‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ tells the inscription on the all-but-extinguished remains of the statue in Percy Shelley’s now-mythical poem, ‘Ozymandias’. Time itself has waged war on the statue and its very meaning: the source of despair is no longer its grandeur, but the forcefulness of its wearing away at the hands of nature. This is a warning to all humans, but particularly to those who clutch at immortality – even the most elementary forces of history will overpower their hubris.
In Skopje stands a veritable wonderland of heroes ancient and modern, classical and communist. The project, Skopje 2014, was intended to restore to Macedonia’s capital the dignity of cradling a national identity, and to garner the world’s attention. The cost of the statues, museums and landmarks has reached over 560 million Euros, and provoked tens of thousands of protestors to march against the government’s increasing repression and mismanagement. Today, the precinct attracts tourists hungry for historical kitsch.
The sheer aesthetic disjuncture that the gold- and white-coated statues present with surrounding buildings hints at deeper historical contradictions plaguing the national project of Macedonia. Whether those contradictions will unfold through a more sustainable political project or through forceful upheaval, one must wonder what the fate of these statues will be. Certainly the coating will fall to the mercy of the elements comparatively quickly. But nature is not the only force capable of tearing asunder what a misguided nationalist project has joined.
‘When marble, sandstone and granite have crumbled to atoms, these monuments will remain untouched by the destroying hand of time’, read a company catalogue of the Monumental Bronze Company in 1890, advertising to the people of the US state of Georgia its signature material for the building of statues, ‘white bronze’. At the time, this claim was validated by many scientists who testified to the special qualities of this alloy (which largely contains copper, lead and zinc, but no bronze). The company was advertising during a period when the construction of Confederate statues was booming. These erections, carried out by private individuals or groups without any public consultation or official approval, would continue until the First World War commandeered the nation’s materials for a different purpose.
Today, those statues are under threat from an enemy bearing loudspeakers and hoists. Crowds of radical activists and historians across the United States have set their sights on many of the 1500 Confederate memorials. A long-delayed manifestation of the arrival of people of colour onto the historical canon has also become an attempt to stem the influence of white nationalist groups emboldened by the current political situation, who often rally around statues of prominent Confederate figures. Not only sheer force, but also institutional channels have been mobilised against the misfit but lingering legacy of those who upheld the slave trade. In Baltimore, Charlottesville, Lexington and other cities across the US, city councils have agreed to the removal of statues, or have removed them in anticipation of their disfigurement by activists.
Across the Pacific, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacted to the defacing of statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie with the following words: ‘but it is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it. This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs.’ This echoes the sentiments of reactionary commentators who have characterised these acts as vandalism of the historical record, normalising a repression of thought which can only end in wholesale repression.
Certainly such acts will have significant effects on cultures of remembrance within the United States, which, like Australia and many other countries, continues to use its military history as the focal point of national celebrations. And yet history itself suffers no greater injury than to be treated merely as past. When statues that glorify the corrupt and outdated Confederate ideology are maintained with the pretence of keeping the shared heritage of historical artefacts intact, the result is a set of public spaces that are more akin to the fairground spectacles of Skopje than to an open and shifting historical landscape.
If a plaza emptied of long-standing monuments is the ruin leftover from an ongoing battle over the past, then it also reminds us that the fate of many current political projects is as future ruins. The taking down of statues sends a message to the broader body politic that the past is, and always has been, on the table, and in more hushed tones that the future can always be reclaimed. Far from stultifying history, such moments serve to reawaken it.
Of course, history was never really asleep, for the movement against Confederate statues is but part of a great postcolonial project that intersects with a forceful resistance against the fascist tendencies in American liberal capitalism. Yet it is a telling step in the constitution of a historical agent that can reshape material conditions more vigorously and immediately than the erosive power of any winds or deluge. The American left is once again finding its feet in the wake of an increasingly catastrophic liberal consensus.
