King Richard III’s re-burial can tell us more about hyperrealism than the actual historical event

Leandros Savvides, doctoral student in the University of Leicester School of Management, discusses Richard III’s reburial, which took place in Leicester on the 26th of March.

Times of national pride and of course national coverage are happening at Leicester. What we see the last days with the King Richard’s III funeral is something that escapes any kind of historical logic, but that seems not to disturb anyone from the archaeological sciences. Let me explain one of my most profound, shivering and suffocating moments of my life spent in the UK so far.

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The historical event of Richard the 3rd death is dated about the end of the 15th century, in 1485 during a series of medieval wars. It was part of a specific time in history with a specific set of value beliefs and a feudalist economic base in society, long before the emergence of the nation-state both as material relations as well as narrative. In other words it has nothing to do with today’s meanings in this particular society that we live.

The construction and use of historical events out of context for the purpose of serving particular interests and legitimise present social structures is not something new here. What is new, is the complete acceptance and consumption of such a practise without some kind of active resistance, something which signifies the power of image and the role of the cultural and creative industries and workers (and their affiliation with the bourgeois class) in this particular late modern British society.

Marketing and nationalist narratives were deployed; from guests such as Dukes and military officers and the recruitment of celebrity actors such as Benetict Cumberbatch to deliver nostalgic poems, to re-enactment camps, the selling of knights suits for kids and souvenirs such as totem bags. This re-burial which lasted for several days, had everything: elitism, militarist and nostalgic royalist sentiments covered, communicated and sold to the crowd for consumption in a very well managed and even lifestylised way.

All these point towards what Fredric Jameson referred to as the way the “social space is now saturated with the culture of the image”, “pastiche” in an age of “historical deafness”. Namely, “the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social information have had, in one way or another, to preserve […] the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents – are both extraordinarily consonant with this process.”*

Picture the marketplace of Leicester, that is the space designed specifically as a capitalist infrastructure, with all the exclusions and purposes of use that entails. A space that has no other value other than being used for exchange purposes, everyday brimming with people in their little individualist isolated bubbles. This space was flooded by the city council the BBC and other national authorities with giant cameras and screens to create a spectacular (both in technical and adjective terms) image of the death of a king, filled with a sense of national unity that was actually created long after his death.

In this equation we have a very powerful message. Royalists, military officers, fascists, democrats, conservatives, monarchists, ex-imperial soldiers, alternatives, hipsters, shopaholics that happened to be there, men/women/lesbians/gay/trans/queer, whatever identity you can think of, was there. All those identities for a brief moment hold their breaths, forgot the class/gender/race and other material divisions that the capitalist system creates and propagates, and ascribed into photographic consumption of the event, whilst having fun along the spectacle that was promoted to them. All these, at the sound of royal and military march, for a king that was killed in his attempt to hold and expand power in a completely different social context from today.

One might call this overthinking scholasticism but I claim that this is something very important; it is a manifestation of the power of the image, the power of the spectacle to create an illusion of cosmopolitan unity and internationalism in the most kitsch nationalist aesthetic. This is the epitome of the post-modern bourgeois state. A spectacular transcendent historical discontinuity, like a black hole that everything is absorbed and permitted as long as they conform to the power of that image. Scientists who enjoy their newly acquired celebrity status and whose social capital can be their exchange currency in pursuit for more funding, achieved by letting their science to be distorted for political reasons. Universities market science and reconstruct a historical event like a zombie to attract students-customers. A city council sees this as an opportunity to attract private investment.

After the fake knights and the coffin passed before the crowd, this unity ceased to exist, people got again into their individual bubbles and moved to do whatever they would have done anyway that day. The city council seemed quite happy about the coverage the city got, and its potential exploitation as a tourist image for the future.

According to BBC news, during the funeral service two days later, The Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said: “People have come in their thousands from around the world to this place of honour, not to judge or condemn but to stand humble and reverent.” But the question is hardly a legalistic one wondering why and if we should bury an archaeological artefact but the spectacular de-politicization of a very political act. The real question that we could ask is why should we stand humble and reverent to this spectacle?

The re-burial ceremony can essentially tell us much more about capitalism’s workings on mass communication and the creative industries, the changes in academia and the emergence of a relatively new academic-media-industrial complex than the actual historical event.

This is the hyperrealist highly filtered and mediated consumption of everyday life in a nutshell.

*Excerpt from Fredric Jameson’s book, The cultural turn

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