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The Death of Princess Diana

The Death of Diana: When Britain Entered Hyperreality (Never to Return)

(06 October 2007)

We’ve recently passed the tenth anniversary of one of the most momentous days in British history – 31 August 1997, the date of our entry into hyperreality. Of course, most people will remember this as the date of the death of Princess Diana, and the two events are inextricably linked.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of hyperreality, it was introduced by the late, great philosopher Jean Baudrillard, often dubbed the high priest of postmodernism. In simple terms, hyperreality is characterised by a blurring of fantasy and reality. Fakeness, artificiality and simulation are experienced as more ‘real’ than reality itself. Hyperreality revolves around images, signs and symbols of impossible perfection, decoupled from the reality they’re supposed to reflect. Cary Grant famously said, Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.’ This is the essence of hyperreality.

Grant, seemingly a famous American, was actually born as Archibald Leach in England. He was an actor – a profession concerned with impersonating the invented characters of novels, plays and screenplays. Viewed in this light, Cary Grant was already enjoying a tenuous connection with reality, but the ‘myth of Cary Grant’ (his hyperreality, one might say) left even him in its wake.

The mythical Cary Grant was a simulation of the ‘real’ Cary Grant and ended up bearing no relationship to the original. Baudrillard would have described Cary Grant, Hollywood legend, as asimulacrum – a copy without an original. Ostensibly, superstar Grant could trace his beginnings to Archibald Leach, but the two had so little in common, other than occupation of the same physical space, that any comparison became absurd. As Grant himself said, I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.’ To conjure yourself into existence as an act of pretence is as good an illustration of the hyperreal process as any other.

So, hyperreality is populated by simulacra and driven by simulation. Archibald Leach might have been real once, but he was swallowed by hyperreality and ceased to exist. Even his replacement, Cary Grant, was swallowed, being replaced by the myth of Cary Grant, impossible even for the ‘real’ Cary Grant to emulate.

Princess Diana was the most glaring example of British hyperreality. Being a ‘princess’, she was already a denizen of the land of fairytale, an older form of hyperreality. Add in celebrity culture and the myth of the sad little lost girl trapped in a cruel, wicked family (the royals), and you have a perfect storm of hyperreality. The ‘reality’ of Diana Spencer was that she was a spoiled, ill-educated, neurotic, egotistical monster of self-love and infinite self-delusion. But hyperreality erased all of those deficiencies and launched Diana into the mythosphere where she became a preposterous goddess for the credulous British people who, more than anyone else on earth, lap up the empty cult of celebrity.

The disgraceful British tabloid newspapers exist permanently in the realm of the hyperreal, never straying into any balanced portrayal of reality. Quite simply, reality offends tabloid editors. It’s boring and dull and therefore unnewsworthy and unacceptable. Until it has been given a glossy finish of hyperreality, it doesn’t merit a moment’s consideration.

Diana was a tabloid creation par excellence. The hyperbolic rules of hyperreality demanded that she die in the flash photography of the paparazzi in Paris of all places, the hyperreal city of fake romance. And in a tunnel too – the subterranean way back to humdrum reality, perhaps – but hyperreality shuts off all escape routes.

The outpouring of grief that greeted Diana’s death was in every way synthetic; a simulation of real grief. Diana Spencer wasn’t a real person any more than Cary Grant. How can there be genuine grief at the death of a simulacrum? The only tears are hyperreal ones. Britain was awash with all the archetypal signs of mourning, all the tenderest manifestations of grief, but without a scintilla of authenticity. None of the weeping hordes that laid flowers outside Kensington Palace had ever met Diana. Tabloid newspapers and TV programmes mediated their only contact with her: all they knew was the Diana media myth. How could they possibly shed genuine tears over a myth?

Nowadays our simulated grief is much more meaningful to us than the real thing. Where would we be without our carpets of flowers, without our endless queues to sign books of condolence, without applauding flag-draped coffins as they sweep past in majestic hearses with police outriders? All the signs of grief, but no actual grief. The signs have replaced the real thing – hyperreality has dismissed reality with a flick of its hyperreal hand.

The only time in my life when I’ve been sympathetic towards the ‘royal’ family was when they were accused of not properly mourning the death of Diana, of ‘not caring’. In fact, they were grieving as British people have traditionally done: privately and discreetly. But the British people, in all their newly found Blairite superficiality, demanded that the Queen show signs of mourning, ‘proof’ that would stand up under the merciless scrutiny of the court of hyperreality. So, soon enough, the revolting masses got their flags flown at half-mast, their emotional speeches by the Queen, their extravagant funeral (orchestrated in large part, it seems, by that master of hyperreality – Alastair Campbell).

The last ten years have been a nightmare of spin, celebrity worship, the unstoppable rise of the super-rich, tabloid excess, anti-intellectualism, religious fanaticism, the pursuit of impossible perfection: a hyperreal hell presided over by Tony Blair, a hyperreal prime minister if ever there was one.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to return to reality, if only we could remember what it was? (Did we ever really know?) Baudrillard said, ‘When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.’ Contestants on Big Brother (another product of the last dreadful decade of hyperreality), forever talk about ‘keeping it real’ and showing the public the ‘real me’. That, of course, is the clarion call of hyperreality – nothing is more important than the pretence of reality now that it no longer exists.