Sunday, January 28, 2007

"*** save the queen"

I have just returned from seeing "The Queen," which has been, as I understand, been nominated for several Aacademy Awards. Since there has been such a dearth of worthwhile movies of late, I hope this gets something. Helen Mirren, no doubt, deserves the Best Actress trophy for her portrayal of Elizabeth II R. Overall, I'm pleased that the movie was so nuanced: much more than they tend to be in these days of cheap emotions and shrill polemics.

The film raised some interesting associations in my mind while I was watching with the ideas of René Girard, my intellectuel du jour. To understand this parallel, one must remember that the movie is set against the events that unfolded in the wake of Diana Spencer's death following a car accident in a Paris tunnel. The death of the "people's princess," as PM Blair (regrettably) called her at the time, brought out the populace in droves who put on a tremendous, spontaneous display of communal grief. HRH, duly noting that Diana was no long a member of the royal family, and even as a member, a particularly difficult one, restrained from taking action, preferring to let the Spencer family handle the affair. In the movie, this is portrayed as essentially a political mistake, since it she failed to recognize and capitalize on the "mood" of her subjects, the monarchy lost face and was diminished in the hearts and minds of the British. Be that as it may, I believe that more importantly it effectively illustrates and even substantiates the arguments of Girard as to the development and continued operation of culture.

Girard's main thesis explores the concept of mimetic desire as the origin of human culture. According to him, people are fundamentally mimetic (that is, imitative) creatures. We learn and develop by copying each other. This same propensity for imitation results in conflict and violence when two desire the same thing, the second simply because the first wanted it. The conflict quickly escalates because it is not centered around the contested object at all but on the other person. Then more and more people, following suit, become entangled in the initial conflict. Acts of violence beget imitative reprisals, and soon violence threatens to destroy a fragile community. The violence is stopped, however, by the devolving of blame on one individual by the community, who then receives the punishment for the initiation of violence in order to expiate it from the community. In this manner, order is restored and culture is born through the introduction sacrificial rites. What is important here is that at some point the community unites against a common enemy, a scapegoat whose death will cease the violence which endangers their society. Furthermore, the community is able to exempt itself from any guilt in the spread of violence because it successfully projects its guilt onto the scapegoat. In Girard's scheme, this scapegoat is also the origin of law. Since the scapegoat's power in the community to stop violence which forever looms over them gives this individual special status and a surplus aura and is usually attendant with special privileges in the community, the delay of time between the selection of the scapegoat-victim and the execution of punishment can give the scapegoat the opporunity to consolidate power and privilege into a more permanent position, thus giving rise to kingship. For Girard, a monarch is never more than a paroled victim. Another key moment is that community is united and consolidated by its opposition to an individual who is necessarily excluded from it. As I believe he put it, the community belongs to the victim, but the victim does not belong to the community. In effect, the victim creates the community.

What matter all this? Well, the effects of this idea become far reaching, in personal and public spheres, although that is not what I want to explore here. However, Girard's theory about the formation and operation of culture must first be validated, and I believe that "The Queen," although without at all meaning to do so, does just this. In fact, because it is inadvertent, its proof necessarily takes on more weight than an intentional proof does, since it confirms that this is indeed a natural and inevitable mechanism of human societies. How does it do this? In "The Queen" (and here I am generally assuming it accurately represented the general events as they occurred), an act of violence, in this case the death of Diana Spencer, threatens the community with disintegration by grief, and even a public uprising, which is intimated by Tony Blair. The community, the general mass of Britons, seeking justice, does not lay the blame at the feet of the paparazzi who drove her car into the ground, nor at Diana herself--who perhaps justly reaped the rewards of her wanton and frivolous lifestyle--nor even itself, for its relentless consumption of the tabloids that paid the photographers who hounded her to death, but on the royal family, who failed to see what a "saint" she was. The cards among the flowers left at Buckingham Palace crystalize this, explicitly citing the queen as the author of Diana's demise. While rationally, this is absurd, in the Girardean scheme, the queen must get the blame because she is the monarch and thus the scapegoat. This allows the excess of violence in the community to be cathartically channelled into the victim for the preservation and consolidation of the community, here represented by the resounding applause given to Diana's brother's milquetoast eulogy.

This is all far too sketchy, I am sure to adequately cover the ground, but I hope it whets appetites for closer reading of Girard (who is a Christian, by the way). His thought and writings, I find, are deeply rewarding. As a postscript, though, I think this same parallel can be seen in the public response to our president. Suddenly and swiftly, Bush is being abandoned by everyone. He is losing support because he must. In order to channel our fears concerning the state of the world, Bush is being blamed for not only Iraq, but the environment and every other global crisis. By villifying him--and given the tone of bumperstickers I see these days, even murdering him--people are able to exempt themselves from their own role in the perpetuation of violence in the world. In less than two years, Bush will no longer be in office, and will no longer affect the problems which he inherited from his predecessors. And lo, the problems will not vanish in his passing.

As a post-post script, the asterisks in the title refer to the (accidental) bleeping of the word "God" from the version of "The Queen" shown on commercial airlines. Nevertheless, God save the Queen.

1 comment:

RC said...

great post...and good train of thought...

and yes, the little airline decision/accident bleeping out the word God is very intersting.

certainly worthy of a discussion on when and when not God's name is used in vein.