PRINT December 1997


Diana's Subjects

A PHONE CALL FROM a friend in Milan brought the news that Gianni Versace had been shot in Miami. On Lake Como, where we spent some weeks this summer, an hour away from the Versace estate near Cernobbio and the resting place for his ashes, his tragic death was at once an incessant and evanescent item in the international news, and at the same time, a very local affair.

“Gay-boom-boom,” said Franca, the perfumed and petite woman who cuts my hair, the next day, acting out the curbside assassination, horrified and hungry to talk.

“A beautiful son of the lakes,” I said piously and provocatively, testing the waters in this vacation idyll where the Lega Nord propagates the secession of the North from what it considers the degenerate and impoverished South.

“Yes, si, una sensibilita italiana . . . but he liked a different kind of life, una vita americana, all mixed together . . . gay, drugs, black, white, who knows what else?”

“But the family? He was very much a family man, surrounded by his sister, and—”

“And Naomi and Kate . . . and Elton John,” she interjected. “A kind of family life, I suppose . . . and Princess Diana . . . and that woman from Monaco. But is that family life . . . one day Milan, one day Miami . . . catwalks and gay bars, never really knowing the people you meet, where they come from, who they really are; and then this killer. Who was he? Half Filipino–half American.”

“You think Versace knew the guy, Cunaa—”

Who knows! Does he know who he meets in a bar, can he remember? Can you believe what somebody tells you about themselves in such places, such shifting people, here one day, gone the next . . . you lose hold of yourself when you live like that. You lose your footing, your soil. Then one day, boom boom! like a bad movie . . . and everybody asks questions . . . questions . . . questions . . . just like a film.”

Behind me, Franca’s rapid reflections competing with the agitation of her clippers; in front of me, a bank of magazine images, courtesy of Oggi, a garbled gallery of Gianni’s life, lived in the fast lane, the fellowship of the Fabergé bauble—Gianni glittering, Gianni with Sting and Madonna—and then, finally, Gianni prostrate before the high escutcheoned gates, in the shadow of the sandstone mansion, his head oozing a profuse, misshapen profile of blood. In the days that followed, we drove through France and Switzerland on our way back to Britain, chased by an image trail of Versace vérité. One image of mourning—one that would remain indelibly present in a year marked by images of mourning—was doomed to a prophetic afterlife: Princess Diana, sheltering a tearful Elton John in a warm embrace, both of them dressed in Versace black.

Later in the summer, in Westminster Abbey, Elton John sang Candle in the Wind, with the refrain changed to “Goodbye England’s rose.” Diana’s untimely death overshadowed Mother Teresa’s, and established the princess in the role of the universal carer and sharer, which had over the years become the Mother’s prerogative. Have any other deaths ever gripped a global audience with as much tenacity and tenderness as those of the controversial “passed over” princess and her rather passé playboy boyfriend? The figure of the dead princess united the divided opinions that trailed her when alive. For instance, her taste for the indulgence and opulence of an al-Fayed existence (courtesy of Harrods) was interpreted as her refuge from the coldness and narrowness of British family life. And once she transcended the very narrow and singular circle of the British monarchy, her cosmopolitan philanthropy became the mark of her appeal.

With the celebrated demise of communism and the global adoption of the free-market model, we have come, some say, to the “end of ideology.” The familiar use of this phrase suggests that the triumph of Western liberalism is quite uncontested, and the values of individualism have been universally affirmed. Accompanying such assertions is a narrative of global transformation that no longer sees change as part of the struggle between different systems of government embedded in the conditions of historical and philosophical specificity. The “end of ideology” argument has resulted in a peculiarly ahistorical and decontextualized approach to political “turning points” seen as emanating from the emancipatory temperaments of great leaders—Gorbachev, Mandela, Blair—rather than emerging from the sustained struggles and strategies that form the collective will of a people. In this moment, at the limits of history as we have known it (the much vaunted moment of the postnational, the transnational, the “glocal”), we are witnessing the dawning of the philanthropic “transindividual”—George Soros, Ted Turner, Princess Diana. Colossi bestriding nations and cultures, these “moral” authorities of the free world stand for the power of almost unmediated direct action. Where once the “image” of international governance was dominated by faceless bureaucrats pacing the corridors of power in aseptic Geneva, or presidential figureheads lip-synching crafted communiqués through clenched teeth, we have now become used to a currency dealer opening windows of democracy behind the Iron Curtain, a media mogul from Atlanta lecturing governments on love, faith, and charity, a late glitterati princess bravely striding by a field sprouting landmines.

