The Queen of Spectacle

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has been a potent reminder that despite all the turmoil and crisis in the world, the society of the spectacle still reigns supreme and remains a phenomenon of power that genuinely thrives in the current environment. Ever since the death of the British monarch was announced, all forms of media and information conveyance have briskly been churning out stories, rumors, opinions, editorials, “hot takes,” and conspiracy theories covering every conceivable angle of an event that, in the final analysis, is devoid of any real drama. The death of a 96 year-old woman, regardless of her station or title, is hardly the stuff of gripping suspense, yet as Guy Debord argued almost sixty years ago, in the alchemy of the society of the spectacle, the banal is transformed into the profound and vice versa. As Debord wrote in 1967,

Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from. The vestiges of religion and of the family (the latter is still the primary mechanism for transferring class power from one generation to the next), along with the vestiges of moral repression imposed by those two institutions, can be blended with ostentatious pretensions of worldly gratification precisely because life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.[1]

In the case of the mass bereavement of the Queen, a figure who occupies a position of a demi-god in society and sits atop of massive institutional arrangement that works non-stop to maintain and legitimize itself and the enormous expense it incurs is nevertheless portrayed in a humble and humanizing way. The Queen in her life was “just like us”[2] and all the gossip surrounding her children and grand children is presented in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from a typical reality show or streaming show about a rich powerful family. On the part of the regular masses, they have the privilege of having the grind of their daily lives temporarily halted and their cities, towns and villages briefly adorned in the same manner as a typical royal estate or palace. Assuming one is willing to wait in a line of up to 30 hours, one can very briefly walk through the hallowed spaces of Westminster Hall, a space usually inaccessible to the “regular” people, to see the Queen lying in state.

In this process of banalization, the spectacle is able to take profound contradictions or the status quo distribution of power that might lead to genuine social and political change and render them tame, while taking trivial trifles and elevating them to the heights of epic struggle. In the case of the Queen’s funeral, very troubling questions about the price of energy for the upcoming winter and the on-going struggles of British society in a post-Brexit world are minimized while the movement of a dead woman in a coffin is covered by the mass media with bated breath.[3] Indeed, one can observe in the mourning of the Queen a common occurrence with the death of someone Debord might label as a “star” or celebrity (See here a discussion of some of Debord’s writing on this subject).[4] One might call it the “grief riot,” or a kind mass outpouring of pent-up emotion that may emerge from genuine emotions but quickly gets contained and ultimately re-directed toward a specific political end that reinforces the status quo. Indeed, the “grief riot” associated with the death of the queen brings out a similar display of state power as one might find in a traditional riot, as the Metropolitan Police said policing the events of the Queen’s death would be its largest operation ever. Implied in this statement is that the multi-day London riots of 2011 were somehow less of a public order challenge than the throngs of grieving masses coming out to pay their respects to the Queen in 2022.

The substantial presence of security forces amid the media protocols of covering the Queen’s death is also a reminder of the integrated nature of the spectacle in the twenty-first century. Though the spectacle is still subject to fragmentation, the funeral events in Great Britain demonstrate how the tools of “soft power” and “hard power” compliment each other in configuring both the physical and intersubjective mental spaces of a population. The stories of individual Britons weeping as the Queen passes[5] amid the pomp and circumstance of the state may lack the same impact of the catatonic intensity of the wails of those observing the funeral procession of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, they nevertheless show how the spectacle is able to conjure up similar responses to the deaths of its celebrities regardless of the form of government or state of society one finds oneself in.[6]  

One could argue–not unconvincingly–that whatever its faults, the Queen and the larger institutions of British royalty are a core aspect of British culture and, no matter how they are presented in the age of media saturation, remain crucial to British identity. With regard to the outpouring of grief at the death of the Queen in the United States,[7] the spectacle reveals another facet of its power. This is especially interesting given the core mythos of the United States as a country that fought a war to escape the rule of British monarchical power and that many of the articulations of grievance in the Declaration of Independence and fundamental rights in the US Constitution are direct repudiations of the arbitrary power of the King and British imperialism. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, certain right-wing pundits—those that are quickest to accuse their political enemies of lacking patriotism and undercutting American power, crafted their own defenses of British imperialism.[8] While such apologies for imperialism are given in bad faith, they do make sense in the present logic of the spectacle, when contrarian “hot takes” are what drive clicks and views and generate both media dollars and media drama.

As Debord argued in several places in The Society of the Spectacle, the spectacle is the all-powerful sentinel of the status quo. It aggressively seeks out all the various facets of thought on a topic or event and pits them into gladiatorial combat against each other in its various media platforms with the intention of exhausting the discourse and moving on to the next controversy. The death of the Queen is but one case study of how this process works in a number of different ways. There is also in this an understanding of why nothing seems to change amid the ever expanding number of crisis in the world and the stakes that seem to be raised with each passing one of them. All the outcomes of these debates and discussions, whether on the future of Ukraine or the effects of climate change always resolve themselves in a stalemate and the prevailing of the current configuration of power. The question to ponder at this state of paralysis is what will finally be the tipping point for change?    

     [1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Berkley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 23-24.  



     [4] Debord, 24-25.





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