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Twilight of the Idols

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Twilight of the Idols

The new iconoclasm has deep roots. Spring 2022
Politics and law
The Social Order

Last October, three large busts created by artist Chris Carnabuci were installed in Manhattan’s Union Square. One represented the late congressman and activist John Lewis, who died in the summer of 2020, just as a new wave of protests decrying racism against African-Americans was sweeping across the nation. The other two represented individuals whose death at the hands of the police triggered those protests: Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Carnabuci uses a computerized 3-D modeling technique to produce his work. The busts are constructed from stacked plywood planks carved by programmed machine tools. Their appearance evokes something of the digital method that generated them: the vertical stack of thin bands that constitutes the busts lends them a flickering, screen-like aura. They look at home on Instagram—a platform that helped propel 2020’s protests. However, Carnabuci also painted the Union Square busts bronze, stating that he aimed to create a dialogue with the tradition of monumental statuary. In this sense, the installation might be seen as a constructive contribution to recent controversies around public statuary that have often taken a destructive form.

An equestrian sculpture of George Washington stands just behind the site of the Union Square installation. It dates back to 1856, making it the oldest statue in a city park. While no one has recently attempted to remove it, other civic monuments of similar antiquity have come down in the city in the same period in which Carnabuci’s busts went up. Just before Thanksgiving, an 1834 statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed from City Hall, and the removal of another presidential tribute, the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History, began shortly thereafter. Demands to remove other statues, particularly those of Christopher Columbus, have thus far been unsuccessful.

A vandal splattered the Floyd bust with paint shortly after its installation. The incident was investigated as a hate crime, but it also fell into a larger recent pattern. Much the same or worse befell older public statues during the protests the previous year, including the George Washington monument a mile to the south in Washington Square Park. Meantime, in Portland, Oregon, a George Washington statue was toppled and set on fire by protesters. Statues of figures including Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant met similar fates in San Francisco. In response, President Donald Trump issued a directive demanding the prosecution of vandals of federal monuments and threatening to withhold funding from localities that failed to protect their own statues.

Protesters in 2020 targeted figures outside the standard pantheon of dead white men, including a women’s rights monument, a statue of an abolitionist leader, and even a statue of Frederick Douglass. In aggregate, the wave of destruction that overtook the country and the world resembled historical periods of iconoclastic fervor. It was as if statuary itself, and not simply monuments to certain historical individuals, had become offensive.

In response to the vandalism, local municipalities and educational institutions across the nation opted to remove a range of controversial monuments from public view. Critics of these developments tend to acknowledge the flaws and misdeeds of at least some of the historic figures targeted but typically argue that to remove their statues is to “erase history.” If mere historical preservation were the concern, however, surely the solution would be to move contested monuments to museums, as is happening with the Jefferson and Roosevelt statues in New York. But such moves are unlikely to placate those who objected to the removals.

What they are lamenting, in fact, is not the loss of knowledge of historical events but the decline of an altogether different mode of history—the mode that Friedrich Nietzsche, in his essay “The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” called “monumental.” Monumental history does not merely preserve or document the past: it memorializes great individuals and their deeds and enjoins us to follow their example. Its social function is to consolidate groups around common objects of admiration and emulation. Hence, the effect of toppling civic monuments is not to remove the figures they represent from the historical record, which is preserved elsewhere, but to demote them from their previously elevated status.

Writing in the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche glimpsed the waning of this sort of history, alongside the rise of what he called “critical history.” Rather than elevating the heroes of the past, critical history aims precisely to take them down from their pedestals. Perhaps its most notable popular embodiment in recent years was the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which sought to displace the story of America’s Founders with another foundation narrative featuring different protagonists: the first victims of the transatlantic slave trade. By memorializing two previously unknown people regarded as victims of racialized violence, Carnabuci aimed at something similar.

The toppling of statues often marks moments of regime change. In ancient Egypt, both the rise and fall of the iconoclast pharaoh Akhenaton saw massive desecration of public art. The iconoclastic destruction of the Protestant Reformation delegitimized the Catholic Church in England and northern Europe. More recently, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein generated iconic media images of statues falling, thus enacting the end of the old regime. The U.S. military staged and disseminated one such scene—the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, attributed to the local populace but actually performed by U.S. soldiers—because of the potency of the message it conveyed.

