring hordes and crocodile tears. Not a specific nor personal impression, but a clownishly uniform one, fandom can be perceived as less significant, less sincere, shallower and less critical than the appropriate ways to grieve—even when it is rife with emotional resonance, memories, and histories.

The effect of modern media consumption is that our opportunities to mourn are many; celebrity culture and the proliferation of our ever-vaster social networks have ensured that we can think about death often, if more symbolically than in the real. Much of the media produced from this consummate memorialization is rendered as spectacle or pure panic—tabloids jockeying for attention, investigations into untimely demises, finger-pointing staged as maudlin theater. And yet some memorials are smaller in scale and greater in significance.

There are quieter ways to mourn. Lou Reed’s death was marked by countless tributes, but one comes to mind for me. At 19-23 St. Mark’s Place, once the site of Dom and Electric Circus, Reed’s devotees placed objects of minor significance, creating a makeshift shrine in his memory, and in the memory of his performance there for Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The address now houses a Chipotle and a Supercuts. Anything left as tribute to Reed was systematically cleared away and sanitized, even as new objects were left behind. But those with resilient or stubborn attachments will remember this site for its residual sacredness.

The great trick of a transactional system of media consumption is that it drives us towards feeling strongly about its stars, and then shames us for feeling too much, drawing these attachments instead into appropriate venues of grief, directing our attentions to lifelong legacies packaged in more lucrative forms: box-sets, best-ofs, awards ceremonies—its own kinds of cash-fueled catharsis. Denying these figures’ impacts on our self-stylings would be dishonest, while shoring them up seems shallow.

Yet the death of a ‘star’ is not necessarily a shallow one, especially for fans. Mourning these famous figures gestures at the desire for an imagined community.

When we ‘grow up,’ we sublimate that angst-ridden drive to construct a social self—otherwise known as finding oneself, going through a phase, dating a little, dating a lot, or basically any spin on fucking around— as attachments to books, films, and music, collected as rubrics for mediating uncertain or hostile realities. When even our families and friends don’t seem to understand us, when we feel alienated from our origins or powerless in our hometowns, these media serve not only a pedagogical and therapeutic function, but a vaguely religious one as well, teaching us who we are or who we can be. In this way we all have our own mythologies, our own canons, mine constituted as St. Foucault, St. Baldwin, St. Divine, St. Aaliyah, St. Xtravaganza, and a host of other hagiographies that I cannot account for here.

We know, or, at least, we hope that there are others who feel the things we do when we listen to music, alone in bedrooms and on long bus rides; when we watch movie clips for moral support; when we repeat lines and lyrics in our head for private or drunken introspection. We pretend that these stars are knowable to us, and that we could be friends with the characters they play, imagine, or write into being. It’s not so surprising, then, that fans of Nirvana, annually gathered and annually derided, continue to memorialize Kurt Cobain, if only as a reminder that there are others who feel the ways we do about those stars who play into our worldviews, larger than life and death, sometimes more than they should or than society allows.

The loss of an academic, musician, actor, or artist can stir up this unlikely form of grief, not born of artifice, but felt, rather, more powerfully than expected, as an uncivil, impolite mourning. It's become even more apparent to me, as a consummate consumer of media, that these relations play a role in our self-shapings—in part as demographic targets of media industries, but not limited to the ideologies of late capitalism. Though our systems would have us believe that we must buy into the material economies of the artists and writers to whom we are attached, the memories and feelings drawn up are not contained in mere commodity.

I was twenty-six when Muñoz, Hoffman, and Reed passed, and eight when my great-grandfather died. Like those media titans, I never knew him in any physical way. To this day I have no knowledge of his given name. Referred to only in the honorific, only as ‘great-grandfather,’ he was just as distant in physical space as in title, an ocean away on the island of Taiwan.

My great-grandfather was, for my mother’s family, and thus, for me, a celebrity in his own right. He was the only physician in his rural township, known in his community for offering medical services for free or for trade. Stories of his generosity and compassion were passed down as oral history, in all likelihood exaggerated, as most legends are, but no less real. His funeral service was, to my recollection, rumored to number in the thousands.

I remember a black and white photo accompanying the news clipping of his obituary. Displayed prominently in my childhood home, the script was too complex for me to translate into meaning or feeling. Still, the image left a visual imprint: a stoic look, straight on, posed formally. This is my earliest memory of mourning, and of mourning for someone I’d never met.

The ways we consume media draw up awkward feelings in our ongoing attempts at identity formation. The desire to grieve when the corresponding figures cease to exist, or pass from their physical embodiments, has no basis in solid reason, residing instead in an imagined intimacy. I have mourned often, perhaps too often, for those I’ve never met. But against the logic of proximity, against the primacy of the real over the fictive, I hold fast to these memories, at once sentimental, unwarranted, embellished, and embarrassingly sincere.

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