We publish below excerpts from the article “When Monuments Fall: The Significance of Decommemorating”, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Éire-Ireland.
Unlike a tree in a lonely forest, when a monument falls in an urban space, people notice. The resonance of the tumble and its reverberations, however, are open to interpretation and require clarification. Much has been written about the nature and purpose of commemoration, whereas instances of “decommemorating” – i.e. assaults on memorials that result in defacement, destruction or removal – are readily dismissed as spontaneous outbursts of mindless vandalism. Yet there is more to decommemorating than meets the eye. Moreover, the implicit dichotomy that associates commemorating with memory and decommemorating with forgetting warrants reconsideration.
The terminology is deceptive: memorialization through the construction of monuments is commonly equated with memory, even though the transitive verb “memorialize” (which over the course of the long nineteenth century came to signify commemoration) is not simply a synonym of “memorize” (to commit to memory). The relationship between memorial and memory is less than straightforward ‑ and the two may even be antithetical. Monuments purport to be memory cast in stone, and herein lies the paradox. As demonstrated by the British pioneer of cognitive psychology F. C. Bartlett, remembering is essentially an “effort after meaning”; hence, the act of remembering entails “not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces” but “an imaginative reconstruction.” On the other hand, the static representation of memory crafted by a sculptor ‑ although designed to endure ‑ may soon appear to be outdated. Indeed, a monument is inherently anachronistic, locked in the mentalité of the time of its creation, as the world continues to move on. It is a fossilized depiction of memory as it was once conceived, waiting to be reanimated. As the American historian Kirk Savage suggests, we assume that “monuments remain powerful because they are built to last long after the particular voices of their makers have ceased, long after the events of their creation have been forgotten.” However, the continued effectiveness of a monument as an aide-mémoire is dependent on it being recharged with new meanings and re-acquiring relevance.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, writing on “The Modern Cult of Monuments”, commented on the necessity for continuous conservation:
From the outset, that is from the erection of the monument itself, the purpose of deliberate commemorative value is to keep a moment from becoming history, to keep it perpetually alive and present in the consciousness of future generations … Deliberate commemorative value simply makes a claim for immortality, an eternal present, an unceasing state of becoming … A memorial column, for instance, with its inscription effaced, would cease to be a deliberate monument. Thus the fundamental requirement of deliberate monuments is restoration.
For Riegl, who wrote at the heyday of fin-de-siècle Vienna ‑ with its impressive parade of statues and monumental architecture along the Ringstrasse ‑ maintaining the materiality of monuments ensured that memory would endure.
Conversely, in Matière et mémoire (1896), the French philosopher Henri Bergson argued that “memory is spirit, not a manifestation of matter.” His approach suggests that the memory signified by a monument is embodied not in the material of the memorial, but in the minds and actions of the onlookers who engage in acts of commemoration at its foot. But this common-sense assertion has been recently challenged by proponents of the New Materialism, who have called attention to the “force of things” and the “active role of nonhuman materials in public life.” Moving beyond an anthropological appreciation of “the social life of things” and the acknowledgment that “some things matter” in particular, posthumanist and nonhumanist critique has questioned the validity of anthropocentrism by attributing agency to objects. Ann Rigney clarifies the implications of these theoretical insights for memory studies:
we can attribute the cultural fascination with objects to the power of the objects themselves … They fascinate through their shape, texture, color, and size. They capture earlier moments and promise us stories by outliving the time in which they first came into being.
Yet, unlocking such memories requires interpretation. Whether or not stone and bronze embody social and cultural memory (after all, the “stories” they seem to “promise” are not actually narrated by the material, but by people), the act of remembering relates to perceptions of the monument.
If a monument is to induce remembrance, it must be noticed. Writing in interwar Vienna, when the grand memories of the former Austro-Hungarian empire seemed defunct, the modernist writer Robert Musil observed how statues fail to fulfil their memorial purpose:
Aside from the fact that you never know whether to refer to them as monuments or memorials, monuments do have all kinds of other characteristics. The most salient of these is a bit contradictory; namely, that monuments are so conspicuously inconspicuous. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen ‑ indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.
