We live in the age of the dislocated spectacle. As the procession of death carrying forth the body of the deceased Queen passed by, all hands were held aloft in allegiance to the technological gaze. Our eyes are no longer in our heads. We no longer trust them to verify anything, unless it is to be recorded, then projected back into the nowhere lands of the digital void. No longer can persons be present in the moment. They say this is all about “witnessing history”, but who will really remember being “there”? Will they ever look upon those millions of pixelated images of the Monarch again? How the Cloud must be full of displaced sightings of a sovereign ghost who never shall return. What we can say, however, is that if this is all about history, we no longer trust our memories either. Without the digital trace, it simply doesn’t happen, it simply doesn’t matter in any meaningful or elative sense.
We have become watchers without looking, blinded by seduction of the glare, which in space and time draws us further into the reflections cast by a technological vision machine. The Oedipal syndrome thus returns in a new form. But on this occasion, it’s not as a Greek drama concerned by a tragic prophecy whose fate surely awaits. The tragedy has arrived. But where is it exactly? Whom does it concern? And who does it consume? The eyes have already been severed, the bandages already set, as every image is mediated by machines, suspended by post-human watching hands, so eerily reminiscent of the deformed and monstrous figure of the Pale Man that appears in Guillermo Del Torro’s haunting Labyrinth. But even the hands are irrelevant. Mere props that prosthetically connect us into a digital nervous system, which has fully coded the spectacle into a surface of immanent discovery.
Has there ever been a spectacle like this? Diana had already taken mourning to new levels, having been hunted down by the paparazzi on the streets of Paris as the power of the global image properly started to mature. But her body never had to contend with this, never had to contend with the power of us. A world of watchers is a world of paparazzi, schizophrenically torn between place and nonplace, the subject and the self. So maybe we have seen it a million times before, but this looks different, feels different, maybe it’s all too concentrated? The concentration of a dislocated spectacle for a population which is abandoning attentiveness. And there’s symbolism in this act of dislocated remembrance too.
On the streets, there is little standing to attention with heads bowed marking deaths passing. That would have been tradition of a more contemplative, and dare say, less self-centred kind. Heads instead are gazing upward, fixed on the copy of the scene into which they are stood, looking at an image of the event through the filtered lens of their mediating screens. What is to be said of those placing their curious sights above the madding crowds, gazing into the shattered stars of the black glass to say to others, elsewhere, they were part of a virtual connection to time? And even when the devices were banned, as the body lay in State, even then it was as if we couldn’t trust people to be alone with their thoughts; as the BBC livestreamed each passing persons attendance across each of its digital platforms, making one wonder what would happen if Marina Abramovich suddenly appeared and in a performative act refused to leave. The running commentary on the silence was only matched in absurdity by the streaming of the outside queues.
This procession has been running for days now. The dress rehearsal that had been imagined by a generation now finally allowed to take to the main stage. Some are no doubt deeply moved and pay their respects. Yet, to be expected, the event has brought into relief the well-trained performative divisions and rehearsed lines that mark this technologically defined age. The commentary is predictable. The overly sentimental meets the critical in a battle as formulaic as any pageantry. But there is also another space, between the contemplative and the humorous, which compels. Death is a tragedy. But it is also a comedy. How else are we meant to deal with the uncertainty of all? Paraphrasing Nietzsche, we need the art of comedy so that won’t don’t die from the truth. But even this, like everything else today, gets quickly colonised by the need to identify within the dislocated spectacle. How soon would the contentious lines of prose in this divine comedy turn the tasteless joke into a news event, which broadcast on social media, continually fed the needs of the machine? While defenders of free speech now cried and scorned a disrespectful howl, those on the radical/religious left who had already fallen back on the sovereign right to ban were notably silent. Their familiar sense of outrage now also fell quiet, maybe in fear of exposing the double standards that are so painfully apparent behind all universal claims to principled righteousness. The familiar faux outcries of such transgressions so often thrown against the provocative likes of Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais were critically notable by their absences; still those critics reasoned that the situation nevertheless warranted commentary due to the symbolism of it all.
But things are never so obvious and clear cut as the Twitterati would have us believe. They should know. Many of its sages bought into the networked ideas of complexity, contingency and anti-foundationalism; except when it suited their moral agendas so that the world once again can be regally painted red and blue. The trouble is that even the announcer no longer knows, let alone is able to declare, who exactly stands in the reddened corner. Yet what of this positioning? And what of those who maintain the need to act as if one should be amused by it all? Surely if ever there was a case of punching up then punching a line against a dead Monarch fitted the bill? Speaking “ill of the dead” is a rather humorous turn when one thinks about it. Then again, maybe we should be reminded of the immortal words etched on Spike Milligan’s tombstone, “I told you I was ill”, to continue to laugh in the face of oblivion. Back to the positioning, Dave Chappelle had already purposefully challenged the complex lines that make it impossible today to properly say who exactly stands above, to punch below. And when you think of it, literally, nobody is more below than the body of the dead! What we can say is there’s far more humanism in Gervais’s own take on the Afterlife and the tragedy of emptiness which follows than anything anybody on the religious left has ever produced.
