I hadn’t expected the shift from pomposity to kitsch to be so sudden, or so vertiginous. Gesturing at its own hyperreality the opening this morning of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park – a bipartisan project of nationalist reaction planted in the middle of Wellington – things moved from the physical to the digital, from actors marching in front of us to footage of history as consumer spectacle on the big screen. The same performers, the same script, the move seamless. A woman in red prancing about the tower until, above us, the War Memorial threw out billows of the same fabric, the same symbol. Blood? Memory? Poppies? Intoxication, certainly. It was Leni Riefenstahl meeting the Feebles.
“in face of the massive realities of present-day social existence, individuals do not actually experience events. Because history itself is the spectre haunting modern society, pseudo-history has to be fabricated at every level of the consumption of life; otherwise, the equilibrium of the frozen time that presently holds sway could not be preserved.” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 200)
Who better to package and present our pseudo-history than Peter Jackson, kitsch master and union-buster of the Wellington ‘creative’ class? There’s an obvious – and essential – political point to make about memory and forgetting, the traces suppressed (dissent, sedition, resistance, revolt) in the recording of this particular story. But this morning something deeper seemed at work – full fantasy, full consumption, ANZAC as video game and branding exercise and empty spectacle. Join #theshadowbattalion, care of your local bank! Keep your memories fresh in the crisper over the ditch at Woolies!
A "new depthlessness...a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum." A “society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles." (Who else? Jameson back in 1984, and still making the case today.)
This is New Zealand nationalism, however, a different package to the brasher and more direct boosterism of the rather more ambitious political culture across the Tasman. The volume’s down low; the emphasis is on commemoration, compassion, tributes. The tone is sober. The message is the same nonetheless; gathering for our protest this morning we had a plain-clothes police officer waiting to try and intimidate us and to threaten our right to assembly. Dissent gets stifled in low key ways in this country perhaps, but it gets stifled all the same.
And that red! The price of nationhood, some polite voice on Nine to Noon called it earlier in the week. Workers’ blood, wasted invading Turkey a century ago. What relevance has that to now, and what forces are served in this aestheticization of politics? The resonances were somewhere between Marvel comics and European fascism.
That, of course, isn’t a question you’re supposed to ask. They died for our freedoms, so make sure you don’t try and use those freedoms. Debord again: “The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute.” Or, as the man said to me this morning, there’s a time and a place for everything: the Prime Minister might be there, but no politics at this war ceremony please.
I’m glad we did a little to disrupt the spectacle, and I’m dreading the coming years in this carnival of reaction. But I wonder this morning too if ‘peak brANZAC’ might be on its way. They can remember it for us wholesale. Capitalism can commodify everything – even memories – but there’s a risk in that for our rulers. Video games sometimes give you the controls.
[Images: the photographs of our protest I took, and the others are from the twitter feed of the British High Commissioner, who declares himself 'moved' by this tribute to sacrifice.]