“Destruction of statues offers proof of concept for altering a political arrangement.”

These scenes vividly embody the process by which an adamantine order loses the mandate of heaven. As long as a regime remains assured in its power, statues are sites of ritual homage, or neutral backdrops of civic life. But as the historical narratives that undergird a power structure cease to inspire conviction, aggressive outbursts against its most robust physical manifestations can make tangible the criticisms that have already eaten away at its ideological authority. Destruction of statues offers proof of concept for altering a political arrangement that once seemed immutable.

The current wave of demolition and removal in the United States first targeted Confederate monuments in the South during the Obama administration’s second term. In this sense, the ongoing iconoclastic project initially appeared not as the beginning of a new process but a belated recognition of one already accomplished: the end of Jim Crow. Most of the Confederate statues had themselves been erected well after the Civil War, part of the stealth restoration of racial hierarchies. They memorialized a fallen order to bestow a patina of historical grandeur on a more newfangled reactionary system. The fall of monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the like thus seemed preordained. The recent targeting of a far wider array of historical monuments, including ones dedicated to those who defeated the Confederacy, was something quite different: it raised the question of whether the country can reach any consensus at all about a “usable past.” (See “Monumental Ambitions.”)

Before the iconoclastic outbursts of mid-2020, the public life of cities and towns had been suspended altogether, generating stunning images of empty streets in the most bustling metropolises. With the advent of Covid-19 lockdowns, life migrated almost entirely into the very different public spaces to which it had already been relocating for some time: Internet platforms. This emptying of civic spaces was then succeeded by mass gatherings in them. Those who participated in these gatherings, overwhelmingly “digital natives,” treated the stolid landmarks in these spaces not as enduring and sacrosanct but as subject to deletion, like any online post.

The iconoclasm of the Reformation also occurred after a media revolution: the printing press, which disrupted long-standing information monopolies, expanded average people’s access to knowledge, and destabilized both secular and religious authority. Emergent strains of radical Protestantism rejected not only the representation of particular figures but the modes of plastic and visual representation that they saw as idolatrous. In a similar manner, the ongoing dematerialization of collective life into digital channels is one reason the objects of stone, bronze, and concrete that still punctuate our cityscapes face an uncertain future.

You will not find,” wrote the late French philosopher Michel Serres, “any general philosophical treatise on sculpture or statues.” Ironically, he made this statement in Statues, a 1987 book that is, to my knowledge, the only exception to his assertion. Despite wide-ranging debate and reflection on this subject in recent years, the book has received little attention. Serres’s determinedly un-polemical approach limits the utility of his ideas to culture warriors of any faction. He is, as the anthropologist and Serres admirer Bruno Latour puts it, “gun-shy.” Unlike better-known French contemporaries Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and René Girard, all of whom were his friends and colleagues at various points, Serres avoided pugilistic provocations in favor of allusive, digressive, lyrical inquiries into surprising subjects.

Philosopher Michel Serres’s book Statues may be the only philosophical treatise on the meaning of public monuments. (Mohamed Lounes/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Serres’s body of writing is sprawling and eclectic but united by an interest in communication, mediation, networks, and connections. Statues pursues these same themes. Translated into English in 2015, the book argues that statues are humanity’s first media technology. According to Serres, the first statues are corpses, “before [which] every subject draws back: the dead body lies there, cutting out its space, larger lying down than standing, more terrifying dead than alive . . . stiff, hard, rigorous, coherent, consistent, absolutely stable, the first stone statue.” The cadaver, both an inert object and a human subject, intermediates between the here and the beyond. Mortuary customs, culminating in one of the earliest sciences—mummification—derive from the troubling encounter with this object.

The statue-fied body, according to Serres, becomes the first symbolic object by way of the “transubstantiation of life into sign.” In this way, “statues precede languages” and “produce hominity”: that is, they make humans human. By this same process, the distinctly human notion of “place”—somewhere designated for common habitation—also emerges, “to be defined . . . by the stone or the boundary marker beneath which the dead person lies. Cemetery, the first garden, necropolis, the first city.” The corpse’s solidity, and later its sculpted representation, grounded settlement. In many cultures, bodies were buried beneath the foundations of buildings to prevent their collapse. “Substitutions, substances, institutions,” Serres writes. “[E]verything comes out of death.” The organization of public space around statues is a reminder of these origins: the solidified dead still orient and stabilize a place.

