Merrin, W. (1999) 'Crash, bang, wallop! What a picture! The death of Diana and the media', in Mortality, Vol 4, No 1: 41- 62.
A cold public life seeks warmth in media coverage of public events. The media did far more than just exaggerate or amplifiy the events of Princess Diana's death [I'm not sure if Merrin is also denying that the media struggled to interpret the event and managed to impose some themes of their own, both of which seem indisputable]. The argument here is that the media actually constituted the experience and the realities of the event, that the death was primarily a 'media event' [that is, hyperreal, a fusion of the actually occurring events and media interpretations of them]. [Merrin also uses the example to comment on different approaches by Boorstin, McLuhan and Baudrillard, in ways which are similar to his later piece].
Diana lived a life in and through the media, and the grief at her death reflected classic television concerns, including 'the Ricki Lake-style confessional and "reality show" of the public mourning; the public performance and media spectacle of the funeral; the advertising campaign and merchandising of the death' (42 - 3). Medium and message imploded, so that 'all our experience of the life and death of Diana is irreversibly saturated with our media forms' (43). There is no other way of knowing of the event, outside of media constructions.
Diana rapidly took on the form of a media image, a simulacrum. [A quick history of the simulacrum, its good and bad sides, follows, as in the later piece]. In 'postmodernism', images take on their full power and become more real than reality [actually citing Boorstin here]. Baudrillard used the term hyperreality to explain how 'the image eclipses the real by its very excess of reality' (44) [Incidentally a note says that he got this term from a description of an American art movement 'which in paintings and sculptures sought to reproduce the real photographically' n2 (60)]. Celebrity simulacra help to fill the emptiness and coldness of ordinary life. Diana was 'an empty image into which people projected their own emptiness' (44), a classic transference symbol in psychoanalytic terms. It is not surprising that the familiar qualities of the celebrity soon became 'linked to her claimed saintly and sacred nature' (45), given the tendency towards idolatry in the history of simulacrum. In this, she soon out ranked the royal family, supposedly sacred by birth. The media literally sanctified her on her death: 'a simulcral usurpation of [the Christian] divine' (46). While she was a real person, she lived for most people through her image, and she contributed to that image herself, living a life that was 'cinematic' (46). Even her death was like a Bond movie [Merrin also works in pretty obvious references to Casablanca, Speed, Diva and Crash -- 47].
In the period of mourning, the same television clips were shown again and again, so that our emotions were also 'scripted, produced and directed' (47). The tears were not for the woman but for this movie. There was nothing to actually report, despite the dominating constant coverage. Some viewers did complain at the suspension of normal coverage, apparently (48), but actual public grief was unmistakably displayed, especially with the mountain of 'floral tributes'. Condolence books were opened [what on earth did people write in them? I read a few on-line ones and many people seem to have written messages for Diana, which is particularly, unless they were being written really for other people to read?]. Millions attended for the funeral.
Merrin insists that this could not have been grief for a real person, but for an image, a reaction to a media death, like the deaths in soap operas. Some people who had recently been bereaved found the display offensive. One journalist described it as '"recreational grieving", an "enjoyable" experience, that promoted the griever from audience to actor' (49). Again, the grief is inseparable from media coverage, part of a growing 'model of public mourning' developed by the media, with its characteristic displays of tributes, whatever the object of the grief. It was a 'media-derived production and reproduction of the signs of grief; signs without even a reference' (50). It had nothing to do with the rediscovery of public emotion [or 'floral revolution' -- see my own sceptical account]. Both the media and the public collaborated in this production.
It became important to grieve in public 'to produce the appropriate signs and to participate in the street theatre of mourning' (51). The public became both stars and the audience. Non-grievers were forced to conform, including the royal family. Any private mourning by the relatives seemed unreal by comparison 'and not mourning, unthinkable' (51). The 'nation united in grief' was another media image, as well as 'the public', and those who did not mourn were excluded [I personally received considerable flak from a neighbour for not mourning].
The whole event indicates an '"implosion" of all separation, and of all distinction' (52), leading to a complete domination by the media event. The funeral itself 'was a non-event -- a media event' (53) [an echo here of the famous Baudrillard argument that the Gulf War never happened, which Merrin has defended in another piece along identical lines]. Media events replace experience of the real world by 'translating the world into signs' (53). The funeral itself was covered in a typical way that the media cover major events like Cup Finals -- the build up, the commentary, 'hyperbole, overstatement and forced melodrama, the same banalities and the same cliches' (53), with the key points available in action replays and repackages. The crowd acted as extras and audience: they applauded a speech at the funeral, listened to Elton John, applauded and photographed the hearse --'because they recognise they had just seen a show' (55). People could buy the official video as well as the CD soundtrack, and soon, a whole range of other Diana merchandise. In this way, the image of Diana lives on [and examples of some of the souvenirs are provided on 55].
There was a discussion of blame. The paparazzi were blamed initially, and the press were seen as amoral. The photographs of the crash offer a classic example of what Baudrillard calls obscenity [or pornography -- as in the other article]. Many of the photographs of Diana were obscene in this respect, 'subject of this pornographic desire to force the real to reveal itself; to realise it in its ordinaryness; to hyperrealize the real in its banality' (57). The public [hypocritically?] participated in its eager viewing and photographing, and in its support for 'the Diana "grief industry"' (57). The live coverage of the events displayed the same tendency, with a programme before the funeral even displaying the funeral route as the corpse would have viewed it (58). Death tours were offered in Paris. A Diana theme park [my phrase not Merrin's] was opened in Althorp House -- rather like 'visiting the set of the TV programme or film' (59), part of the 'media imaginary' (59). Some visitors displayed rather mundane reactions, complaining about the price of the ticket or the obscured view of the burial site.
There could be a kind of devaluation to come, since 'the more we try to produce the real the more we threaten it' (59), and the more we feel insecure. The hyperreality of Diana now means that the real is unrecoverable, and questions of the reality of her life are decipherable. Even academic criticism becomes part of the hyperreal -- 'this paper, therefore must fail: it has no real to offer, and must itself constitute another simulacrum of Diana, and of those days in September, 1997' (60). As an afterword, Merrin notes that the first anniversary of the death 'passed with barely a ripple', and that sales of Diana memorabilia are no longer high. Echoing Baudrillard, Merrin concludes that 'perhaps the real danger we face is when these ideas become obvious' (60).
[An interesting example of the application of the concept of hyperreality, the last stage of the simulacrum, but also a curiously passionate piece. Merrin exhibits a great deal of scorn for the voyeuristic public and media, almost as if he thinks there is still a 'proper' way to mourn somebody, proper emotions and proper behaviour -- classic 'nostalgia for the real'. He cites a number of journalists in his account who seem to argue precisely this. At the same time, there is an attempt to bring this obvious contempt back under control and to insist that it is a matter of pornographic culture rather than individuals. Even so, I still think it possible to detect the same kind of distancing behaviour that you can find in a lot of academic commentary on popular culture -- the rest of Britain mourned, but Merrin stayed cool; the public engaged in the staged emotionalism of the media event, but Merrin remained objective and analytic. I can appreciate that distancing behaviour like this is probably essential if you are to take on the grief police, especially close to the actual event -- but there is still a clear hint of the pleasures of the 'high aesthetic' in opposition to popular sentiment, just as with Disney critics (see my piece).]
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