Edgar Morin 1964

A Planetary Tele-Tragedy: The Assassination of President Kennedy

Source: Communications, 3, 1964;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2012.

The Western world and a portion of the other worlds were able to see, to live the tragedy of President Kennedy as it happened. Everything was seen, even President Kennedy’s death, filmed in color by an amateur filmmaker and which “Paris Match” – which sees everything – got exclusive rights to in France. At the beginning TV was glued to the event with barely an hour’s delay. It almost immediately caught up, never letting go of the action. And it was under the flashbulbs of the press, before the eyes of the journalists and the television and newsreel cameras that Ruby killed Oswald.

We lived President Kennedy’s tragedy in the present tense. We also lived it in omni-presence. It was present through the intermediary of the radio and TV not only in Dallas and Washington, but in the capitals of the globe, all swept up in emotion. We were able to view Fidel Castro’s initial reaction and the sobbing of American students.

We were also able to take a trip back in time and listen to Lee Oswald’s voice answering a question about Kennedy during a radio broadcast from New Orleans.

We were present while remaining here, in our own homes, in front of the television, next to our transistors, with our newspapers. We were tele-present. We tele-attended the Kennedy tragedy. We tele-particpated in it.

A blow to the heart

This spectacle was not only a spectacle. This participation was not only an aesthetic participation. At the same moment there was also the political world, the world tout court implied and perturbed by the murder. But there was something else, and the primary element chronologically speaking was this other thing: the brutal death of someone close. This was a blow to the heart.

Later there was the reconstituting of the vital tissues, the reconstituting of the political tissue after the lesion, as well as the surprising evolution of the tragedy, leaving the planetary heights to dive into the lower depths of the American crime novel. But the original blow to the heart must not be forgotten. At the time Europe took note of this: what first struck public opinion was the death of a man. How? Why? Most men die without their deaths being felt as a human death except by those close to them. Was Kennedy that close to the most far-away people?

In order to understand this we must go back to when he was alive. Without our being aware of it Kennedy was the greatest tele-presence of the western world.

Present in two ways: first as the president of the greatest nation, and as leader of the western coalition his name came up in every commentary, in any reflection on the course of events; secondly the western mass media (press, radio, cinema, TV) had made him out to be an Olympian figure. He had been made into a star as the president-leading man: handsome, open, agreeable; as the happy husband of a beautiful cover-girl- first- lady; as the happy father of beautiful mischievous children.

At the same time as he was hero of a cosmic political adventure. John Kennedy was the protagonist of an endless serial novel that could have been called “The Kennedy Family,” a family admirably assuming its Olympian functions (receptions, ceremonies, trips) and its human functions (affection, happy home life). In the dual superimposed image of Kennedy-president and Kennedy-man there was the same youthfulness and happiness. This was one of the final joys of Olympus at a moment when stars suffer from promotional solitude and queens from domestic difficulties.

John Kennedy was the complete Olympian of the contemporary world. Benefiting from the prestige of the powerless elite of stars and queens he also benefited from the aura of power over the world. He was the Alexander of the bourgeois world, an Alexander married to a very beautiful woman and father of beautiful children, but who remained young, ardent, daring.

There was no doubt something mythological in the image of Kennedyan happiness. There was, in the great Kennedyan presence, a phenomenon of magnification, of hyper-personalization. But it would be a mistake to reduce what happened (and in general whatever the mass media transmits to us) strictly to the phenomenon of mythologizing. At the same time – and especially – there was a phenomenon of humanization, or rather maxima irradiation, the planetary irradiation of a human personality. The tele-agreeable presence of Kennedy was not only the product of a privileged situation (the presidency of the United States) and of a system of communication (press, radio, cinema, TV) that secretes idols and Olympians, but also a personal radiance which the mass media served to relay all over the planet.

John Kennedy was present as John Kennedy and not only as symbol of the happiness of the great of this world. He was present with his smile and his style, both of which allowed him to appear in photos and films just as he was in life: manifestly a man of good will and courage, a personality largely escaping the stereotype of the politician, a stereotype widespread in political life. A personality not hieratic, but in the full meaning of the term: sympathetic. He was at one and the same time a young leading man and a young political leader. He pleased as a young leading man, and as a young political leader, that is the leader among leaders of the era, he was the first to infuse politics (to attempt to infuse, to appear to infuse, which is subject for another analysis) with youth and sincerity. He touched people. One had the impression that he fought against politics.

Here we can speak of tele-love, tele-friendship, and we can see the distant become near, the stranger become the intimate of intimates; a dual intimacy where we as friendly voyeurs penetrated the Kennedy home and where Kennedy penetrated our homes as a radiant visitor.

