The royal enthronement of Elizabeth II was broadcast live worldwide on June 2, 1953, which was a first on television. It was the start of a staging on the small screen which continued until his funeral, this Monday, September 19, 2022, scrutinized by the whole world.
A summary of colorized images of the 1953 coronationproduced on YouTube and experimenting with 3D technology for the occasion, shows all the ingredients of a sophisticated ritual.
Let’s quickly pass on the arrival of the royal carriage (an 8 km route, microphones scattered along the way, 750 commentators broadcasting descriptions in 39 languages, 29,000 soldiers in the procession, 16,000 others to lead the way).
When the queen arrives at the main gate of the abbey where a archbishop draped in his screed and crowned with miter, choirs sing grandiose songs. The sovereign’s dress, lined with Canadian ermine, with a 5-meter-long train, is in white silk embroidered with floral emblems. The queen meditates, before settling on a ceremonial chair while the bishops in procession bring the Biblethe paten and the chalice. Moving successively along the four cardinal axes, high dignitaries ask the public to pay their respects to the Queen, who bows in return.
Then, in a long oath, Elizabeth II swears to govern each of the countries for which she is responsible according to their respective laws and customs. Walking towards the altar, she declares: “The things which I had already promised I will do, and will keep. May God help me for that”, before embracing the Bible. A representative of the Church of Scotland grabs the Bible and presents it to the Queen:
“Our glorious queen: that your Majesty may always keep in mind the law and gospel of God as the rule of all the life and government of Christian princes, we present to you this book, the most precious thing that this world offers. Here is Wisdom. This is Royal Law. They are the Living Oracles of God. »
This whole ritual has been very well theorized by the philosopher Ernst Kantorowicz, on what he named in non-inclusive mode “the two bodies of the king”. If the first body is human, made up of doubts, suffering and passion, the ceremony, in a sophisticated staging, celebrates the other body, that of the future head of the Commonwealth. The new sovereign receives attributes of divinity by the grace of the power that she will exercise and transmit. The choreography is orchestrated to show that it carries within it the perpetual form of humanity, that it is the timeless guarantor of individuals’ consent to authority.
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The colorized aesthetic of mute power
The very long reign that follows allows us to see how this divine body coexists with the first body of the queen, made of flesh and blood. Between 1953 and 2022, his personality and his daily life were constantly commented on and his appearances on the public scene were widely covered in the media. However, this colorful spectacle is silent cinema: only its appearance and its gestures give a clue to its way of governing. Over the course of the appearances, a aesthetics of power becomes clearer, drawing simultaneously the figures of emptiness, piety, conformity and ethics.
Emptiness is language. The lexical analysis of the royal speech is of no interest insofar as his public speeches are very rare, and without substantive content. There is no trace of what she thinks or what she wishes to display about what she thinks. The mystery of this invisibility is not only public. His close entourage is kept at a distance from any confidence.
Piety is liturgical. The Queen regularly reads the Bible. She goes to mass every Sunday. She displays her title of defender of the faith and “supreme governor of the Church of England” on all occasions. She carefully chooses the bishops. It systematically opens the synods. She regularly meets the popes (she will know five of them). The only known sprain to his public silence concerns precisely a religious event, the Christmas holidays, where his long speeches to the attention of the British are written by his hand. Finally, it should be noted that at the beginning of her reign, she firmly opposed her sister Margaret, despite her pleas, when the latter wished to marry a divorced man (although the latter had been a heroic fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II).
Conservatism and excess
Neutrality is political. For seventy years, the Queen met the Prime Minister of the Government every week. This dialogue without words with fifteen prime ministers succession illustrates how the one who had said “yes” to Churchill’s appeal of June 4, 1940, urging the British never to surrender to the Nazi regime, accepted the end of all personal opinion on public affairs: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Mountbatten bowed to Her Majesty Elizabeth.
We will not know anything about how she was able to use these weekly meetings to express her possible concern about the belligerent initiatives of her country. This total depoliticization is specific to the windsor house. And even if the two Elizabeths are in internal conflict, it is the Crown which officially wins the duel, with a message invariably imbued with constitutional conformity. The Queen intervenes in the politics of England only to signify her attachment to public service and to the authority of the system in place.
Ethics, finally, could be qualified as morality. The Queen has always been compelled, in the footsteps of her father, to display her embodiment of family values. She defends a conservative and traditionalist ethic. But the message of this morality is constantly parasitized by the ruptures and dramas linked to the life course of his children. People magazines seem to play a decisive role here, amplifying the escapades and conflicts of the royal family disproportionately. The accidental death of Lady Diana in 1997 illustrates a paradoxical situation in this respect: we discover a powerless and bruised queen in the face of a tragedy that provokes an unprecedented global media outpouring.
A power staged by television
A constant encompasses the four expressions of this mute power: its staging appears, from all points of view, televisual. The iconic series broadcast from 2016, The Crown, also gives keys to understanding this aesthetic of the small screen. The outdated public image of royalty takes on another dimension when the camera captures the queen’s ordinary life. It is certainly the screenwriters’ gaze that tells the story of her daily life, but the series also reveals how television imagery reflects the Queen’s bodily attitudes. We know she is submissive and conservative, but we also believe in the depth of her vision, her character, her resilience, her convictions. At the heart of a life of media excess and public silence, the sovereign resists and adapts. The philosopher Sandra Laugier did a good job of showing how the small screen itself was part of the royal setting in the series. The queen watches television, like her citizens, in a reversal of perspective that makes her fragile and very close to the people. From episode to episode, The Crown depicts a female Commonwealth leader who is also sovereign of ordinary citizens.
on the other side of the mirror
What does the divine coronation and seventy years of colorized aesthetics tell us about the taste for power at the turn of the 20th century?e century ? In a way, Elizabeth II appears as a Clastrian heroine of power without power. For the record, Pierre Clastres observed in his Chronicle of the Guakaki Indians how the chief represented the tribe only through reassuring speeches and emphatic gestures.
The Queen embodied a community of millions of individuals through her behavior and gestures, but she never had access to or recourse to coercive power. The planetary wave of emotions currently being expressed at his disappearance underlines this ambiguous form of leadership that the anthropologist had very well theorized in the society against the state. While, from Churchill to Gandhi via Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, the craze for the funerals of statesmen was based on the savior myththe planetary sovereign, on the contrary, offers a symbolism of a political domination that operates without mastery or possession of power.
Read more: These queens (and these kings) who sit enthroned on the English novel
In this respect, the success of the television imagery of Elizabeth II is perhaps a harbinger of new forms of political incarnation that the Internet tool amplifies in a disproportionate way. One thinks, on a related register, of the global media coverage of the pleas of the President of Ukraine on his Facebook account. The fusion of the two bodies of the leader, powerless military leader, but indignant citizen, provokes an unprecedented symbolic cocktail.
To decipher this phenomenon, researchers from different fields of knowledge in the social sciences are exploring the paradigm of a ” emotional turn “. In political science, this emotional turn takes us away from the Enlightenment and the triumph of political reason. It obliges political scientists to take seriously a more sensitive apprehension of democracy where it is the immediate feelings of individuals, without mediation or mediators, which take precedence and imprint the representations. This “navel citizenship” based on emotional trials has an impact on the way politics is done: it encourages elected officials to play with the fears, anger and desires of individuals.
Evolution makes you dizzy. Politics then participates in a vast fiction in the sense of the second novel by lewis carrol. By passing to the other side of the mirror, the pawn that has become sovereign can ignore reality because the chessboard now resembles a universe of nonsense built essentially on the affects and imaginations conveyed in social networks.