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The Role of Ritual: Experiencing Death in Internet Ritual


by Lolita Šteinberga (University of Latvia)

At July 29 morning I arrived in Bremen, I went there to attend the summer school „How virtual is reality?“. I have many questions about reality and virtuality role in human social life, about the border that separates and unites this two worlds; about methods and theories to explore and explain what virtual space is? So we had 10 days to find out the answers to these and many other questions about virtual worlds and media-related issues.

At 05.08.2010. in Summer School we had the opportunity to listen to Marga’s lecture entitled: „The Role of Ritual: Experiencing Death in Internet Ritual“. Marga Altena is a historian of visual culture working as a researcher, teacher and publicist. She is specialized in the use of images in historical research. Marga participated in the project Netherlands‘ Refiguring Death Rites. This Interdisciplinary program aims to investigate new ritualizations of death in the Netherlands. She performed a postdoctoral research on the representation of death in films, television shows and weblogs. In this lecture she shared with us her findings and experiences. I am very grateful for the meeting with Marga Altena, because this lecture encourage me think about death, how it is mediated by the media; in this essay I will try to reflect my understanding of her lecture(you should choice).

In the lecture Marga shared their research and experiences about the depiction of death, not so much on the internet, but on the images and at the TV shows. Professor Altena’s lecture urged to think about representation of the death in various media: literature, painting, photography. I found that the death of display largely depends on the form of media, what is used. We can compare, how death is depicted or represented in video games, literature, cinema, television shows, news broadcasts, second life as well. We can see that different media have different abilities to speak with audience. Death is the category of existential philosophy – the death gives meaning to our life. We can find it in our culture that people had thought about death since long, long time ago. If we write key words „Death in Paintings“ in Google we can find a series of paintings that speak about this topic; and different representation of death in these paintings are apparent, historically and religiously.

From these few paintings we can see that, dead or dying person is the central subject of the painting it even emits light, around of it we can see that the people mourn; other characters are tilt their heads, or a grimace of pain prevented from viewer. In this way, by analyzing paintings – symbols, colors, shapes, lights and people -, we can understand death rituals in different religious tradition and time- prayer ritual, farewell ritual, appeal to the God, the black mourning clothes, and lighted candles. Also the Christian tradition represents itself with a picture of Jesus crucified, what is actually image of dying God’s Son. When we enter a Christian church, we can find this picture (of course in different interpretations), and Christian bow their head and pray in front of this picture. But here also we can „read“ cultural tradition and ritual from old days – to the death convicts crucify.

Since the birth of photography people have the opportunity to gain a true vision of reality in the image. Through photographic images of the 20th century. and the 21st Century people have the opportunity to look at the events associated with death: the war scenes, car disaster, a series of accidents and so on. These images are not only testament of history, but they are emotionally powerful, they shock the viewer, require the viewer to turn away, sometimes even we feel ashamed of our lives in front of picture.

When we listen to news that in some country had happened a huge tragedy, for example, an air crash, which has more than 100 fatalities, usually we catch these messages but in cognitive way, it is only fact for us. The death can reach the people, if there is direct connection with people: it affects the people or their relatives; friends or people are virtually identifying with somebody else, who is experiencing the feeling of death (character in book, movie, animation movie, TV show and so one).

Marga Altena in her lecture spoke about TV reality show in the Netherlands, which was attended by people with diagnose-death. A reality show, like the picture or photograph can be a witness of history. We can analyze, discuss about it, but it will not leave the viewer indifferent. I think the aim of the show was to create conditions for these people to live every day full fill with emotion, love, happy as well as they can, and it is opportunity for viewers to think about meaning of life, they have time to evaluate theirselves and the people around them. Marga Altena showed us the fragments of the show, where we saw existential messages from participants and emotions of them, and care, pain of relatives; it spoke to every viewer in the classroom. Again, there appear rituals and traditions associated with death – prayer, farewell, and lighted candles. But it all was just a background, the focus was the emotional experience, what actually is virtual experience, but it was so real.

Here we can realize what really is a virtual experience. Thank you for that. Virtual experiences usually need external incentives – TV screen, theater, book, toy or something else. However we can recognize that virtual world really is in our head, when we know the full story we identify with object or person. Today virtual experience is mediated by digital media, and it is the way how people learn many things today, it is the way how people enjoy different kinds of feelings. Me as a teacher should recognize, that virtual spaces may be the future of contemporary education. And here I found the answer – virtuality is part of reality. Now we have two spaces which both are real, but one of them virtual reality and another real reality.

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