Why the British monarchy doesn’t exist

by Sam Kriss

In the beginning there was the Image, and the Image was with God, and the Image was God. And the Image was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Good news for republicans, bad news for sufferers of scrofula. The monarchy is done, it’s finished, we can chuck it away with the Empire and the established Church. That is to say, it’s still around, in terms of appearance, but only as a farcical parody of itself, a shadow, a convention. It’s ceased to have any real existence. Once we had a monarchy, now we just have the royals, and the two are not the same thing.

Bad news for the royal baby, though (congrats to Wills and Kate, rah rah, etc etc). They’ll all still be there to comprehensively fuck up his future development, the whole chimerical menagerie: that dessicated turtle-beaked matriarch with her rapacious vulture-eyes, she who once gorged herself silly on the soul of Laurent Nkrumah using sinister white people dance-magic; his wittering toucan-nosed biscuit-salesman of a grandfather; the murderous lunkheaded uncle, a marmot-faced proper down-to-earth lad, mowing down Pashtun herdsmen in his flying fortress of imminent death like a less sophisticated Sarah Palin; an entire extended family of posh twits, all in various stages of hippomorphosis; finally, the heirs to all this horror, his whinnying filly-mother and braying donkey-father. They want their son to have a normal life, they say; they’re already positioning themselves into a perfect imitation of the drab Oedipal triangle, and as a sop to the press they’ll provide access to a few key moments: baby’s first repression of his infantile sexuality, baby’s first intimation of his own mortality – see, he’s growing up as damaged and estranged from the world as everyone else! He’s a neurotic wreck putting on a brave grin, just like you! It won’t work, though. This is not a nice family. Parents in the Haus Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha aren’t just distant, they’re at an interstellar remove; all the normal fixations are displaced onto wetnurses and nannies. The chief activity of its sons and daughters consists of waiting for their parents to die. The royals can’t go through any castration complex because for them there really is nothing more important in the world than themselves – for them, the crown and sceptre aren’t symbols; they’ve been permanently locked out the Symbolic order. In other words, they’re a family of psychopaths. They’re toxic, not just institutionally but personally, and if you spend too long breathing in their fumes the poison will get to you sooner or later: just look at the poor kid’s grandmother. Where’s child protection? Why won’t someone rescue this baby before it’s too late?

Nobody will, because for the great mobile flocks of royal-watchers and their herdsmen in the press this isn’t a person at all. The royal baby is made of more delicate and ephemeral stuff than we are; when the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital she gave birth to a liquid stream of pixels and wavelengths, its digital tentacles spiralling out from her womb to wrap themselves around the entire world. The royal baby has the dubious honour of being possibly the first person born as image before reality, the first person to fully demonstrate Baudrillard’s old line about the precession of simulacra: ‘today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.’ His status as ‘the royal baby,’ future ruler and object of fame and devotion, ontologically preceded any of his actual physical attributes. In the old days, when we still had a monarchy, the king held two bodies: the body politic and the body natural. Now our royals have no body at all. In normal development, a child develops full subjectivity when it identifies itself with the specular image in the mirror, when it comprehends itself as an object capable of being gazed upon; before that between subject and image there’s an aggressive tension which the child has to resolve into joyful captivation. No such luck for the royal baby. He will be surrounded by the gazes of cameras and smartphones; his own image will surround him, staring from commemorative plates, tea-towels, mugs, the inevitable ‘keep calm and love the royal baby’ posters – every mundane object will be stamped with the mark of his spectral adversary. He won’t be able to subsume the image into his self; it’s too late for him, he’s already been swallowed up by the image, the idea of what he is, as an amœba swallows up a speck of food.

A royal family is the image of a monarchy that remains once the monarchy itself has shrivelled up and died. The monarch was once the guarantor of a certain kind of commons: the king’s highway, the royal mail, the crown courts. The monarch was the people, by virtue of our perfect subjugation to him; he imposed a certain kind of paradoxical egalitarianism. Now, in an age of privatisation, the situation’s been precisely reversed. Images and representations are common property, and as such the royal family are now perfectly subjugated to us. It’s their in the language: our Wills, our Kate. When a French magazine published topless photos of Kate Middleton the popular outrage wasn’t so much a loyal horror of lèse-majesté as affront against the violation of property. It works the other way too: as the image of the royal baby started to construct its hyperreal manifestation yesterday, a good part of the nation thought it had the right to know every queasy detail about the dilation of the royal vagina. Sovereignty’s dread authority of life and death over its subjects has turned into the sovereign being the ultimate object of that same biopolitical power; the king’s commons has turned into a king held in common. The monarchy as such no longer exists.

In a way all this should be celebrated. Whether or not the formal monarchy survives Elizabeth (and I’m not so sure it will), we’ve finally beaten back our aristocratic oppressors. In the royal image we’ve found the paradigm for a new commons without sovereign power. But it’s going to seriously mess up that kid.