But there is another side to such gestures of public virtue. The effulgent sentimentality that turned the princess at one moment into the savior of a people made frigid by Tory rule, and at another, the guardian angel of a people set free by the “social marketeers” of New Labour, does little justice to the complexities involved in constructing such an image. In the orgiastic baring of the British soul that followed her death, Diana has been symbolized and sentimentalized out of existence. Her greatest achievement was to craft an “image” for herself; against the longest personal and political odds she established her own style of agency: a public presence signifying survival and ressentiment, frailty and feistiness, anorexia and an enormous appetite for life. The “people’s princess” and her friend the couturier were linked in their shared concern to change the “look” of their times, and the public gaze that goes with it. Diana was no less concerned with her “market” than Versace was with his, as New Yorker editor Tina Brown immediately picked up during her June 1997 tête à tête with the princess (relayed in the September 15 issue): “She understands that in marketing terms the Windsors are a decaying brand, one that requires repositioning by a media genius. . . . ‘I tried again and again to get them to hire someone . . . to give them proper advice, but they didn’t want to hear it,’ she says. ‘They kept saying I was manipulative. But what’s the alternative? To just sit there and have them make your image for you?’”

Diana’s interest in the (re)presentation of herself as image is not to be read merely as a narcissistic act of self-projection. (Of course, one man’s progress to power is another woman’s crafty manipulation.) Salman Rushdie, in The New Yorker, saw through the empty charges of manipulation to the intelligence that lay behind the mythmaking, when he wrote: “Diana was not given to using words like ‘semiotics’ but she was a capable semiotician of herself.” In defining a role for herself, Diana had to create a constituency, and appeal to a sector of the nation’s “imagined community”—a people—who, like her, were struggling to find a representative and representational image for themselves, a “sign” of public belonging, as well as an insignia of authority. Elton John got it just right in attributing Diana’s saving grace to her gift for ministering to “those whose lives were torn apart.” A tawdry advertisement in The New York Times Magazine—she is depicted wearing her auctioned-off gowns in a set of commemorative stamps, official postage in the republic of Togo—said much the same thing. The “essence” of Diana’s virtue, the ad reads, was seen in her “embracing the plight of society’s so-called ‘untouchables,’ such as: sick and handicapped children; the homeless; battered women; victims of terminal disease; victims of anti-personnel landmines.” Jogging mythical memory reveals, of course, that the Roman cult of Diana—goddess of the chase—was explicitly connected with the lower classes, plebeians and slaves, who were responsible for her elevation into the pantheon. (Such a distant echo between the Dianas develops a macabre significance when we realize that the goddess’ festival is traditionally held on the Ides of August, and it was at the end of that very month that the princess’ death led to her adoring apotheosis.) Her own sovereignty somewhat sullied, the princess of Wales chose as her “people” those who had an attenuated, even marginal, relation to the well-established lobbies of the (declining) welfare state. Her affiliative community, in the realms of public concern and communication, was not limited to the victims of social inequity traditionally contained within the platform and prerogative of national politics—the unemployed, the working classes. Her concern for AIDS victims, and those who were threatened, life and limb, by the presence of landmines, gave her an international demesne and a cosmopolitan appeal that the royal family had stoutly resisted.