In truth, monuments, though intended to be imposing, are quite often ignored by passers-by. Rather than evoking memory, such everyday disregard of monuments signifies forgetting.
The monument is initially lavished with attention at its inauguration: the laying of the foundation stone is marked by a dedication ceremony and the completion of its construction is feted at the unveiling; however the novelty of these celebrations soon wears off. Extended periods of indifference, during which monuments blend into the urban landscape and become increasingly invisible to a disinterested public, are punctuated by anniversaries in which commemorative ceremonies momentarily restore the sites to prominence. But overall, the active memory function of a memorial is the exception rather than the rule.
The “essential vulnerability of collective memory,” according to Savage, “is that sooner or later it will disappear.” Ultimately “memorials will turn into monumental albatrosses, empty of visitors, because the veterans they honor will pass away and become too distant from living kin and other social networks with a stake in remembering them.” If a monument is inexorably destined to lose relevance and at some stage will cease to fulfil its commemorative purpose, intentional destruction would seem only to expedite its demise, instantly consigning memory to oblivion. But studies of iconoclasm, or perhaps to use a proposed alternative ‑ of “iconoclash” ‑ suggest something very different. According to the art historian David Freedberg, iconoclasts may seek “to deprive the image of its power” and perhaps even believe that “by damaging the symbols of a power … one somehow diminishes that power itself.” But, Freedberg points out that iconoclasm is also an “attention-seeking act which usually appears to be more or less successful in its aim.” As such, it intervenes in the life cycle of a monument, plucking it out of mundane obscurity and placing it back in the limelight.
The anthropologist Michael Taussig aptly describes how “statues come ‘alive’ precisely when they are destroyed.” The negating of commemoration is therefore itself an engagement with commemoration. Dario Gamboni, who studied the history of iconoclasm and vandalism in the late-modern era, summed up the seemingly counter-intuitive ramifications for memory of assaults on monuments:
Negative reactions, especially when they are collective, increase the work’s visibility. When an open conflict arises and the elimination requested by one party meets with the resistance of another one, then the stakes involved in the controversy can make the litigious object lastingly memorable even if it disappears materially.
Accordingly, Gamboni came to the conclusion that “elimination and preservation are really two sides of the same coin.”
Official accounts, as well as unsympathetic partisan reportage that typically depicts decommemorating as a chaotic outburst of rage by a blind mob, perpetuates what Peter Stewart has decried – with reference to the practice of damnatio memoriae [posthumous defacement of monuments to tyrants] in ancient Rome – as “the myth of mindless violence.” This reluctance to attribute any meaningful significance to the assault on memorials trivializes the protest ‑ and such disparagement is by no means confined to late antiquity. Most recently, in 2020, it was conspicuously apparent in conservative coverage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against Confederate memorials, which were denounced by right-wing news outlets as nothing more than rampant rioting and sheer lawlessness. Yet, the deliberate targeting of monuments to advocates of slavery was a salient outcry against the lingering legacy of a heritage now considered deeply problematic.
The notion that state commemoration instills a homogenous “collective” memory is, more often than not, a chimera to which political elites aspire but can never fully impose. In practice, as John Gillis points out, public memory mediates between “conflicting representations of the past and the effort of each group to make its version the basis of national identity.” Commemoration, as shown by John Bodnar, is therefore the outcome of “a struggle for supremacy between advocates of various political ideas and sentiments.” The right to exhibit memory in public proves to be valuable cultural capital for which adversaries passionately compete.
Although commemoration is a form of popular culture, the memory being celebrated can be unpopular, pitting the self-interested “commemorative possessiveness” of the privileged, who assume center stage, against the disgruntled “commemorative envy” of the marginalized, who remain excluded. The destruction of a monument is an act of counter-memory, a striking reminder that, as put by historians Natalie Zemon Davis and Randolph Starn, “memory operates under the pressure of challenges and alternatives”. Decommemorating thus challenges forms of memorialization deemed offensive to certain sections of the population, whose alternative vernacular memories have not been adequately represented in official commemorative culture.
