We've been here before. In a participatory and heavily mediated culture, we have the collapsing of all kinds of distances and the telescoping of others. As celebrity has become even more ubiquitous, the option is there - and it's readily taken - for people to form simulated relationships with celebrities of their choice. Whether one is a self-described superfan or is moderately interested in the doings/work of a particular star there is a one-way, "inauthentic" relationship. Despite never meeting them, seeing them, or getting a reply on Twitter off them they can become as meaningful to someone as a real, flesh-and-blood friendship can be. Sometimes even more so. Zygmunt Bauman, the diagnostician of what he likes to call 'liquid modernity' nevertheless observes that for all their inauthenticity, relationships of this stripe can reproduce the agonies and ecstasies just as well. The relation one might have with a certain celebrity might be more real than real, more human than human. It's a strange coming together of supplicant and replicant, of a real person "meeting" a simulated person through the intermediaries of multiple media technologies.
The inauthenticity of celebrity can be felt keenly on an individual level. But celebrity is a collective phenomena in its production, execution and reception. The image, the aura is absolutely an effect achieved through marketing a projection. A whole interlinked (some might say indissociable) political economy stands behind them, a veritable culture industry as a couple of Frankfurt profs once put it. Focusing on reception, celebrity addresses itself to individuals but it is always shared too. We may live in a bewildering blurring world where, superficially, each of us are highly individuated without much in common, but celebrity continually bubbles up. It is so in your face that it cannot but force an opinion up your throat. Of the leading lights of the day, they are focal points and battlegrounds from the playground to the workplace to the home to the cafe to the pub. Sport also acts in exactly the same way. Disassociation is incredibly hard to achieve - even to dismiss it and effect uninterest is, nevertheless, a form of engagement with it. Hence what celebrity (and sport) does is contribute to a diffuse, fleeting and constantly remade/rewritten sense of community.
Therefore, as well as a very real trauma for her family, Peaches Geldof's passing is a moment. Those who had some form of personal investment in her, or as someone who grew up watching her occasional forays into television and journalism will have felt it quite keenly. For others who didn't but are nevertheless heavily invested in our culture of screens and networks - and chance is you are by virtue of reading this - it was cause for pause and, in some cases, public lamentation on the social media platform of choice. It simulated the sense of living in a real community (ironically, best typified by another simulation - Coronation Street) and hearing that a neighbour from round the corner or a couple of streets over had died. People like me weren't thrown because we are brainwashed to love celebrities. We were because it was an unanticipated event within the everyday life of mediated folk living mediated, simulated lives. And for those who are more deeply affected by Peaches' death, their pain is no less real.
There is something else that has shown up as well, a convention of more recent providence. The figure of the celebrity may do all these things, but it is a precarious life. The toast of the town one day can be just toast the next. They are built up to be laid low. They fulfil the twin role of aspirational role model and lightning rod of scurrilous gossip and criticism. They are an interpenetrating opposite of reverence and irreverence. Time was when a celebrity died the papers dredged up all kinds of stories, safe in the knowledge that the deceased cannot sue for defamation. Now it seems the terms are reversed. In life Peaches Geldof was vilified as a wannabe, a celebrity aristocrat, a woman famous for being famous - she was a celebrity whose celebrity was a simulacrum of celebrity, much like other famous children of famous people. There was a sense she meant well but was cosseted by her upbringing, and that her brushes with drugs, bad boys and exotic religions were snapshots of a very public pursuit of authenticity. And then, with her sad passing, commentariats who'd have thought nothing of trashing her in their columns and paid-for blogs a few days ago were effusive and gushing with praise. We saw much the same thing with Bob Crow as well. Perhaps it's right and just that this should be the case, that the death of someone in the public eye should be pause for reflection - their lives a cause for appreciation, and perhaps a space for reverence to return.
Maybe so, but then again if we treat our dead better than our living, what does that say about our society?