Monday, October 9, 2023

Timothy Recuber's "The Digital Departed"

Timothy Recuber is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Smith College in Northampton, MA, studying mass media, digital culture, emotions, the self, and collective memory. He is the author of Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, winner of the Outstanding Recent Contribution Award from the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Emotions section.

Recuber applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Digital Departed: How We Face Death, Commemorate Life, and Chase Virtual Immortality, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Such quotes hint at the therapeutic qualities of blogging, but also at the ways that the confrontation with mortality affects the very essence of selfhood. Certainly, the affordances of blogging outlined earlier, its encouragement of regular periods of introspection amid a supportive audience, have much in common with more traditional forms of therapeutic encounter. Moreover, reframing terminal illness as something positive could be a way to combat the many stigmas associated with death and dying. Yet very few of the blog posts in the sample discussed such stigmas directly. Instead, what became clear again and again in these blogs was the transformative capacity of blogging a terminal illness. It was not just that anxieties were salved in the process of writing them down, or that order was made out of the chaos of a terminal diagnosis by creating these narratives, though undoubtedly these were important effects. The capacity to craft a new self was an even more powerful factor.
Page 99 appears in the middle of the book’s third chapter, called “Suffering, the Self, and Narrative Freedom in Blogs of the Terminally Ill.” This chapter begins to really flesh out some of the main arguments in the book. One of these arguments can be seen in the quote above, namely, that digital confrontations with one’s own mortality have the capacity to transform one’s sense of self. In this particular chapter, my evidence consists of words from a sample of 927 posts by twenty different terminally ill bloggers. These quotes are beautiful, heartbreaking, sometimes mundane, and often profound, but taken together they show people grappling with and changing their senses of self through regular writing and introspection about their terminal illnesses.

On the one hand this is a social constructionist take on the self—many of the blogs in my sample spoke explicitly about this self-transformation or recreation in the face of impending mortality, so in a sense I am simply tracking an emergent norm about how selfhood works in this particular context. At the same time, the book’s major argument is about the ways that digital media technologies have reenchanted the self. This means, in essence, that they have brought a sense of magic, wonder, or mystery back to the modern project of selfhood. Jumping off from this point, later in the chapter I play around with the concept of the digital soul. I argue that the vision of selfhood put forth in blogs of the terminally ill has a lot in common with certain theological views in which the soul is made through human suffering. In the book’s later chapters, I look at other ways in which people have used digital media technologies to create posthumous legacies for themselves or to try to continue communicating with their loved ones after death. What these things have in common with blogs of the terminally ill is the sense that one’s digital self might be transubstantiated into a kind of digital soul, a testament to who one was in life that, at least in some small way, transcends one’s corporeal death.

So all in all I think that page 99 is a pretty good representation of the kinds of evidence that appear throughout the book and of where the rest of the book is headed.
Visit Timothy Recuber's website.

--Marshal Zeringue