JFK and Without JFK

by Steve

Kennedy amongst a crowd

The old cliché was that everyone remembered where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. That is far less relevant as the years go on. The obvious reason is that there are fewer people about who can remember that day in 1963. But also, the assassination of JFK has long since gone from being an event to being something far more nebulous, yet far more universal.

It is now a cultural touchstone. There will be more and more people who will understand the language and the tropes associated with the event, yet will not know about the event itself. The grassy knoll, the lone gunman, even the choreography (for want of a better word) of the shooting are now part of our cultural memory, but live beyond the actual event. You don’t need to know about JFK to recognise the death of JFK.

Popular culture has been saturated with references to the event. It is not just books and TV shows and movies that are inspired by the event. You can download a game and recreate it. There are even references to references. An episode of Seinfeld saw a pastiche of a scene from the Oliver Stone movie JFK, that itself presented one particular view of the assassination. Yet the Seinfeld episode didn’t mention JFK. It seems to follow Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacra. It starts with a faithful copy (Zapruder’s film?), then an unfaithful copy (help me out here, but perhaps the conspiracy theories), then a simulacrum that pretends to be a faithful copy (the Oliver Stone film) then finally pure simulation, in which the simulacrum bears no relationship to reality (Seinfeld).

Which I guess is just one example of how we are not necessarily marking the anniversary of the death of a major world figure, more we are marking the beginning of a major influence on our culture. It has grown/evolved/mutated from an assassination to a signifier for many other things, a theme that can be bent and co-opted to explain cultural theory, film theory, conspiracy theory. Something that can be a short-cut for a joke in a sitcom, or a starting point for our understanding of representation, media and meaning over the last fifty years.

Six years ago I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas. I went to the museum, housed in the book depository. The window and the area surrounding it where Lee Harvey Oswald fired those shots was protected by a glass box. It was set out as it was on the day of the shooting. It was an exhibit. Yet, it also made it impossible to look through the window and see if from that angle you could shoot at the passing car. Just to tantalize further, there was a mark on the road showing where JFK was when he was first shot, that you could just make out, even with the distancing of the glass box. The whole set-up seemed to invite conspiracy theories, to enable visitors to look at the event as some sort of parlour game. Who shot JFK. I’m sure that was not the intention, but it felt like the result.

It all felt a little unreal. Now I can’t necessarily separate my memories of the visit from the various cultural baggage I’ve picked up around the assassination of JFK. It is almost possible to forget a man died that day, to lose the man, to feel like you can remove the man and the events that day from our shared memory and all that follows will still make sense somehow. It is strange, and sad.

Image from Florida State Library, via Flickr