Folks who study mass media and popular culture can’t help but consider the absurdity of how we interpret phenomena, often through the lens of media. Some theorists call this intertextuality–when one representation stands for another. An example is one of the monsters from the Ghostbusters movies.
The character played by Dan Aykroyd (Ray) inadvertently conjures up a giant “Stay Puft” marshmallow creature who terrorizes the city. The cartoon figure was ersatz, but after the movie, edible Stay Puft marshmallows hit the consumer market, transforming a fictional concept into a true-life commodity.
The references—from fictional to real and back to fictional—create what Jean Baudrillard called a hyperreality in mediated form. Baudrillard likened the unraveling of mediated intersections with a möbius strip, much like the paintings by M.C. Escher where one shape looks like another.
I argue that the mediated coverage over Kennewick Man invokes texts and images that create a mash-up of the absurd. For example, magazines and TV programs announced that the reconstructed face of Kennewick Man—who lived more than 9,000 years ago—resembles that of actor Patrick Stewart.
In short, one of North America’s oldest ancestors became inextricably linked with an actor from the British Isles who portrays a paramilitary leader from the future. The mediated coupling presents a surreal simulacrum where one forgery replaces another: the clay shape is an artist’s interpretation of the fleshed-out semblance instantiated from bones alongside a still photo of an actor playing a fictional character on television. Jean Luc Picard is offered up as a synecdoche of Kennewick Man.
In Baudrillard’s terms, the simulation destroys the original and replaces truth with a mash-up of disorderly and arbitrary signs that are unmoored from their signifiers, and where the beginning point is indistinguishable from the end point.
The visage of Kennewick Man will forever be paired with Jean Luc Picard. And that virtually exterminates Kennewick Man.