Oscar Pistorius and Journalism by Archetype
Now that Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his ‘model girlfriend’ Reeva Steenkamp, the appellation given him, Blade Runner, is too ironic for good taste. The crass mythic characterization of Pistorius as ‘the Bionic Man’ and Nike’s ‘Bullet in the Chamber’ and now, according to some very unpleasant Internet mythography, as ‘the Terminator’ has been ongoing. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Yet, beyond the pop cultural associations, much of the reportage of the case has been distorted by the archetypal thinking of journalists; facile questions posed by ‘commentators in search of a narrative’ and which should be dismissed as such. Instead of being dismissed, there has been an accumulation of chatter based on archaic narrative, and false demographics, rather than forensic investigation. Quickly off the blocks came, for example, Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times on February 14:
“Even in an era that has seen idolized sports heroes fall from grace at a rapid clip, from the doping of Mark McGwire and Lance Armstrong to the philandering of Tiger Woods, Mr. Pistorius’s arrest stood out for the severity of the charges, the unique hardships he had overcome and the outsize triumphs he had won, not just against other disabled athletes but against able-bodied ones as well.”
Unimpressed as I am by Woods, Armstrong and McGwire, the mere suggestion of equivalence should be dismissed, and were I Tiger Woods, I would reserve the right to be deeply offended that my “philandering” could sit so lazily in the same paragraph as allegations of a brutal homicide; likewise if I was cheating my game or my supporters. Pistorius and Woods have nothing in common, other than sponsors. That “Even” is not very even.
This is the problem with archetypal thinking pushing the ‘hubris/tragic fall’ narrative as it is applied to extraordinarily wide classes of experience or settings: Sports, Politics, or what have you. It makes for convenient narrative arcs, but makes slothful criticism. Arguably, Dick Cheney was more ‘cybernetic’ than Oscar Pistorius when Cheney fired his shotgun into the face and chest of Harry Whittington in February 2006; yes, close enough to Valentine’s Day for journalistic games if one cared to push the Pistorius shooting allegation analogies. Polgreen’s citing of “the unique hardships he had overcome and the outsize triumphs he had won” might equally apply to Cheney, whatever our personal opinions of him. But, yes, this is not only absurd, but also slothful. But, as we will see, these narratives are concerned with broad generalities rather than with minute particulars.
In truth, if he is found guilty, we should see no more innate ‘tragedy’ in Pistorius than there is in any other killer, or to put it another way: can anyone say that Pistorius’ ‘fall’ from the athletics podium is any more tragic than the fall of another young man through the bureaucracies of failing mental health services? I say that it is not. What journalists might term “would-be” personalities fail, fall, and commit innumerable atrocities every day, but they fail to meet the cheap narrative tests of today’s archetypal tragedy: they lack the mediated trappings (medals, trophies, money, office) that loan their supposed hubris its currency. We’re talking here of The Stupid Question: What is it that causes powerful men to…? Well, one should reply, what is it that causes powerless men, and women for that matter, to…?
The conversation between Chris Matthews and Buzz Bissinger that aired on Hardball with Chris Matthews on February 19 was a classic relay of archetypal thinking and The Stupid Question: Bissinger running with “entitled”, “spoiled”, and “Narcissistic”, and Matthews grabbing the baton and racing away with “preternatural” and “Promethean”; describing Pistorius’ crime as a “fall from Grace.” I often admire Chris Matthews, but his instincts are for the mythic, the grand narrative, and broad demographic categorizations. So, Pistorius stole artificial legs or the Olympic torch from the Gods and therefore he must be punished? (Last night’s MSNBC special on the neo-con agenda, Cheney, and the invasion of Iraq was not incidentally titled Hubris.) The conversation centered around the assumption that the privileges of elite athletes are the problem, the crass equation that sporting success and its attendant adulation convinces men like O. J. Simpson and possibly Oscar Pistorius that they are, to quote Chris Matthews, “above us” even in terms of their immunity from suspicion and prosecution. This is absurd. It is this false narrative that demeans experienced commentators who, like Matthews, focus on the mythic even to the extent of ignoring the dead woman on the bathroom floor while they dabble in literary psychoanalysis of ‘the hero’ and his ‘fall from grace’.
