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Media, Monarchy and Power

Media, Monarchy and Power

by Neil Blain, Hugh O'Donnell

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Is obsession with the Royal Family in Britain a fact of culture or an illusion of media culture? What interest do the European media display in their royal families? Does twenty-first century monarchy remain a political and ideological force - or is it just an economic commodity? Media, Monarchy and Power provides a radical insight into the cultural and political


Is obsession with the Royal Family in Britain a fact of culture or an illusion of media culture? What interest do the European media display in their royal families? Does twenty-first century monarchy remain a political and ideological force - or is it just an economic commodity? Media, Monarchy and Power provides a radical insight into the cultural and political functioning of royalty in five countries. Blain and O'Donnell examine the bonds between monarchies and their 'subjects' or 'citizens', and the relationships between royal families, the media, and nation-states. Numerous case-studies from press and television in Europe and the UK support a theoretical account of the operation of monarchy and royalty in the media. Central to the concerns of Media, Monarchy and Power are the complex relationship between Britain and Europe and the limits of British political modernization.

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Media, Monarchy and Power

By Neil Blain, Hugh O'Donnell

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2003 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-877-1


Modern and Postmodern Monarchy

The relatively stable aesthetic of Fordist modernism has given way to all the ferment, instability and fleeting qualities of a postmodernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and the commodification of cultural forms

(David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 1989: 156)

Historical scenes have always been cleverly and cunningly 'staged' by certain men who were aiming for specific results

(Henri Lefebvre, 1947)

... with wild fervour but no sycophancy or fanaticism, all decent British people today give three loud cheers

(A.N. Wilson, on the Queen Mother's centenary, Daight be historically new, both socially and culturally, about the last thirty or so years; that is, what might maly Mail, 4 August 2000)

'Big Brother with a family tree' (Dutch NRC Handelsblad on the Dutch monarchy, 16 May 2001)

There is a specifically temporal aspect of this study which is central to the understanding of the cultural politics of European monarchy. It concerns the matter of what mike the so-called postmodern phase of history special, which might help us to understand why royalty has become a phenomenon inseparable from transformations of culture into media culture; and also why it is closely bound into a new phase of consumption which many commentators have distinguished as the central feature of developed societies in their current phase. These questions of media culture and consumer culture, which are closely related, bear very importantly on our understanding of royalty as a political phenomenon.

The analysis and argumentation which follow pay especial attention to the distinction between modernity and postmodernity as categories within which to understand politico-cultural development generally and the functioning of royalty in particular. This book is concerned primarily with the recent history of monarchy as a media phenomenon, but that history has occurred within very dynamic social and cultural circumstances, and in order to grasp their significance it will be helpful to be clear about 'modern' and 'postmodern' aspects of recent history, and how they impact on an understanding of monarchy.

'Modern' in this book is a term which is used chiefly in its economic and political dimensions, and specifically in association with ideas prevalent in the phase of modernity, whose period is continuously debated, but was certainly well inaugurated by the second half of the nineteenth century (Berman, 1983: 15–36). It was in decline in some of its aspects from the First World War, yet further after the Second, but vigorous enough economically until the 1960s (Bell, 1973; Fussell, 1977: 36–74, 315–335; Habermas, 1991; Harvey, 1989: 173–188; Hutcheon, 1988; Huyssen, 1984; Lefebvre, 1991; Rose, 1991). It is understood as a historical period with a beginning, and – in its pure form – an end, so let us say very roughly, 1850–1970, with many qualifications.

The idea itself that modernity has 'ended' needs to be qualified. In fact, we require a flexible notion of historical period which enables us to propose that it is only in its most characteristic form that the 'modern' world gradually evolves into the 'postmodern' world in the 1960s and 1970s. It is true that after the 1960s some characteristics of the modern phase diminish. Most crucially, the economic world of modernity does radically change between 1965 and 1974, with very large consequences for the nature of culture. If we wish to understand why Princess Diana was a 'postmodern' phenomenon then we need to understand how her existence as an economic product (besides, of course, yet other facets of her postmodern nature) grew directly from the collapse of the modern economic world.

And of course the development of a postmodern phase of history involves new phenomena, not merely the decline of old dynamics – phenomena such as the intensive round of what has been called 'mediatization', which we may define as the process whereby more and more of culture becomes media culture. Diana's nature as a phenomenon was, and is still, intensively associated with the mediatization of culture. These two ideas – of radical economic change and exponential growth in the centrality of the media in culture – are developed further in the next section in relation to their bearing upon the development of monarchy in the media age.

