Skulls, Skulls, Skulls every where: Consuming Death in the 21st Century

Posted by Monica Germana on February 22, 2010 in Dr Monica Germana, Guest Blog tagged with

In the next few weeks I would like to explore a range of topics in relation to the significance of Gothic in contemporary culture. Much has, of course, already been written on the topic, but since contemporary means ‘now’, there is always scope for further discussion!
Is Gothic dead? This question has been haunting us for a while. The TV guide seems to suggest that Gothic is far from dead. As series such as True Blood and Being Human replace older televisual vampires such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, our staple evening entertainment seems to rely heavily on the interaction of vampires, werewolves and poltergeists. The success of Twilight books and films is perhaps the most overt manifestation of this progressive move of Gothic otherness into the normative centre of acceptability. In relation to horror, Fred Botting rightly proposes that the original impact of Gothic horror lingers somehow only in the diluted form of ‘candygothic’, ‘an attempt to reassess the function of horror in a (Western) culture in which transgressions, repressions, taboos, prohibitions no longer mark an absolute limit in unbearable excess and thus no longer contain the intensity of a desire fro something that satisfyingly disturbs and defines social and moral boundaries’ (134). Does this saturation of Gothic motifs in mainstream culture paradoxically announce the funeral of Gothic as marginal sub-culture? In other words, if the boundaries between centre and margins, normativity and subversion become so imperceptible that their mere existence is matter of debate, does it still make sense to discuss the Gothic in these terms? Are we still afraid of the other, when monsters of all kinds appear to have integrated within the patterns of our daily lives? Or has the object of our anxiety moved elsewhere? Perhaps the initial question needs reframing: what kind of Gothic do we live in?


Death is for sale. The Gothic has always been associated with consumption and popular culture: ‘Gothic has always had a mass appeal, but in today’s economic climate it is big business’ Catherine Spooner comments, ‘Above all Gothic sells’ (23). The logic of capitalism, with its emphasis on replication and relentless consumption, accommodates Gothic excesses, whilst, simultaneously, altering the ways in which we approach, consume (and exorcise, perhaps) our inner fears and negotiate our longing for the original that, by definition, can no longer exist. The unexpected death of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who took his life on 11 February 2010, has been regarded as a terrible loss, not only on a human/personal level – as with any death – but on an artistic/collective level: ‘He was a genius. What a terrible, tragic waste’, commented designer Katherine Hamnett. British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman also made an interesting point about the kind of community grief that has become a pervasive feature of the Gothic times we currently live in: ‘he was a modern-day genius whose gothic aesthetic was adopted by women the world over. His death is the hugest loss to anyone who knew him and for very many who didn’t’. Indeed, as predicted by Shulman, fans – old and new – have been prompted to visit stores stocking McQueen’s designs to ‘pay a tribute’ to the icon of Gothic fashion. There is something authentic in the desire to own something of the deceased; objects allow us to hold on to the ghosts of the dead, prolonging, in a sense, the physical communion shared in life. But something of a different nature occurs in manifestations of mass mourning: if it made some sense to see Naomi Campbell or Kylie Minogue wear the famous red and blue skull signature scarves the day McQueen’s death was announced, it is more difficult to view the soaring prices on e-Bay sales through anything other than a cynical filter. What those uncannily cheerful skulls represent is not the nostalgia attached to emotional memories of the deceased, but the urge to participate in the collective act of grief that authenticates one’s experience in the age of mass production and digital connectivity.

But there is something else, too, concealed in the contagious desire to own Alexander McQueen’s red and blue skulls. The notion of relentless repetition is one that characterises Gothic discourse: ‘What haunts Gothic’ David Punter, amongst others, suggests, ‘is Gothic: a ghost haunted by another ghost’ (14). Reproduction is the demon of late capitalism, the dark shadow looming over a culture without origins. The death of an artist means that artwork acquires a higher value, because death creates the illusion of a cut-off point, after which reproduction is no longer possible. Death puts a hypothetical stop to the possibility of replication, making each artefact apparently more unique. What we crave, therefore, is a piece of uniqueness, perhaps, taking comfort in the ownership of something that cannot be multiplied, and mass-reproduced. On one, cynical level, the commodification of the artist’s death promotes forgery and exploitation, reinstating the cycle of repetition that the demand for the unique craves. On the other, this longing for the unique, which makes the possibility of making a profit in the irrational market of mass-mourning a reality, has its roots in a much deeper set of anxieties. It points to the fragile sense of authenticity in our lives, fluctuating between the temporary objects of our desires and the archetypal fears that haunt our contemporary lives: in the age of connectivity, we are only ever ‘real’ if we share the collective experience of mourning for the loss of what we never had; as Alexandra Warwick puts it, ‘contemporary cultural Gothic is a staging of the desire for trauma, the desire to be haunted, because we do not feel complete without it’ (12). Buying death does just that.

References:

Fred Botting, The Gothic (Boydell and Brewer, 2001)
David Punter, Gothic Pathologies: The text, The Body and The Law (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998)
Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (Reaktion, 2006)
Mark Tran, ‘Fashion Designer Alexander McQueen Dies Aged 40’, The Guardian, 11 February 2010.
Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/11/alexander-mcqueen-dies-fashion-designer
Alexandra Warwick, ‘Feeling Gothicky?’, Gothic Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (May 2007), pp. 5-15.

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