Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Complexity Behind a Simple Life

A re-occurring archetype: A person is raised up by a society. The person is then vilified and torn down. Then, in death, the person is canonized. This formula has been repeated in both fiction and in history. Shakespeare's tragedies and history plays often follow the format. Freud was so convinced in the universality of this phenomenon that he wrote a revisionist history of the Old Testament, claiming that Moses must have been actually killed by the Israelites (who then became the world's first monotheistic people out of some kind of guilt complex).

More recently, Princess Diana is a good example of someone who fits the pattern. However, there is something different about her narrative. It is singularly remarkable that, even given the long, sordid, and bloody history of the British monarchy, that a Royal would essentially be killed by the media. The modern contribution to the archetype is the insertion of a powerful media, which can quickly accomplish the work of building up, tearing down, and canonizing. The Diana story is made even more remarkable by the very literal role the paparazzi played in her destruction. The media is often demonized (and personified) as an amoral, out of control entity. Ironically, the media itself is most responsible for this portrayal. Almost all criticism of the media is made or at least reflected by the media itself, where endlessly repeated platitudes about the shallowness of contemporary culture are churned out ad infinitum, while nothing changes in the way media is actually produced or consumed. It's almost as if the media is sustained by this cycle of canonization and vilification, with the self-criticism serving as a perpetual fuel, a constant confession without the requisite penance which would close the cycle.

That Diana's death is part of a cycle was perhaps inadvertently emphasized by Elton John performing a recycled song at her funeral. The original "Candle in the Wind" was about Marilyn Monroe and the media's role in her rise and fall. The idea of Marilyn Monroe being recycled was recently observed by one Paris Hilton, who was more sagacious than she got credit for when she told the British UK Sunday Times last summer: ""I think every decade has an iconic blonde, like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. And right now, I'm that icon."

Of course, one key difference between Paris and Diana is that Diana was automatically an icon by virtue of a pre-existent aristocracy. Paris may have been born into a de facto aristocratic background, but by no means are Americans compelled to recognize her as "special." I can't help but wonder if her prominence in pop culture is in order to serve as a kind of scapegoat onto which Americans can project their own jealousies. According to, in the brief time in which she was released from jail, L.A. government officials were flooded with thousands of e-mails from angry people from all over the country. The website posted several of them. A representative example can be found here.

What strikes me most in the example above (aside from the atrocious grammar) is the final sentence: "Such a great example for our kids, dont worry son if your rich you can [expletive] on people it doesnt matter." What causes one to have a persecution complex about Paris Hilton? How did her jail release fiasco represent an instance of [expletive] on people? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that she is a projection of an archetype, or, as she put it in the same interview in which she compared herself to iconic blondes: "I've become a cartoon."


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

"Once you're dead you're set for life." -Jimi Hendrix

2:05 PM  
Blogger carsonh76 said...

i agree. it's ridiculous how people are praised so greatly after they have passed on. what kills me is the credit given to individuals who are dead that don't really deserve it. for example, of course kurt cobain received attention during his career. but after he's dead, his journal is published, and his popularity is even higher. sure, he did some things for rock, being part of the 90s grunge movement that changed rock (for the worse when it comes to technical ability) and creating hits that people love to hear over and over again (whether someone admits it or not, they like smells like teen spirit). But #12 on Rolling Stone's 100 greatest guitarists?! come on anyone can learn nirvana riffs in no time. of course, that list is dreadfully distorted, but kurt cobain has no place to be in the top 15 on any list. he's dead though.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Hey Carson, remember Toulmin? When evaluating RS's list, what is the warrant? Does it differ from yours?

1:19 PM  

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