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Vital Ties: Digitally-Mediated Intimacies between the Living and the Dead


This dissertation explores relationships between the living and the dead that are mediated by digital technologies including online memorials, social media accounts, smartphone apps, and virtual reality platforms. As digital media make possible new forms of presence, I ask what the implications are for how grief is experienced, whether and how relationships continue after death, the form that these relationships take, and the ways that they are structured by particular media. I consider what the implications of these emergent relationships are for both models of grief and for theories of mediation.

This ethnography is based on over a year and a half of fieldwork in San Francisco, Chicago, and online. I restricted my fieldsite to the English-speaking world, and my interlocutors were in Britain and Australia as well as the United States. Through interviews and participant-observation, I explored their digital practices and the impact of these practices on their experiences of grief and connection with the dead. The dissertation uses a case-study approach, with each chapter exploring a different digital media through one relationship that takes place on that media.

My findings demonstrate that relationships with the dead not only persist, but can also deepen after death. I argue that the intimacy engendered by these relationships, as well as the forms of reciprocity that they entail, confound contemporary models of normal grief—including those that embrace “continuing bonds” with the dead. The relationships that I describe are often melancholic, organized around the many absences that death introduces. They are also in some way sustaining for both the living and the dead, producing and reproducing them in relation to each other. I use the concept of animation to unpack the particular form of mediation involved. Animation draws attention to forms of presence that do not rely on a one-to-one correspondence between the figure and its iteration, but are rather enriched by the variability, multiplicity, and sometimes even the sparseness with which they are “drawn.” It also invites us to consider how the dead might be animating digital technologies, breathing life into the media through which they encounter their loved ones.

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