Collision 2: November 2017

© BBC News 24 / © EPA

Whatever you do, do not Touch the Queen!
Modern Representations of Royal and Democratic Touch

Maha El Hissy

The public performance of tactility and affection has increasingly become part of democratic space, as can often be observed in representations of elections or presidential campaigns. For instance, prior to Election Day in 2012, Barack Obama spoke at a campaign event at the University of Cincinnati, after which he reached out to shake hands with the attendees. Some of these – mostly young people, since the event was meant to connect with youth – reached out to touch the president. The rest of the audience, who were relatively far away with no chance of reaching him, still stretched out their hands. Even more remarkable is the fact that this particular performance of public touch in political space showed some of the hands reaching in a different direction, not even towards Obama; others were simply held up high in a gesture reminiscent of religious scenes of healing, salvation, or invocation. In an earlier scene during the presidential campaign in 2008, the performance of democratic proximity even went as far as very tightly hugging the candidate, who was then embraced by and absorbed into the crowd, as if in a modern performance of democratic rule.1

Are these representations that foreground the tactile contact between ruler and ruled meant to reverse the taboo of touching or even approaching the sovereign in monarchic regimes, in which it is mainly the monarch who grants others a divine “royal touch,”2 to quote the French historian Marc Bloch?3 Exemplary is one of the oldest visual representations of the social contract between ruler and ruled, Hobbes’ frontispiece for Leviathan, as it focuses on the role of sight rather than touch in the political realm. The famous illustration shows the many bodies of the citizenry tightly clustering together, forming the gigantic torso of the sovereign, facing away from us viewers and looking up at the monarch from below. In the meantime, Leviathan’s gaze is directed straight ahead, towards us, as he clutches a crosier and a sword. Monarchic rule is a predominantly visual regime, by which I refer not only to the power of visual representation, as in the case of the influential frontispiece, but also to the relationship or contract between the two parties, which is ruled by sight rather than touch.4

Can engaging in ritualized and symbolic touch in a political context be considered part of a democratic society, in contrast with royal rule in the past? Before the G20 summit in 2009 an incident took place at Buckingham Palace, which attracted several headlines, mainly from British print media. The Telegraph, for instance, reported: “Michelle Obama hugs the Queen.”5 The Daily Mail spoke of “an electrifying moment of palpable majesté: A breach of centuries-long protocol,”6 while CNN emphasized the astonishing fact that the Queen herself invited the touch, although she is known for not being “touchy feely.”7News reports did not agree on which party initiated the embrace, but the scene was generally referred to as a “softening of royal protocol.”8 The “breach” occurred as Queen Elizabeth II and the First Lady were exchanging comments about their striking height difference; this led to the informal gesture of the Queen touching Mrs. Obama, who responded with an embrace.

Articles on this seemingly sensational public display of affection addressed two issues: on one hand, the sacredness of the Queen as a monarchic sovereign, and on the other, Her Majesty showing affection. The very brief embrace between the sovereign and Mrs. Obama, which was perhaps an expression of appreciation or hospitality, marks the moment in which the symbolic body of the Queen, to quote Ernst Kantorowicz, is disturbed by her body’s physical, natural, and emotional presence. The scene can thus be understood as an interruption of royal order and the sacredness surrounding it vis-à-vis other ruling forms that operate with a less sacred aura. What is particularly interesting here is that the Queen – and, generally, other parties who were involved – seemed at ease with the incident. For instance, one could also argue that a certain nonchalance is reflected symbolically in the picture by the ongoing conversation between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, who seem not even to have noticed the scene. Other photographs of the same event show that the brief embrace didn’t seem to have disturbed other onlookers on site. Moreover, the British monarchy’s website explains that there is no obligatory “code of behavior” when meeting the Queen or a member of the Royal Family9 other than a neck bow for men and a small curtsy for women. In fact, it was the broader audience not directly involved in political rule – e.g. onlookers, the media, or even protocol consultants who, in response to this incident, gave advice on diplomatic etiquette10 – that was not prepared for this interruption of the symbolic order of the sacred Queen, instead favoring a strict commitment to rituals, royal protocol and etiquette.

The most intriguing aspect of this image connects to my introductory remarks on the performance and representation of touch in the public political sphere, as in the case of America’s former president. More precisely, the controversy about the picture of Michelle Obama and the Queen can offer insight into the intersection of race, social class, and touch, especially in the political realm. During her husband’s presidency, Michelle was the target of racist and classist attacks while also being perceived as a role model for social upward mobility. While some of the attacks revolved around the idea that she was somehow unrefined and thus unsuited to the position of First Lady, others regarded her ascent from a modest background as a source of inspirational empowerment. In both cases, race and social class seem to have been invoked to characterize Obama’s relaxed, casual attitude to the politics of distance and proximity, and her overt show of affection on this as well as many other occasions. It is precisely this attitude that draws attention to the rigid, cold “aristocratic distance” and absence of touch which is being challenged, or is actually in crisis, when opposed to more democratic representations of proximity and touch, in the metaphoric as well as literal sense of the word. For what is controversial here is, above all, royal affection, i.e. the act of touching a royal in the literal and figurative sense.

Public performance of tactility and affection is part of democratic space, then, which is perceived in an ambivalent way. For there seems to be, on one hand, a desire to see a transgression, a bridging of the distance between ruler and ruled that can open up a space for emotional connection. On the other hand, however, in other forms of political rule, eliminating this distance and allowing room for emotion in the public political sphere can have an unsettling effect. Maybe the photograph, in which the desire to touch and the taboo of touch are intertwined in the political realm, can simply be read as unveiling a new politics of the well-governed touch.