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  • “That’s the Way the Mercedes Benz”: Di, Wound Culture and Fatal Fetishism
  • Diane Rubenstein (bio)

The death of Diana Spencer, like so many “meaningless” mass mediated events in postmodernity, can be read as an object lesson on the two ways open to contemporary theory to figure that irruption of the real we call an event. In death as in life, as fetish or sign function, she remains a traditional object (which is perhaps the fate of celebrity in our era). Our literalizing fantasies would locate “history” and the “real” in her corpse as an embodiment of resuscitated monarchical sovereignty (“the people’s princess”); our scopic fixation on her simulacral performances affirm her as Queen of Wish. Her dead body solicits a reading from the point of view of the subject, underscoring the stakes of identification and mimetic desire. The relay between desire/fantasy and public mediated spaces inform contemporary transfigurations of the public sphere, now seen as “pathogenic.” “Wounded” Diana’s death and mediatization can be read against Hal Foster’s notion of “traumatic realism, a shift from reality as representation to the real as a thing of trauma,” with a concomitant shift in focus from the image-screen to the object-gaze. 1 Or, Diana can be read from the point of view of a Baudrillardian “fatal” object. In its ecstasy of insignificance, Diana’s death takes on the aura of an exceptional ‘fait divers’, Diana functions as a radical fetish of virtual reality, a move beyond alienation to a principle of otherness raised to technical perfection. Her high definition image is twinned with a low definition meaning. The image here is an extreme phenomenon in its capacity to refract every interpretation into the void, Those of us who watched the endless commentary on television would be hard pressed to empirically disagree with this.

Traumatic subject or fatal object? What are the different theoretical stakes and possibilities of situating Di in wound culture or in virtual simulation? Let us begin by bringing, Diana close to the American home. For the mediated presentations of her funeral, the crash and its aftermath are more immediately familiar in Mark Seltzer, Hal Foster, and to some extent, Laurent Berlant’s pathogenic public sphere. This public sphere, albeit twisted and sutured around the communal probing of wound, is still organized along the principle of rationality. Its citizenry may be infantile, incipient or dead 2 Its mass mediated practices are personalized. sentimentalized and sensationalized. The Di story would be just another return of the real within wound culture, one more atrocity exhibit allied with abject art’s oedipal insolence and infantile regression and congruent with the pop fascination with OJ, Jon Benet Ramsay, Ennis Cosby as well as all other instances of violated subjecthood (Oklahoma bombing victims, victims of serial killers, and random acts of urban violence such as the Empire State Building shootings). The success of televised trials and funerals attest to the possible citizen subject positions available in wound culture as witness, survivor, plaintiff, or, the absolute subject position as corpse. Diana’s story, as told by the media, or as leaked to Andrew Morton, is a story of shared and repetitive spectacles of suffering and injury (inflicted by Charles, Camilla, the Royals, the paparazzi, or herself - bringing, suicide attempts and mutilation by self cutting)—Diana’s story compels by the force of her wounded attachments—to her family through the trauma of a divorce (at age 6 from which she never recovered), to Charles despite marital infidelity, to her sister Sarah via shared eating disorder-, (anorexia/bulimia), as a launching point for a secondary identification with the homeless, the lepers, AIDS victims and suffering children (Jerry’s Kids in overdrive). To the extent that she feels her pain, she can feel ours—lovelorn, at war with our bodies and our in-laws. The extent of “affectivity” achieved reveals how trauma functions within wound culture as a quilting point (a point de capiton which in French also means ‘cellulite’), a switch point of the psycho-social. The New York Times in the week following the funeral ran a front page story about Diana’s presence in therapy sessions 3 Diana is referred...

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