If death is a tragic comedy, it is also a ridiculous one. From former Prime Minister Theresa May’s glitching commemoration speech in the House of Commons, which broadcast live on the BBC, had her repeating over and over the words “tin’to a room”; the parades of the Royal Guards still wearing those absurd black skin hats taken from the annually murdered bodies of 100 killed Canadian bears; the soon to be King Charles getting visibly irate about too many pens being on the undersized table at the proclamation of the accession ceremony he’s been dreaming about for most of his adult life; the revival at that event of Olde English language and protocols that repeatedly spoke of the “proclamation of the proclamation” in a manner that must have had the most serious observer thinking at least once about the spontaneous arrival of the Scottish Proclaimers and the breakout words to their working class anthem that spoke of a 500-mile walk (coincidently, almost the exact distance between Balmoral Castle and Buckingham Palace, which was the journey travelled by the dead Queens cortege); matched by the clueless observance of the various politicians and dignitaries at St James Palace that day, who seemingly didn’t know where to put their insecure bodies as they tried to hide behind the protocol of it all, it all points to a comedy of errors. That is why perhaps the comedian truly stands out on such occasions. Another Scotsman, Billy Connolly, mastered the art of the ridiculous. He showed it was at the heart of comedy, the soul that binds a life to the tragedy of its existence. A mantle since picked up by the incomparable Russell Brand, who has come to embody the ridiculous, finding constant humour in the banality of it all, and who’s on-point response to the death of the Queen would have been another reason for the radical/religious left to loathe him, which is to say, another reason why he’s relevant to the world.
The comic fills the air with content that ultimately demands a deeper reflection. Theirs is a performance of a different kind. Like the poetic, it belongs to the anti-spectacle, turning the symbolism and saintliness inside out. Yet, as we search for content in a technological age – one which suffers from the overexposure of everything and notably seeks to kill the art of the unsaid, perhaps it is to be expected that the most overexposed body of all from yesteryear brings the question of history and tradition to the fore. But what is this history that we speak of today in a simulated world of images that wants to record and cancel, make present and whimsically erase, in the very same movement? And does the tradition not also ultimately suffer from a greater overexposure, which simply affirms with even greater clarity and purpose the bizarreness of every ritual for power and belonging?
If there’s one official word that has been repeatedly used to sum up the last few days, its “history”. And of course, we know, it’s always contested. None more so today, than with the fixation on a particular reading of coloniality. It’s not my place to tell anybody how to interpret the past. What I would encourage is a fuller picture of it all. To that end, I would turn to one of the best comedies/tragedies ever made, Richard Attenborough’s “Oh What a Lovely War” that draws upon the songs sung by soldiers in the trenches as it depicts the tragedy of World War I. Such cultural productions that use the power of comedy to ask searching questions on the human condition, should have a marked impact on how we view the Imperial history of Empire and the millions of young men who needlessly died in a moment that should never be forgotten on the fields of the Somme and Passchendaele. Poor white men, who some today called privileged, fighting in the mud and gas, mostly destined to die in some corner of a foreign battlefield, for something they still deferred to at a loss. But poor young men who still, as the film shows in its surreal and yet savagely comical way, found humour and laughter, comradeship, and collective voice in the utter ridiculousness of it all.
Turning our attentions back to tradition, who could say when confronted with all this pomp and ceremony that it was not also marked by the ridiculous? We have been thrown into the theatre of the absurd. But we are not alone. Every tradition revel in its spectres of the ridiculous, but for that reason long may they continue. For it is far better to be knee deep in the mud of a tragic tradition, than to not have one at all. Or worse still, to claim to have one, but only for the spectacle of it all. We may look upon intricately woven costumes and attires which seemingly landed from the Medieval period and wouldn’t look out of place on any Shakespearean production in total bemusement. And yet there is also beauty and refinement in the hand woven craftmanship, which is incomparable (as with so many other things) to the throwaway items of today’s soulless automated machines. And before we encounter the light brigade charges of the anti-populist populists (those who cry against the rise of populist figures, yet say anything they can to win the likes of those invested in the affected share of victimisation to build a social media following), we should be further mindful of the way some symbolic accoutrements are condemned, while others lauded as indigenously authentic, despite the evidence showing that we know of very few planetary tribes that haven’t been violent, oppressive, torturous, and somewhat imperial in ambitions throughout history.
Growing up in a former mining community in South Wales, we too had our history and traditions. But like working class peoples across this Nation, it was less about Regalia than it was ruggedness, less about privilege than it was the rituals of poverty. In fact, our tradition looked more like Caroline Aherne’s Royle Family, which is a tremendous historical document that captured better than anything I have witnessed the doldrums of working-class life, especially the laughter and the silent rage that comes out. Scenes from that sitcom still have me roaring aloud, because the comedy there brings us closer to the poetic truth of poverty, revealing the dark humour that is woven into the fabric of everyday life. And I am sure just as many poor people wept at the death of the fictitious Norma than Elizabeth today. But when I now return to those communities, I see how the bonds already deeply cut by the individualism of Thatcher are being fully swept away by a technological tide. As automation is creating an army of the permanently unemployed, so the very idea of community that was born of the rituals of people gathering in the streets, children playing outside in the rain, men working in the pits, drinking in the clubs, women working in the factories, socialising in the public halls, communities gathering together at the arrival of death, have also given way to the power of the dislocated spectacle and the desire to always and already be elsewhere out of the moment.
Mindful of this, it is my contention that those who condemn the comedy, condemn the tragedy. And in doing so, they rob us of the tools that allow us to cut through the spectacle and symbolism by reminding ourselves of the ridiculousness of history. An element that has been so essential in the eventual fall of tyrants. But as we gaze upon the dislocated spectacle of the lost Queen today, what we also witness is the full appearance of a puritanism of a more technological kind. A world of immanent mediation, where the gaze is now all we need, for it simply affirms a politics of the performative, which in the end, invokes a new kind of hidden hierarchy that’s as plain to see as the coffin carrying a dead corpse. It used to be the sovereign who was put on a pedestal and viewed from below. That vision of history is as outdated as the mournful and respectfully silent bow. For if the sovereign has become a ghost, it’s a technological one, as omnipresent as any God from which it derives its rightful claim and demanding our attentions and allegiance far more than any Monarch ever commanded.