by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

“Over a million people from all over the world have shared their memories, thoughts, and feelings about Steve”, declared Apple on the official webpage devoted to Jobs. An incessant flow of comments appeared on screen briefly before charting an endless descent through the bottom of the page. Each reveals an e-mailed farewell to Apple’s CEO. “I think some times God cheats us after giving us the gift, he realizes that the gift which he gave to human-beings has turned out to be most precious, and then he uses his power to get it back”, writes Kapeel. Despite occassional recourse to religious imagery, most other tributes are more prosaic. The words ‘create’, ‘creativity’, ‘vision’, ‘visionary’, ‘history’, ‘genius’, ‘change’, ‘fulfillment’ are repeated alongside phrases such as ‘think differently’, and ‘dare to challenge’. “With each product release, I expected revolutionary, and I got revolutionary. You've revolutionized humankind and the way we live our day to day lives”, says Debbie.

This kind of very public grief is usually reserved for film actors, political leaders and princesses. It is remarkable that the world has witnessed such a collective expression of genuine sadness over the demise of a man whose main achievements are in the area of business strategy and branding. The short eulogies contain many predictable ironies: Apple’s so-called revolution is in fact nothing but a different market niche, the ‘radical new history’ they create is simply a tiny fluctuation in the flow of techno-capitalism, an irony captured perfectly by Apple’s campaign for the iPhone 4: “This changes everything. Again.” The hope they promise is nothing other than more consumer debt. Jobs’ vision consisted largely in adapting existing technologies to his streamlined product design rather than the invention of some genuinely new breakthrough. His popularity seems to have more to do with the rise of the entrepreneur as a neo-liberal icon as framed by television programs like The Apprentice, than with a public interest in the workings of technology. Slightly lighter laptops or easier to surf internet phones are hardly the lightbulb that has allowed us to move around safely by night and read after sundown. But beyond these more obvious points, Jobs’ death feels like an important event that deserves to be understood in its own terms and in relation to contemporary attitudes to death in general.

In his classic study of the subject, Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present, Phillippe Ariès traces a shift in the management, reception and interpretation of death as it becomes personalized, privatised and bureaucratized. Accoring to Ariès, in early medieval society, death was understood to be foretold, a surrender of the self to destiny. The dying person was meant to know that the end was near, and to act accordingly, following a strict regime that combined religious obligation and social norm with an almost mystical system of signs and premonitions: “death was a ritual organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol”. [1] This ritual was very social, the deathbed tempered by the presence of family and children. It is only later that death begins to be thought of as something pertaining to the individual. The introduction of romantic and even erotic cultural ideas sentimentalize death further, the death of the self coupled with the tragic death of another to form more recognizably contemporary attitudes to death as a point of rupture, no longer a familiar aspect of life. At the time of Ariès’ writing, death had been sterilised, pushed away from sight and mind to hospital wards. Death had become both exalted and unnameable, giving us an illusion of non-mortality. The celebrity car crash, suicide or assassination deaths of the mid-twentieth century fit well with this scheme: too fast to live, too young to die, the deaths of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy all represented breaks with the established order, hence their iconic status. These were not normative fulfillment's of a destiny we must all share, but exceptions which in a way confirmed our immortality by transcending the transience of the everyday through the media image.

The death of Steve Jobs belongs to another order. Today, the advances of medicine reconnect us with the knowledge of our own mortality: a diagnosis of cancer leads to a death far less surprising than a car crash. At the same time, medicine postpones the inevitable: it is possible to live with cancer or aids for many years, to the point that they are now perceived as chronic illnesses with relapses and recoveries, not death sentences. In the case of Steve Jobs, the question of fore-knowledge of death gains another dimension of significance. His well-being had direct implications on Apple’s shares, and his condition was therefore a well-guarded secret. The fluctuation of rumours around this was reflected in fluctuations directly observable on the stock market and indeed the shares of Apple initially dropped by 5% in Frankfurt following the news of his death.# Not only was this data was heavily controlled, everything about Jobs’ death was managed following a strict protocol. This was perhaps no longer the Christian procedure described by Ariès – lying down on one’s back, arms folded, facing heaven (the wall is the Jewish option), calling the priest at just the right moment – but orchestrated nonetheless. Jobs allegedly refused an oxygen mask due to its poor design, only agreeing to wear one after all possible models were presented to him and an appropriate selection made, the epitome of the personalized iDeath.

According to Guy Debord, “celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally”. [2] Debord thought that celebrities were a false image of continuity and flow in a world dominated by separations, an image of freedom in a world of control, an image of a life presented as a whole when the life of the individual consuming these images is a collection of fragments: school, work, leisure, family, or home, street, factory etc. Jobs’ image was never placed in contrast to the dominant economic forces; it was never placed on top of a social reality produced by the relations between commodities. Instead, this image was identical to and inseparable from the image of the economy itself. Like the thumb of the tennis star that has to be insured for millions, Jobs’ body was the business itself. In Steve Jobs’ career we can see the principles of post-Fordism taken to the extreme. The return to the medieval preparatory ritual of death, to a narrative of death that perhaps replaces one of the most central separations of Debord’s modernity – the separation of the healthy from the ill, of the living from the dead – also marks the performance of death as belonging to the economic order. Jobs’ body becomes pure speculation, a flow of data and potential profit. In this, it is the fulfillment of the cyberpunk fantasy about the happy union of organic flesh and flows of information, of blood and computerized data. But, far from heralding a new reality, Jobs’ cybernetic death exposes the fact that this utopian/dystopian future is not the coming of a new world but a potential already locked within the productive capabilities of late capitalism. Cyberpunk too, and in particular Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, was a promise to overcome Debord’s world of separations.[3] No more a creature of dualities, the cyborg was meant to overcome the divides between the organic and the mechanic, nature and nurture, producer and replicator. If Jobs’ death is the first spectacularized cyber-death in history, then it is a sign of the ultimate subjugation of the post-Fordist worker under bio-political control rather than of liberation.

When the source of productivity is life itself – the performance, communicative and social capabilities, even the vitality of the worker – death becomes an area of economic management. When Charles the first was executed in 1649, some onlookers rushed to the headless body and collected some the king’s blood with their handkerchiefs as it was commonly thought that the king’s blood could cure illnesses. The symbolic power of the king was destroyed but somehow the symbolic power of his body was maintained. The consecration of the blood reflects the overlapping of the king’s natural body with the body politic, as announced by the phrase, “the king is dead, long live the king”. Jobs’ death is similar: death is no longer the end but simply another moment in the storm of stock transactions that are the blood cells of the bio-political CEO, the body corporate. It is both the destruction of the body, the symbol, the productive capabilities, and at the same time the purest site of production, akin to a Tupac Shakur post-mortem release or a Heath Ledger posthumous Oscar. The entrepreneur is dead, long live the corporation.

[1] Ariès, Philippe, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 2010, p. 11.

[2] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle [Donald Nicholson-Smith], New York: Zone Books, 1997, pp. 38-9.

[3] Haraway, Donna, "A Cyborg Manifesto", in: Manifestly Haraway, Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.