Slavoj Žižek: Britain’s royal wedding had an emancipatory subtext

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.
Slavoj Žižek: Britain’s royal wedding had an emancipatory subtext
Progressives who are inclined to lash out at the monarchy and have fired their vitriol at the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex may be missing the point.

Leftist critics were right about Britain’s recent royal wedding, but for the wrong reason. They conceded how Meghan Markle is a sympathetic figure - a feminist and a mixed-race woman - but they opposed the form of monarchy that was celebrated (if we ignore a few complaints about taxpayers’ money being spent).

What these critics failed to perceive is the emancipatory dimension of this form itself, of the big public ritual which socially links a community. To explain this point, we should go back to Novalis, the key figure of German Romanticism, who is usually perceived as a representative of the conservative turn of Romanticism, but his position is much more paradoxical.

Monarchy is the highest form of republic, “no king can exist without a republic and no republic without a king”. 

Or, to quote Nathan Ross’s resume: “the true measure of a Republic consists of the lived relation of the citizens to the idea of the whole in which they live. The unity that a law creates is merely coercive. /…/ The unifying factor must be a sensual one, a comprehensive human embodiment of the morals that make a common identity possible. For Novalis, the best such mediating factor for the idea of the republic is a monarch. /…/ While the institution might satisfy our intellect, it leaves our imagination cold. A living, breathing human being /…/ provides us with a symbol that we can more intuitively embrace as standing in relation to our own existence. /…/ The concepts of the Republic and monarch are not only reconcilable, but presuppose one another.”

Guessing Game

Novalis’ point is not just some banality such as how social identification should not be merely intellectual (the point also made by Sigmund Freud in his Mass Psychology and Ego Analysis).

Instead, the core of his argument concerns the “performative” dimension of political representation: in an authentic act of representation, people do not simply assert through a representative what they want, they only become aware of what they want through the act of representation.

So, Novalis argues that the role of the king should not be to give people what they think they want, but to elevate and give measure to their desires: “the political, or the force that binds people together, should be a force that gives measure to desires rather than merely appealing to desires.”

There is an important insight given here: politics is not just about pursuing one’s interest. At a more basic level, it is about offering a vision of communal identity which defines the frame of our interests. As for the obvious reproach that such massive rituals were practiced by Hitler (not to mention Stalin), one should never forget that, in organizing the big Nazi performances, Hitler copied (and changed, of course)  Social-Democratic and Communist public events. So, instead of rejecting this idea as proto-Fascist, one should rather look for its Leftist antecedents and associations. 

And one doesn’t have to look far. Just recall the staged performance of "Storming the Winter Palace" in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), on the third anniversary of the October Revolution, on 7 November 1920. Tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, students and artists worked round the clock, living on kasha (the tasteless wheat porridge), tea and frozen apples, and preparing for the performance at the very place where the event "really took place" three years earlier; their work was coordinated by army officers, as well as by the avant-garde artists, musicians and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold.

Although this was acting and not "reality," the soldiers and sailors were playing themselves - many of them not only actually participated in the event of 1917, but were also simultaneously involved in the real battles of the Civil War that were raging in the near vicinity of Petrograd, a city under siege and suffering from severe shortages of food.

A contemporary commented on the performance: "The future historian will record how, throughout one of the bloodiest and most brutal revolutions, all of Russia was acting"; and the formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovski noted that "some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical."

This was not a performance of actors for the public, but a performance in which the public itself was the actor.

We should therefore shamelessly assert intense immersion into the social body, a shared ritualistic performance that would put all good old liberals into shock and awe by its “totalitarian” intensity – something Wagner was aiming at in his great ritualistic scenes at the end of Acts I and III of Parsifal.

Like Parsifal, the great concerts of the German hard-rock band Rammstein (say, the one in the arena of Nimes on July 23, 2005) should also be called, as Wagner called his Parsifal, Bühnenweihfestspiel (“sacred festival performance”) which is the vehicle for the collectivity’s affirmation of itself.

All liberal-individualist prejudices should fall here – yes, each individual should be fully immersed into a crowd, joyfully abandoning their individual critical mind. Meanwhile, passion should obliterate reasoning.

Thus, to conclude, and circle back to the marriage of Meghan and Harry: criticize it as much as you want, but don’t forget to look for a radical emancipatory version of what this spectacle achieved.

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