RIP – Steve Jobs and neoliberal immortality


A recent advertisement for VANCL web quotes and shows a book about Steve Jobs. My first reaction was disgust: how is it possible to use someone’s death as a means of pushing goods? However, my random sampling of Chinese friends shows that there is another way of understanding this advertisement – social immortality or 不朽 (buxiu), which means that you continue to influence the world even after you have died. All agree, Steve Jobs achieved buxiu.

According to my friends, who don’t believe in an afterlife but do believe in continuing influence, Jobs achieved buxiu through three forms of social memory: 立功 (establish work),立言 (establish language),立德 (establish morality). 立 means to stand-up or to establish. 功 is a wonderfully rich character that has (at least) five meanings: merit, service, result, achievement, and accomplishment. 言 means language or speech and 德 refers to virtue. In other words, buxiu consists in setting up an institution, being cited, and setting moral standards. Steve Jobs’ accomplishment was to establish Apple, his speeches and citations now circulate on the internet and people learn from them, and his morality was to achieve brand confidence; Apple products are neither counterfeit nor substandard; their virtue as products is guaranteed quality.

Thus described, the kind of buxiu that Jobs has achieved seems classically neoliberal and begs all sorts of questions about how and why we are busy commodifying every aspect of our lives and afterlives. Indeed, we are clearly using economic metaphors to organize how we treat the living and the dead. How else to understand a world where trust can refer to forms of human relationship that have been structured by multi-generational financial arrangements? Consequently, talking about Steve Jobs and VANCL in Shenzhen reminded me of yet another cross-cultural capitalist truth; there’s as much honor and respect attached to VANCL’s use of Steve Jobs to promote online shopping, as there is when his American compatriots link the price of Apple stock to his passing.

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