The planetary shakeup

The brutality of the shockwave that was Kennedy’s death was increased by the surprise and its tragic character. Tragic is the death of any young man with a great destiny before him suddenly and prematurely cut off by that blind forces that take the antonymic and complementary names of chance and destiny. The Kennedy tragedy spread from the political to involve our affectivity and humanity. It was obviously conditioned by politics for we – world-wide public opinion – would not have known Kennedy without his election to the presidency of the United States. The tragedy would sooner or later become political, but for a time the tragedy of President Kennedy was an extra-political phenomenon. (In any case, it was not in the least a tragedy for those who limit Kennedy to his political function. For the Chinese press the death of the leader of American imperialism was a fact of no importance or consequence. There is no cause to rejoice or regret it, since American imperialism will in no way be modified by the change in eponym.)

From the extra-political the tragedy would diffuse to all the cardinal points, becoming at the same time a political tragedy, a supra-political tragedy, and an infra-political tragedy.

The supra-political tragedy was the seismic trembling of the planetary crust. The infra-political tragedy was the dive into the depths of the American underworld and neurosis. The political tragedy was that all of these tragedies conjointly affected the course of world politics. But perhaps in the end it is politics that will have been the least affected by Kennedy’s death. It seems to continue along its way without any real break.

The supra-political tragedy culminated in the hours that followed the assassination. A panic wind crossed the TV and radio waves. An America deprived of its pilot suddenly seemed to be a ship without a compass, dragging the human squadron to shipwreck. Would an America deprived of its captain see the unleashing of dark forces, of anti-communist hysteria, a racial bloodbath? Khrushchev hurriedly returned to Moscow. All over the world the masters of states were alarmed. Political worries fed the feeling of a planetary tragedy that suddenly imposed itself. Is public opinion inoculated with fear by worried journalists, by anxious capitals? Public opinion obscurely felt the threat of cosmic catastrophe and there was in fact a planetary shakeup. The death of great Caesars and of hero gods in antiquity was accompanied by celestial signs, by earthquakes. Today fear is no longer projected externally through miracles: it burrows down into the interior of consciousness. A gigantic crippled devil, opening the roofs and ceilings throughout the western and perhaps even the eastern world, would have seen millions of human beings anxiously gripping their transistors.

This well-motivated political anxiety naturally established Kennedy at the height of his role as a hero. His death shook the world order; the human tragedy was on a cosmic scale. But immediately conspiratorial forces set to work. From every capital there comes a plane bearing the greatest or the nearly-so to Washington. Moscow delegated its peacemaker, it unmaker of chaos. The Great Representatives of the Western world came not so much as vassals as stabilizers. The spontaneous Council of the Western world to which was joined, bearing an olive branch, the Great Envoy of the Antagonist, seemed not only to ensure the interregnum of the Empire, but also to exorcise maleficent powers. The small-fry of the heads of state marching behind the coffin of the hero were reassuring. And so the live transmission of the funeral showed us at the head the coffin of young Alexander followed by his Bucephalus, than came the private tragedy: Jacqueline Kennedy, the proud widow dressed in black surrounded by her family. And then in the rear the planetary tragedy with its crowd of the great.

The Ravaillac of Dallas

Everything could have ended with the funeral, a grandiose ceremony of the return to order, but the planetary tragedy had already descended to the level of the most frightening of American criminal suspense stories after having seemed to wander in the strange world of Ravaillac [1], a madman specializing in the murder of heads of state.

The question of the assassin returns us to both the political and the infra-political. Public opinion was polarized: there were on one had the politicized, who saw in the presumed assassin the instrument of a politics (immediately seen as a communist agent by the American right and an agent provocateur by the American left); and on the other hand the apoliticals, who saw the resurrection of an historic archetype or who experienced the tragedy as a Shakespearean inevitability. Between these two poles was the floating mass of public opinion solicited by both camps, questioning itself about the photograph of a man with a sharp featured thin face and a black eye who seems to be smiling. A face that will remain forever enigmatic since the smile freezes in another photo that shows Lee Oswald at the moment Ruby kills him.

A fascinating photo which through its gestures and expressions seems to be taken from a B detective film, and which by the fixity of the movement of bodies and faces seems to emanate from a modern Masaccio.

The murder plunges into two lower depths between which there is perhaps no difference: the lower depths of society, symbolized by the strip joint, the hub of the underworld and the police; and the lower depths of the soul, the torment there was in Lee Oswald’s consciousness that pushed him toward and away from communism, but above all against Americanism, as if though him the illness of “the angry young men” [in English in the original] became exacerbated and struck the joyous, optimistic, and happy image symbolized by John Kennedy.

But beneath these lower depths the political reappeared. The Ruby-Oswald relationship shows that some obscure origin used these lower depths. Behind the erratic crime can be seen the machination. The affair is not over.


The affair isn’t over but the tragedy is. This was perhaps the first planetary tele-tragedy in human history. A tele-tragedy lived live and in person across the surface of the globe. Telstar, the relay satellite, was the new artificial star of this new form of shared destiny.

We lived all of this. We lived the death of Kennedy as if it were a bit our own. We lived the anguish of humankind. We lived something extraordinary. And yet, did we really live it? Were we not in a strange symbiosis of spectacle and participation? Have we not remained separated from the tragedy by a membrane, the very screen that communicated it to us?

1. François Ravaillac (1578-1610), assassin of King Henry IV