It is not the culture of adulation that creates the sense in a killer that he or she will not be caught, or the belief that they can and should commit murder. These are aberrations in mental health, and sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies occur regularly outside of the mythic narratives of the sports pages. Psychopathology is, in fact, rarely glamorous in the sense that journalists would like it to be. But the podium, the pedestal supposedly so vital to the journalistic narrative ‘explaining’ our shock and dismay is irrelevant. Can you honestly say that the shock would be different in any qualitative way if you learned that your neighbor, or your uncle, or an old friend been arrested for murder? No, it would not. Exceptions are being used to ‘prove’ rules about public life. Some of us poor people can be arrogant and dangerous too, but we don’t get the classical treatment – one can only assume – because we are not perceived as having much to lose, much grace to fall from. We’ll come to the question of loss and waste in a moment. The problem lies in expecting classical dramatic structures to answer questions best left to neuroscience, psychiatry, and forensics. Granted, these narratives are seductive, entertaining even, but ultimately disposable tools for writers that meet their limits and irrelevance in trying to negotiate a case like that of Pistorius’ alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp. Appeals to classical tragedy by writers and journalists are self-serving; they say nothing more, and worse, they suggest artifice, hence the reduction or disappearance of Reeva Steenkamp.
To enter the Pistorius narrative as, say, the New York Times would have it is to consume the mythic notion that Pistorius was somehow victimized by amputation and rose to Olympian summits only to be victimized by cruel Fate again. In our exceptionally wasteful culture and economy, we are presented with ‘waste’ as a moral issue: what could cause a man to ‘waste’ these hard-won advantages? The question from the chauvinist media is implicitly: why ‘waste’ Reeva Steenkamp? Ugly as that phrase is, we should be conscious that it is part of what plays into the sub-text of double-entendre of double-amputee in relationship with one of FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women. And if the story is not about ‘waste’ – if it is about cybernetics, relationships, power, and shooting ‘accidents’ – then, indeed, why not invoke Cheney? The narrative, had it been of Pistorius allegedly shooting his perhaps elderly black housekeeper, would not have been so seductive. But, in Reeva Steenkamp, journalism finds the easy means of reporting an archetypal narrative where the victim of Pistorius’ alleged homicide by shooting and cricket bat, falls simply into the role of cipher to his supposedly greater ‘fall’ narrative. She is an accessory that proves his heroism and emphasizes his tragic hubris. Bullshit.
Reeva Steenkamp features minimally in these narratives. Where she appears, she is a “platinum-haired model” or a “leggy blonde”. This point is made admirably by Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel under the ironic headline ‘Newspapers Report that Awesome Athlete Oscar Pistorius May Have Killed Some Hot Chick’. We are invited to believe that as a model and aspiring reality television star she is implicitly disposable in a way that the differently leggy Pistorius as a male super-athlete is not. And she died variously ‘on the cusp’, ‘about to be’, and so forth, being literally shot down (at) from Pistorius’ podium. There is nothing new to learn here regarding the distorted and corrupt values of our age where the aesthetic merits of the corpse are the only subject (well, that and what some sexist hack at the AP called the ‘contradiction’ that Reeva Steenkamp was not only a bikini clad model, but also a law graduate and possessed politics and aspirations of her own), not the tragedy of her death. Many of our journalists have not escaped the perverse anti-feminist maxim of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition (1846) that:
“The death, then, of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are the lips of a bereaved lover.”
And so, these journalists, and advocates of The Stupid Question, hang on Pistorius’ testimony, while Reeva Steenkamp goes essentially unnoticed, except to the extent that she was beautiful and is dead. And so the tabloids turn to their poetry and puns: Blade Gunner; Blade Slays Blonde; etcetera. Such was the necrophilia of Poe’s age, and so it is of our own.
James Reich – Author of ‘Bombshell’ (Soft Skull Press, July 2013) and ‘I, Judas’ (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011).