In passing conversation, we learned our friend Danilo Prnjat has a bizarre tattoo. He revealed his well-toned arm where an ink sketch of a bald Britney Spears clutches a shaving razor in her hand. Intrigued, we gathered around his arm to stare at the famous Britney breakdown moment permanently etched into his skin. Despite our various ways of retreating from tabloid tales, we immediately recognised the image of Britney staring into the lens in 2008 when she denuded in a hairdressers and publicly broke down. It was splashed all over the world and I remember thinking that while nations rise and fall, and famines crawl by, the ‘news’ blandly reports another celebrity crash into madness, substance abuse and extreme public humiliation. Do I look or turn away in protest?
I obviously looked.
‘Why on earth would you put tabloid junk on your arm?’ we asked this thoughtful Serbian artist. Danilo said that ‘it represents schizophrenic capitalism.’ It’s a political statement about the age we live under and within. Britney, as an object of the tabloid press, moves between Britney the product and Britney the person and on Danilo’s lovely arm lies the revelation of her naked cranium. Underneath the cheerleader locks a wild creature emerges – perhaps an unveiling of commodification’s cloak? Shorn back to naked skin and bare vulnerability this image is both tragic and, from a sideways glance, radical. It interrupts humiliation at the same time as humiliation appears. Condensed into Danilo’s tattoo is Britney’s, perhaps blind, attempt to wrest her biography back. Of course that image of de-commodification immediately became commodified by the likes of ‘News of the World’, but in the Russian roulette of the humiliation game, maybe Britney won rather than lost.
Britney’s bald head speaks volumes and I’m reminded of Remnants of Auschwitz, where Giorgio Agamben argues that humiliation is the main weapon of political domination. Julian Assange knows that power; he’s publicly stated that he possesses raw insurance data against News Corporation just in case they come gunning for WikiLeaks.
Murdoch reigns over a news empire that trades on images and stories of humans at breaking point. Britney moments fall under his dominion. But WikiLeaks threatens the narrative power of Murdoch’s machine as it publishes raw data without biography, without story, and bypasses the need for a publisher to intervene to boost the narrative in order to sell more copy. This intervention used to rest within the ethics of investigative journalism but has been used as an excuse for predatory invasions on privacy and biography. Raw data undoes the political power of the ‘faux’ humiliation of extraneous salacious details by counting the dead, the final humiliation, rather than skirting around tall tales designed to distract us. From Murdoch to Britney to Assange, the hunt for a good ‘humiliating’ story is a dangerous and powerful business. The human as crawling, weeping, destructive creature is a story told from old to end times. The works of Kafka, Brecht and Shakespeare are embedded with them. Maybe the Britney moment is mere repetition for our age.
Last week I watched King Murdoch answer questions about the phone hacking of his ‘humiliation machine’, News of the World, to the UK parliament’s Culture, Media and Sports Committee. At the beginning of the hearing the masterful Murdoch interrupted his son James to confess that it was the most humble day of his life. Was this statement a pre-emptive strategy? ‘You cannot humiliate me because I got in first.’ Was this Murdoch’s Britney moment? Watching Murdoch stutter and pause, as new wrinkles appeared on his face, I felt a tad sorry for the stumbling king. The pathos of Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ started playing in my imagination. After cursing him for years and watching the disintegration of news sources I no longer trusted, I felt empathy for the old fella who once said: ‘For better or for worse, our company (The News Corporation) is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values.’ How could I forget that I believe Murdoch orchestrates a company where commodifed humans are preyed upon then delivered as bait intended to divert us from the ‘real’ news.
It was the reversion to vaudeville, that inane humour that arose to titillate the middle classes with inoffensive humiliating acts, that revived my politics. A member of the public gallery was inspired in his choice to throw a cream pie into Murdoch’s face and shoot right at the common human desire to be seen as upright in the world’s eyes.
A cream pie doesn’t ask intimate questions or invade voicemail, rubbish bins, or ask police to collude with its crime. The harmless humiliation of the cream pie delivered a wonderful denouement to the fallen king and if the drama ended there I would have been a satisfied viewer. But when cream hung down the sides of Murdoch’s face the camera refused, or couldn’t get, a front angle. We weren’t going to see Murdoch’s shock. The camera remained behind his head so that we only caught a limp image of humiliation’s outskirts and possibilities.
When we asked Danilo if his grandchildren would understand his tattoo we were asking about the amnesia of the news cycle, the longevity of his body, and pondering whether our epoch could be represented by the Britney moment. Danilo smiled. ‘They will understand and they will know what it means,’ he replied. It’s not immediately comforting to think my grandchildren will recognise Britney Spears. Do I hope my grandchildren might be complicit with capitalisms amnesic tendencies and forget all tabloid breakdowns? Or is it cultivated naivete to hope all this nonsense will pass by the time they’re old enough to ask critical questions about history? Either way the tattoo had done its job.
A day after watching Murdoch’s cream pie moment I lay on the couch in a rare holiday stupor watching music videos. Britney was coughing out an electronic song.
Her eyes are dead but she twists around inviting us to keep on dancing til the world ends. Maybe she was inspired by Zizek’s Living in End Times. Regardless, the Britney product was revived to our screens, with credibility restoring pot shots at the paparazzi thrown into her video clips and her cheerleading hair seemingly unscathed by her ‘temporary’ naked moment. As I watched her prance around in Armageddon, whatever the power of capitalism’s amnesia, Danilo’s permanent tattoo served as a reminder of humiliation’s power. Perhaps Murdoch’s cream pie moment will fade as he reverts back to his own dangerous version of cheerleading? Maybe if a full image of Murdoch’s creamed face appeared I should tattoo it onto my arm. Thankfully for my body I’m sure it never will, for Murdoch remains the King in control of humiliation.