Each assault on a monument may appear a random ad hoc event. However, just as the construction of statues reflects a political climate, their downfall has historical context. Drives for erecting monuments surge in periods of heightened nationalist fervor, instigating what the fin-de-siècle historian Gabriel Monod labelled (with reference to Third Republic France) “statuomania”. Similarly, the zeal for assaults on monuments tends to peak in certain periods. Decommemorating ‑ a subversive act that undermines the state’s claim to hold a monopoly on violence ‑ occurs in specific circumstances, when the coercive power of the authorities appears lax. Unimpeded, it can rapidly become contagious, as protesters take umbrage at monuments that had hitherto been ignored and assaults on symbols of former power become all the rage. During moments of political change, bitter resentments fostered by social tensions simmering for years under a veil of ostensibly subdued acquiescence come to the surface and erupt, often finding their outlet in attacks on monuments.
As a symbolic contestation, decommemorating is akin to civil war by other means, It reflects, in Sanford Levinson’s words, “what happens to public space when the political and cultural cleavages within a given society are fully manifested and even, as in some versions of multiculturalism, endorsed”. At these moments, monumentalized memories that may long have been dormant in public discourse are reawakened. As Jaś Elsner notes about ancient Rome, “paradoxically, the act of iconoclasm – while apparently a kind of visual defacement that effaces the memory of the destroyed – may nonetheless preserve the memory of the condemned in the very act of obliteration.” Or, as architectural historian Adrian Forty somewhat similarly maintains, “the lessons of iconoclasm are largely negative ‑ rather than shortening memory, it is just as likely, whether intentionally or not, to prolong it.
Shattered monuments, moreover, have an afterlife. Broken pieces can be retained as relics. They are treasured as “numinous objects,” invested with mnemonic value. Most famously, fragments of the Berlin Wall became commodified souvenirs, offering tangible access to the memory of the wall and its destruction. Since these mementoes fulfill a memorial function regardless of whether their authenticity can be verified, memory exists not in the materiality of the artefact but in the stories told about them ‑ stories evoking recollections of a monument no longer existing in its original material form.
Additionally, the dislodged monument leaves a noticeable void. Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas observe how considering the significance of the empty space, reveals complexity:
It is not just that memorials commemorate and iconoclasm causes forgetfulness; the relation between remembrance and forgetfulness is not a linear process but a struggle, a tension – in every memorial, something has been left out or forgotten, in every removal, something is left behind, remembered. In both cases, it is what is not there, what is absent that causes this tension.
The palpable presence of absence is a silent reminder of the ousted memorial and, for those who retain an affinity to the condemned memory and seek its rehabilitation, it is also a call for action. Decommemorating can therefore instigate initiatives for re-commemorating, which either restore or replace a defaced monument. Reintroduction of the cause of provocation can, in turn, initiate recurring cycles of decommemorating and re-commemorating, which sustain controversy and ensure that the contested memory does not fall into obscurity. In this way, decommemorating becomes a regenerative force.
Those who partake in decommemorating see themselves as agents of oblivion, determined to efface an undesirable memory. But in the very act of calling attention to an offensive monument, they are in effect agents of memory, unwittingly reviving remembrance of the memorial they seek to supplant.
[A full version of the essay, inclusive of references and citations, goes on to demonstrate these theoretical arguments through consideration of some examples from modern Irish history, where the dynamics of commemorating, decommemorating and re-commemorating are strikingly apparent. It is included in the forthcoming issue of Éire-Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies: Beiner, Guy. “When Monuments Fall: The Significance of Decommemorating.” Éire-Ireland 56, no. 1 (2021): 33-61.]
Guy Beiner is professor of modern history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Sullivan Chair of Irish Studies at Boston College. His new book, Pandemic Re-Awakenings: The Forgotten and Unforgotten ‘Spanish’ Flu of 1918-1919, will be published by Oxford University Press in November.