Meanwhile, it is worth completing the claim that modernity, though it may have been in some sense displaced, has not 'stopped'. There are still, as we shall see, many aspects of contemporary society for which we shall require to invoke the presence of 'modern' forces. Indeed, this book will make something of our belief that 'postmodernization' may well have taken place at different rates in the different countries whose monarchies are our concern. In the sense we will be using it here, 'postmodernity' does not mean a separate new historical phase 'after' modernity, but rather a new phase continuous with modernity and running alongside what remain of modern forces in their attenuated form. We will not take issue with any readers who refuse the term 'postmodern' altogether. Some commentators have preferred to see the current epoch as a phase of 'late modernity'. If it is, then it is a modernity greatly changed. What is important is that we are able to perceive the growth of new and central features of society and culture since the 1960s, whatever we call them.

In fact the idea that there are often long transitional zones between overlapping historical periods is merely a commonplace. The surprise is that a number of anglophone commentators since the late 1980s have written as though the postmodern period had suddenly and uncomplicatedly just 'arrived', a tendency satirized by Charles Jencks in his ironic assertion that postmodernity began on 'July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm' (Jencks, 1991: 23) which is when the Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks in St Louis, Missouri – housing designed in 1951 which had failed its inhabitants – were dynamited; this was 'the death of modern architecture' (for a particularly useful history of usages of the term 'postmodern' and associated forms, see Rose, 1991).

Historians seldom oversimplify social and cultural transitions except in a cause. Fernand Braudel, rigorously avoiding simplistic thinking about the origins of the modern, records that a 'bourgeois of Reims' has noted in his diary, in 1632, that his grandfather wants a particular marriage for him, yet, says the grandson, 'it's not my grandfather who is getting married, it's me'. Braudel asks:

Should we think that this is a language new for the time, the 'modern' attitude of a man of the seventeenth century? Or is it simply that of a man who, having been born in Champagne, enjoyed a certain traditional independence within the family?

(Braudel, 1986: 109)

Commentators looking elsewhere, for example in literary sources, for historical evidence of 'modern' perceptions in culture, might in practice find it (like Marshall Berman) in attitudes to the modern phenomenon of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century in France or Russia (Berman, 1983). But in Britain, which industrialized early, Raymond Williams convincingly finds similar attitudes as early as Wordsworth's Prelude, begun in 1798 and finished in 1805 (Williams, 1985: 13–24). This evidence warns us to be alert to the complications of uneven development, in both modern and postmodern contexts (similar complexities of argument surround 'postmodernism' in the literary and visual arts).

In the same spirit, we might say that if Princess Diana may have been in some sense a 'postmodern phenomenon', then (even if proven) that does not at all necessarily imply that Princess Stephanie of Monaco – of a country with an entirely different history – represents a similar instance. It certainly does not mean that Princess Stephanie's mother, Grace Kelly, a personality arguably better understood as 'modern', can plausibly be presented as a prefigurement of Diana, nor that the Spanish royal family, to take another example, has been significantly postmodernized. Recent Spanish political history is remarkably different from Britain's and the countries' economic histories are different too.

Speaking (at the end of the 1980s) of the phenomenon of modernity, Fredric Jameson notes 'how differently the various academic disciplines, as well as the various national traditions, have framed it':

'"Modernism" has come only recently to France, "modernity" only recently to us, "modernization" belongs to the sociologists, Spanish has two separate words for the artistic movements ("modernismo" and "vanguardismo"), etc. Acomparative lexicon would be a four- or five-dimensional affair, registering the chronological appearance of these terms in the various language groups, while recording the uneven development observable between them.

(Jameson, 1991)

'Uneven development' in our argument about monarchy is a trait also of the modern and the postmodern as real processes in the overlapping domains of the world – economic, social, cultural, political, psychological – which they have (unevenly) colonized (Harvey, 2000: 53–94). Jameson's writing about postmodernity has made a feature of problematizing the relationship between the modern and the postmodern.

However, Charles Jencks for his part opines that:

the Marxist critics, such as Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, are a little hasty in calling our condition post-modern when, if the periodisation is going to be made in their terms, it might be more consistently termed Late-Modern (to correspond with their characterisation of the economic base as Late-Capitalist). Further confusion arises from equating the post- modern condition with the various post-modern movements, as if there were a total world system and culture.

(1992: 13)

Andreas Huyssen, speaking of 'uneven development', and focusing on cultural movements, argues that:

... the global view which sees the 1960s as part of the modern movement extending from Manet and Baudelaire if not from romanticism, to the present is not able to account for the specifically American character of postmodernism. After all, the term accrued its emphatic connotations in the United States; not in Europe. I would even claim that it could not have been invented in Europe at the time. For a variety of reasons, it would not have made any sense there......... West Germany was trying to reclaim a civilized modernity and to find a cultural identity tuned to international modernism which would make others forget Germany's past as predator and pariah of the modern world..... In the context of French intellectual life, the term 'postmodernism' was simply not around in the 1960s, and even today it does not seem to imply a major break with modernism as it does in the US.