Yet these continuities also conceal a fundamental rupture, which Serres identifies with the series of media revolutions by which text displaced statuary from its central role as a symbolic medium. “The religions of writing and speech have won so completely, have invaded space and our cultures so universally,” he writes, “that we no longer see their victory as the end of the crushing of the other zone, the one that’s forgotten, humiliated, left in silence and shadow.”

“Statues precede languages,” Serres argues, but with the capacity of text to give speech permanence, “these latter have buried them, just as the religions of the world destroy, with blows of stones and letters, the idolatries that engendered them.” Statues live on at the cost of demotion to a secondary role. During the periods of iconoclasm visited upon them in modern times, their archaism becomes too offensive to tolerate. But, Serres tells us, “iconoclasts’ fury against fetishes rings like a parricidal anger” because it is ultimately directed against our origins.

Most discussion of the recent furor against old statues pits historical preservation against the demands of the present. Serres’s account suggests that the iconoclasts actually get something right. Statues are not merely neutral records of the past: they are containers of violence and receptacles of death. In this sense, they should disturb us. Statues begins with a story from Flaubert’s Salammbô of a giant hollow metal statue of Baal into which sacrificial victims are placed, after which the effigy is placed on a fire and set alight. (The 1973 cult film The Wicker Man portrays a comparable ritual.) This horrifying image is representative because “every statue is . . . a black box whose secret walls envelop someone or something that they hide.” Last year’s protesters, in this sense, tore open such black boxes to reveal the bodies of victims.

For Serres, just as ruptures conceal continuities, oppositions hide similarities. He makes this point in a striking way in the first chapter of Statues, by juxtaposing the sacrificial idol of Baal with the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded in 1986, immolating seven crew members. The first seems to represent the primitive and barbaric, and the second the most advanced science; and yet a series of resemblances, he argues, allows for a systematic “translation” between them.

“The idol and the rocket,” he notes, are both “ingenious pieces of machinery” and are both also fiery tombs; both are projects of transcendence that seek to establish a channel of communication with the heavens and attempts at “mastery of our surroundings,” through technical expertise or ritual appeasement. In sum, the two objects are different but inhere secretly in each other: “[R]eligion is in technology; the pagan god is in the rocket; the rocket is in the statue; the rocket on its launching pad is in the ancient idol.” Serres’s uncanny translation between archaic idolatry and advanced technoscience exemplifies the strange connections that he sought in his work.

Serres likewise seeks to bridge the distance between icons and their assailants. Commenting on Nietzsche’s project of “philosophizing with a hammer,” he remarks that the “hammer” wielded by the iconoclast is “equivalent to the thing hammered”: “a hard and fashioned mass,” since if it were “less solid or dense . . . it would fly into pieces.” Likewise, “the stone thrown at the idol quickly becomes the idol itself.” Again, where others see contrast, Serres seeks underground connections: “In the Eternal Return of the thing to the thing and the hammer to the hammer, critique becomes magic, religion, fetishism; analysis changes to unanalyzed dogma.” Because all “our ideas come from idols,” they may always revert back into them.

Our species has replaced “hard sculpture” with “soft waves”: the coded information streams that dominate our media landscape. But the interplay of “hard” and “soft” media also goes back to our origins. It was figured initially, for Serres, in the opposition of statuary and music, one fixed on solid ground, the other floating across air. Serres’s project in Statues is to explore why statues remain a stumbling block and an essential landmark, even as their status is eroded by the proliferation of digital information.

The convulsions of 2020 culminated in destructive outbursts not only against statues but also against solid structures of all sorts, which were vandalized, smashed, and burned. At times, all this felt less like a repudiation of certain outmoded symbols than like a revolt against the solidity of the “hard” built environment itself on the part of people immersed in the “soft” media of the screen. Brick-and-mortar stores had been shuttered and overtaken by e-commerce as the virus chased us inside. The hard fixity of stone, brick, concrete, and bronze likewise yielded to viral outrage generated amid the flux of two-dimensional pixel space.