However, this dialectic according to which the possibility of a monument’s destruction also represents the possibility of renewal and transformation for historical spaces is not an abstract historical force, but rather rooted in real processes unfolding in the present moment. In the same way, while a group of people bringing down a statue can no doubt be considered a ‘crowd’, their character as a historical agent should not be taken as monolithic. Such movements bring together disparate groups of people oppressed by the ideologies that the Confederacy stood for. Rather, any group identity at work is constituted through the collective action that demolition represents.
Squares and public places are often characterised by a hierarchy of space. Tiananmen Square was made into its current form by Mao Zedong to be one of the world’s largest squares, and designed to hold audiences for official events – the gathered mass looking up at the country’s leaders. Its size also makes it notoriously difficult for crowds to occupy amid the many avenues for tanks to enter the square. Haussmann’s broad Parisian boulevards united by large, monument-filled circular plazas were designed with similar purposes in mind.
This hierarchy is to a large degree enforced by large structures that become the focal point of such places. This is an instance of what Jacques Rancière terms the distribution of the sensible, or the way particular aesthetic structures become naturalised into our very notion of a place or an idea. For this reason, the removal of a centrepiece such as a long-standing statue appears almost sacrilegious, a deprivation of a place of its identity. However, many places gather their importance from precisely the opposite quality – whereas identifiable buildings or signs ascribe certain symbolic or instrumental functions to a space, these places are constituted around the absence of such functionality.
Marc Augé coined the term ‘non-place’ to signify the spaces leftover from the functional, communal constitution of a city – the spaces under bridges, the meaningless patches of green on traffic islands, and so on. Such a notion has been interpreted as an indictment on the modern city, where, in the service of capital, many spaces are alienated from their immediate communal use. However, this interpretation elides over the historical potentiality of such places. If such spaces serve merely subordinate roles to the dominant planning imperatives, then they can readily be reclaimed by those attempting to escape those systemic imperatives.
Despite its illustrious history, Tahrir Square in Egypt, in the years before the Arab Spring, had become little more than a traffic circle punctured by several construction sites. When protesters took it over, they expelled the cars and took down the fences, and made it a place for the movement and gathering of people. It was not only in its proximity to important government buildings, but in its negative character as a non-place that Tahrir Square attained its importance as a site for revolution. The same can be said of Tripoli’s Green Square (since renamed Martyr’s Square) in its role in the Libyan revolution. They are situated at the heart of their respective cities, yet this heart is empty but for the people who make themselves masters of it.
For this same reason, the fact that we often imagine and interact with such squares predominantly through the structures that surround them deadens their historical force. In Ukraine, where the state is under the effective control of various right-wing forces, 1,300 monuments to Lenin have been taken down since December 2015. This impressive project was carried out in the main cities mid of the ‘Euromaidan’ movement, as well as in more isolated parts of the country by small groups, and some of the most enduring images of incensed crowds from this period involve gatherings around Lenin demolitions. As reactionary as this movement was, it must be acknowledged that the demolition of these statues was important fuel for the mass mobilisations that took place.
According to Rancière, at the core of every political act is a demand for equality – most saliently, the demand that ruling classes wage their power not above, but alongside and with the consent of citizens, as equal participants in democracy. Accordingly, it is only on the basis of an equal distribution of the sensible that a public space can acquire the role of embodying political action. This requires an absence of hierarchy, which in this context means the absence of verticality and military control found in Tiananmen Square, and the absence of ritualistic norms for proper behaviour and historical meaning that Confederate statues embody.
A square devoid of such impositions, but rather where the everyday acts of exchange, debate, mimesis, incitement, repulsion, flirtation – the life of the crowd – enjoy the same status as acts of presumed political or economic substance, becomes a hall of mirrors which absorbs the energy of the crowd. Political theories which privilege the role of common values and discourse as the active substance of public places – such as those of Jürgen Habermas – neither account for this negative dimension of such places nor for the role of confrontational interventions within them. Through the demolition of a statue, a negative act, the crowd gives birth to a new public place, and in the process, to itself as a political subject. The non-place plays an important role for glimpsing, and perhaps building, any future-oriented political imaginary.