With the nation’s bunting safely packed away until the next ‘once in a lifetime’ event, POLSIS PhD researcher Alex Oaten reflects on what the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend tells us about contemporary consumerist culture.
Being trapped in a weekend of Diamond Jubilee celebrations is tough when you are an ill tempered Republican, trying to find a flag and paper crown free zone can be even tougher. Solace came from an unexpected source, a well thumbed copy of Fredrick Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. So on concert night, whilst the near geriatric members of ‘Madness’ clambered up the ladder to the roof of Buckingham Palace, I was re-reading Jameson’s notion of ‘pastiche’. Once Jubilee fever died down and my T.V. returned to normalcy I went into chronological retreat and started looking at the equally grand spectacle of Princess Diana; again the postmodern condition spelled out by Jameson seemed to help elucidate aspects of Diana. Can the British Royal family be linked to a culture of postmodern pastiche and consumerism? As ludicrous as it sounds, I actually think they can be.
For Jameson ‘pastiche’ is one of the most significant features of postmodernity. It is here important to note that Jameson’s definition of pastiche – like so many other postmodern terms – is definitely not the definition that you would find in the dictionary. The standard dictionary definition of pastiche is “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period”; pastiche thus understood can be a creative process (for example in architecture where a composition of past styles is used to create a new style). Jameson’s postmodern pastiche however is wholly negative, pastiche is an “imitation of dead styles”, and for Jameson this is evidence that we have both lost our ability to locate ourselves historically and to focus ourselves in the present. Historicity thus becomes meaningless; history simply becomes a great warehouse containing past genres, styles and narratives ready to be (re)used for present consumption. Princess Diana provides a clear example of postmodern pastiche.
Pastiche is inextricably linked with postmodern consumption (capitalism). This leads to a bulimic movement of what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ and a constant search for the latest vogue. This search must turn to the past; for as Jameson asserts “only a limited number of [stylistic] combinations are possible; the most unique ones have been thought of already”. One can see Princess Diana as the epitome of this “imitation of dead styles”. In July 1981 when Diana married her Prince, the genre of fairytale was enlisted as millions around the globe watched through the medium of television. We saw the image of Diana the fairytale princess- Sleeping Beauty- kissed by her (rather awkward) Prince Charming.
However, one narrative alone could ill sustain the fervent appetite for Diana, pastiche is after all “compatible with addiction”; with the proliferation of ever more images of the new Princess, the fairytale bride morphed into ever more explosive and contradictory narratives and genres. These were rooted in a past recollection- not linear, but randomly plucked from history. As Simmonds notes, Diana “achieved the impossible status…of Fairy Princess and Virgin Mother”. The narratives of Diana became the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” which pastiche and consumerism inevitably lead to. Thus we were presented with ‘Diana the Fairytale Princess’ (complete with royal carriage); ‘Diana the Republican’ (the age old struggle between aloof royalty and the commoner); ‘Diana the Virgin Mother’ (producer of the future King and yet still unsoiled by motherhood) and even ‘Diana the Saint’ (reaching out to an AIDS sufferer here and a landmine victim there). This multiplicity of narratives led to a multiplicity of identities – fragmentation.
We can now fast forward a few decades to 2012 and the Diamond Jubilee, in order to highlight another strand of postmodernism within the Royal spectacle. The Diamond Jubilee remained encumbered with the mass consumption logic that is intricately linked to the postmodern spectacle, whether it was Asda selling a pair of Union Jack socks every 3 seconds, News International’s 20% boost in sales with their ‘Souvenir’ editions or Gary Barlow (that star from another circus spectacle who was drafted in to give Her Majesty’s celebratory concert that added zing of unreality) topping the UK Charts. Whilst the Royal spectacle may have been a hoot for the flag waving public it was pure ecstasy for those who control the means of mass consumption. As the consuming public paid for the privilege of being part of something which was billed as truly ‘historic’ the mass consumption industry pocketed the profits and bowed gracefully to Her Maj.
Here we touch upon one of the more contested aspects of postmodernism, its relation to capitalism. Some postmodernists seek to withdraw from the material sphere, thus precluding the possibility of critiquing Asda et al. Instead we should travel along Jameson’s path when he acknowledges that “faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech”; we could say that the spectacle speaks for them – this is not just capitalism this is spectacle capitalism.
This style of (postmodern) consumption capitalism produces a forceful logic of its own, namely the need to consume in anticipation of the spectacle and so long before the roof of Buckingham Palace had been invaded by ‘Madness’, we were already ‘buying’ into it. Thus consumption is inextricably woven into the Royal postmodern spectacle; we spent an extra £334 million on ‘celebratory’ food alone, a far cry from Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897 when the poor were supplied with free bottled ale and pipe tobacco. The Diamond Jubilee of 2012 demonstrates the importance of what Bauman terms “consumer orientation…a self-sustained and self-perpetuating pattern of life”, the spectacle of Royalty became the latest billboard for consumer orientation.
Along with our sense of historical perspective (and our wallets) another casualty of postmodern Royalty is our sense of time- especially the proportionality of time. Whilst the Diana pastiche produced a jumbled and meaningless stream of historical genres and narratives to keep pace with the endless images, the Diamond Jubilee produced a temporal elongation. The original spectacle was extended to the point of utter banality. For example, after the BBC had finished giving us a running commentary on the whole spectacle other media outlets spent even longer commentating on the BBC’s commentary of the spectacle. Time is extended to allow for maximum (paid) consumption. So we had The Telegraph reporting that the BBC had been criticised for its “low grade celebrity driven drivel” commentary, and then three days later gleefully announcing their ‘Top 20 Moments of The Diamond Jubilee’, coming in at number 3 was “Cliff Richard’s bottom smacking [and] leggy Grace Jones in PVC, hula-hooping her way through her song”.
As for The Thames flotilla, that was another example of pastiche- nothing but an ‘imitation’ of ‘dead styles’- it was like a nostalgia film. Boats – cheered on by thousands hiding behind photo face-masks of the Royals – were pursued by hi-tech cameras down the river. In times gone by this was a necessary journey (or ‘progress’) for the Monarchy to reach important locations, not so anymore. Instead it was billed by the organisers themselves as a “spectacle”; it was an unnecessary recreation of an historic journey for present aesthetic consumption.
Finally we had ‘Madness’ on the roof of Buckingham Palace; was this the dictionary definition of pastiche or Jameson’s definition of pastiche? Whatever your answer, the fact that a popular cockney band was slapped on top of Buckingham Palace demonstrates a clear disruption of two key modernist categories (those of ‘high culture’ and ‘commercial culture’) all in the name of aesthetic spectacle. And that’s a very postmodern stunt to pull!
Alex Oaten is a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research seeks to utilise theories of postmodernity to aid in the understanding of contemporary social and political movements. Contact him at AFO760@bham.ac.uk.