(Huyssen, 1992: 48–49)

In Chapter 7, we analyse Norwegian press commentary on the relationship between the crown prince Haakon and his controversial bride-to-be (as she then was) Mette-Marit, overtly framed within references to the postmodernization of culture. When the prince confirmed the relationship, as we shall see, Dagbladet of 13 May 2000 carried an editorial entitled 'Postmodern monarchy' where the author argued that:

A modern monarchy must at regular intervals seek new legitimacy by showing that it has value for society. This is not easy to do at a time when political debate is subdued to the point of silence, all political views are moving towards the centre and ideologies have died out ... in the long run it's doubtful if [the monarchy] can be sustained as a weekly-magazine monarchy.

In an article on 4 April 2001 calling for a move towards a presidency, the same newspaper wrote 'we are living in a postmodern era where mystique and the irrational have a new place in people's philosophy'. Even when the term 'postmodern' was not expressly used, it was frequently implicit in the debate. Thus Dagbladet on 15 April 2000 saw the prince's relationship as constituting:

the beginning of a comprehensive modernisation of the monarchy where openness, closeness to the people and a strong social commitment are important elements. But it can also be the beginning of the end because the throne is increasingly experienced as a piece of furniture from IKEA.

We analyse in Chapter 7 an extraordinary article on the Norwegian engagement which explicitly constructs the imminent royal wedding as part of a consumer and media landscape from which it is indistinguishable, like fact and fiction themselves. As Norwegian society postmodernizes there are increasing calls from broadly left-wing sources for a modernization of the monarchy.

In Chapter 5 we note how, in parallel to the manner that the current king has been consistently constructed in Spain as the architect of the previous transition from 'pre- modernity' to modernity, his son is now being constructed as the key to a new transition from the modern to the postmodern.

Writers such as Jean-François Lyotard have gone so far as to suggest that the postmodern may be only a phase of the modern, or as Lyotard more audaciously suggested in the 1980s, a prerequisite for the renewal of the modern (Lyotard, 1984: 71–82): while Jameson's fundamental proposition that capitalism is at a 'late stage' has itself been open to question.

Rather than take an either/or approach to the matter of choosing to believe or disbelieve in a wholesale process of postmodernization since the 1960s it may be possible to recognize, first, that if the transitional period under such often fierce debate has been merely around twenty or thirty years, then by the standards of some transitional periods in history this would be the blink of an eye. To insist that the period 1974 (say) until the present was 'postmodern' in any straightforward sense probably ought to seem absurd – though it has not prevented many arguments being offered in such a spirit.

A final example of the need for flexibility is provided by the early publication of Daniel Boorstin's work on celebrity and 'pseudo-events', both of which are of much relevance in this study. Was Diana's funeral, as hysterically constructed by the British media, a pseudo-event? Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America in 1961, which is early in relation to the appearance of parallel French post-structuralist writing, though there is early work by, among others, Foucault around this period,as well as the deconstructive psychiatric writing of R. D. Laing (of course Pop Art had a 'deconstructive' dimension too). We examine some of Boorstin's ideas on celebrity in the Conclusion. He is one of many practitioners in a variety of domains of cultural production – such as Warhol in the visual and musical arts – who are hinge figures between the increasingly attenuated modernity of the 1950s and the postmodern world of the mid-to-late 1970s.

The notion of the 'postmodern' is perhaps best grasped as a transitional phase of the modern – whether on its way to extinction or renewal – in which the modern is sufficiently altered as to require the addition of a new conceptual range to help us grasp it. As Jameson says:

I occasionally get just as tired of the slogan "postmodern" as anyone else, but when I am tempted to regret my complicity with it, to deplore its misuses and its notoriety, and to conclude with some reluctance that it raises more problems than it solves, I find myself pausing to wonder whether any other concept can dramatize the issues in quite so effective and economical a fashion.

(1991: 418)

'Double-coding' of the modern and postmodern: a concrete explanation

For the benefit of readers whose familiarity with postmodernism theory is limited, this short explanation of a possible plural approach to contemporary culture focuses on the architectural field, where much of the conceptual material of 'postmodernism theory' was developed. Writers on architecture and urban design were innovators of the theorization of postmodern culture. In this short section we are going to propose a plural approach to reading culture, which we thereafter apply to the phenomenon of monarchy. We will then indicate how these ideas can be used in understanding culture generally and monarchy in particular.

If this illustration of how culture can be simultaneously 'modern' and 'postmodern' is helpful, then perhaps our readers will forgive us if we concentrate – for fewer than a dozen paragraphs – on what for this book is an architectural metaphor for monarchy, the more thoroughly to understand the latter.


Excerpted from Media, Monarchy and Power by Neil Blain, Hugh O'Donnell. Copyright © 2003 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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