Diana’s categories of care certainly overlapped with those of established interest groups, both national and international, but her idiom of involvement was more intimate, less influenced by the rhetoric of “state” or the pious proverbs of public philanthropy. Her voice was as socially mediated (and media oriented) as any other; her “image” as much a piece of statecraft as any public persona. The difference, as I discern it, is this: Diana’s language of identification never equated the amelioration of suffering with its annihilation. Her utterances sought to “stay with” the pain, to keep visible the terror rather than transcend it, to signify survival as an ongoing negotiation between the pathologies of the private and the public, celebrity and sufferance, in unequal parts. If my own description has been slowly turning Diana into a “figure of speech” while assessing her more public configuration, I am only following her lead. Her iconic presence is, of course, intimately connected with her beauty and demeanor—“more than just an acute natural beauty . . . a strange overbred plant, a far-fetched experimental rose,” in Tina Brown’s phrase—but looks aside, Diana was also considered to be something of a “mouth.” She was both celebrated and castigated for her confessional mode, her infamous media revelations that were read, in ways that recalled cold-war nomenklatura, either as signs of royal disloyalty or personal desperation. What undid her, remember, was the leaking of her cuddly, touchy-feely conversations with a beau to whom she complained about the frigid horrors of living amongst the Hanoverians.

Making her image, forging a constituency, was as much a visual art as a verbal one, and I am not merely referring to the reams of newsprint and miles of videotape lavished on her. My emphasis on Diana’s as a kind of representation of herself is to credit her public “instinct” with something more complex than natural sincerity and something less venal than self-serving strategy. It is by weaving an affective, ambivalent presence out of those two warring imperatives that makes Diana as image different from other comparable public figures and their figurations: her celebrated “touching” of an AIDS patient, and visits to the hospice accompanied by her children, helped to shift a public’s reluctant gaze from homophobic fear to a measure of human empathy. In Diana’s presence, whether image or event, there was something more palpable and tangible than the customary still-life (nature morte) of the deadpan Queen Elizabeth with grenadier guard at hand, or at arm’s length, exchanging endearments with a brace of corgis.

Why has Diana’s life and death, and to a lesser extent, that of Versace, left us with moving images that dwarf others from this year? Franca’s energetic observation, made months ago on Lake Como, comes to mind: “Then one day, boom boom! like a bad movie.” Rushdie’s New Yorker essay has already likened Diana’s crash to David Cronenberg’s movie, in an extended allegory on contemporary star-doom. There is certainly a filmic quality to these events—one a Miami Vice–style assassination, the other a car chase and crash that gave new meaning to the phrase “the accident of history”—that has overshadowed other events this year. What is fascinating about the movielike narratives of these celebrity lives, however, is not simply the commodification of wealth, rank, and beauty or the fetishism of style and power. Such frames of reference are too conceptually distant, too Film Studies 101. To understand the efficacy of popular images in such terms tends to normalize the extravagances and excesses, the passions and interests, provoked by public fantasies staged around the spectacle of unreachable figures who turn into iconic “intimates.” How do we grasp the nearness of these events, the proximity that lurks in their very presence?

In The Political Forms of Modern Society, the French political philosopher Claude Lefort attributes this intimacy effect to a mechanism of the modern media that he calls the “constant illusion of a between-us, an entre-nous.” The media of late modernity—visual or inscriptive—represent, for Lefort, the template for how ideology functions in our time. The “talk show,” for instance, which produces a hallucinatory moment of reciprocity between the interviewee’s celebrity and the audience’s anonymity, is a case in point. For the gap of social division—between self and other—is concealed not by the illusion of homogeneity or totality but by an incitement to participate, to dialogue, to talk, to question: the “subject” is invited to “incorporate the terms of every opposition. . . . At the same time he is lodged in the group—an imaginary group in the sense that individuals are deprived of the power to grasp the actual movement of the institution by taking part in it [italics mine]. . . . It installs within mass society the limits of a ‘little world’ where everything happens as if each person were already turned towards the other. It provokes a hallucination of nearness which abolishes a sense of distance, strangeness, imperceptibility . . . of otherness.” The “little world” of the entre-nous, then, is the stage on which the transindividual becomes both a familiar presence and a phantasmic icon—at one moment, as common as the grainy picture in the daily papers, at another, as strange as the same face caught in the bleached, harsh light of the tragic news flash . . . one day, suddenly, boom boom, just like in the movies . . . and all of us are left only with questions . . . questions . . . questions . . .