Obituarizing Michael Jackson: Subject Formation through Material Cultural Branding
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Historically, obituaries were created as news items and published in print media with the intentions of informing an audience of public hangings or similar sensational deaths. Over the years, obituaries changed in form to become a way of publicly notifying audiences of one’s life upon their death, focusing more on biography and familial structure than sensation. However, with advancements in communicative mediums, including the increased popularity and easy accessibility of the Internet, traditional understandings of the term ‘obituary’ are challenged to include all forms of media publications that draw on elements of sensation and biography. The combination of this new, inclusive definition and the increasing popularity and advancement of technological mediums has republicized deceased celebrities as marketable and profitable brands that rely on subject formation through media and participatory fandom. However, the branding of celebrated, deceased figures through processes of social subjectification often remains embedded within cultural texts. As a result, audiences are often unaware of their ability to shift or influence identities of the deceased, and their fandom becomes the target of alternative messages embedded in sites of obituarization. By applying Marshall McLuhan’s theory of technology as an extension of human consciousness in addition to Roland Barthes’ theory of mythologisation when examining Michael Jackson’s 2009 death, this thesis explains how the subject formation of deceased individuals becomes so powerful and globalized that their death becomes a positive and beneficial occurrence with regards to the profitability and marketability of their brand. Therefore, the subject formation of celebrated, deceased figures is a fragile process that is altering how North Americans mediate the culture surrounding death and dying.