But the solid structures of the cityscape had already been succumbing to the prevalent logic of “soft waves” for some time before this. The demands of the digital content economy have reshaped urban spaces worldwide, turning many once-anonymous locations into preferred selfie backdrops. Unlike the fixed landmarks—many of them statues—built to punctuate our common geography, the new global itinerary of Instagram destinations emerges out of the logic of the attention economy, refashioning the city into a reflection of a digitized simulacrum. Recent transformations of public space explicitly respond to this demand.

If all this seems to signal a further melting of all that is solid into air, of hard sculpture into soft waves, it also sometimes returns us to the origins of symbolic media. Consider another recently installed New York monument: the Vessel, which, like so many statues of old, stands as a central point of reference for an area of urban settlement, albeit the inorganic, simulacral one of Hudson Yards. It is an object whose physical vacuity seems like a commentary on its status as nothing but a backdrop for the countless selfies that it would predictably prompt. Yet the vast emptiness of its structure has also made it something else: a tomb. As of this writing, the Vessel is closed to visitors because of the persistence of suicidal jumps from its labyrinthine weave of walkways. Regardless of the aims of its architect, it has become a statue of Baal, a devourer of life.

Such inadvertent reversions to archaic sacrifice explain what Serres was attempting to elucidate. He states that “a certain number of contemporary actions, behaviors, or thoughts repeat, almost without change, extremely archaic modes of thought or behavior.” But this recurrence owes as much to the advancement of the ancients as to our own primitivism. The contemporary fantasy of the self, released from solidity and evaporated into the digital ether, inherits ancient notions of the soul. The world remade into a selfie stage becomes a portal to the underworld. The deathly weight of the statue haunts our airy digital dispensation because the statue both anticipated its successor and persists within it.

In the haunted year of 2020, disease and death circulated as digital information. The genetic code of viral RNA that rapidly traversed the globe, eluding all controls and barriers, had a simulated counterpart in the models, graphs, charts, and maps that tried to track the shifting coordinates of a suddenly unrecognizable reality. As the virus and its representations spread among us, gluing us to our screens, we were enjoined to become sedentary—statue-like, transfixed like victims of Medusa by the serpentine peregrinations of the virus. To appease this vengeful new god, we also were asked to subject ourselves to new ascetic discipline and purification rituals. Yet this self-denial often seemed identical to indulgence in the pleasures of the screen, to whose temptations we had already been succumbing for some time.

What followed was a peculiar reversal. The abstraction of mass death by invisible infection was displaced by the singular spectacle of one man’s death, which spread virally in a sequence of grimly captivating images. The result was an astonishing mobilization that counteracted the uncanny stillness of previous months. Before George Floyd’s fatal encounter with police officer Derek Chauvin, he had fentanyl in his veins and Covid-19 in his respiratory system. Before his image became an icon worldwide, the traces of globalized biological and pharmaceutical circulation were within his body. An emblematic figure in many ways, Floyd became ubiquitous in the makeshift public art that appeared in cities nationwide. The location of his death became sacrosanct, a new pilgrimage site.

The new iconography: George Floyd in Union Square (Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press Media Production Corp./Alamy Live News)

Thus, the event that initiated the dismantling of statues worldwide also brought us back to the origins of the statue, as traced by Serres: the traumatic spectacle of the cadaver. The resulting unrest rattled the shaky foundations of a troubled regime, many of whose monuments had lost their symbolic potency before their dismantling, partly because that potency was grounded in an increasingly obsolete medium. To both his champions and their detractors, George Floyd seemed to have laid, through his death, the foundations of a new order.

Much has been said about the contradictory features of this new mode of power. Critics of woke capital and luxury beliefs note that a specific kind of concern for the downtrodden, particularly racial minorities, has become a requirement for entry into exclusive institutions and powerful corporations. The declaration of such concern increasingly legitimizes elite rule. But it is risky to regard this as merely a cynical ruse, or even as something entirely novel. Preserving life and containing death are responsibilities that the oldest rulers claimed. Today’s elite, too, requires its tutelary deities. As Serres would remind us, even as we are propelled forward into an uncertain future, we are always returning to our origins.

Top Photo: Throughout the summer of 2020, rioters vandalized and toppled historic monuments across the country. (John Rudoff/Sipa USA/AP Photos)

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