Erasure (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.

30 thoughts on “Erasure (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. When my wife and I toured the USA last northern late summer and fall (we got out quite a bit before COVID-19 got in) I noted a great deal of what I called “monumentalism” and “memorialism”. I meant in general (refining my part A of the definition by borrowing freely from Wikipedia):

    (A) The architectural and sculptural tendencies that during the period from the Renaissance to today had as their essential canon the inspiration and connection to classicism and neoclassicism: including in expression the neo-Baroque and simplified neoclassicism.”; and

    (B) The grandiose tendency to make these monuments big and imposing and/or numerous so as to have (among other effects) a dwarfing impact, intended or unintended, on the small, simple, modest citizen confronted by them.

    From this definition you will infer correctly that I deplore most manifestations of monumentalism and memorialism. They are quite frankly a huge waste of resources. The resources expended on say the Lincoln Memorial could better have been spent on public housing for example. The same goes for the Sydney Opera House which by the way I find aesthetically unpleasing. The sails are jumbled and of the wrong proportions visually and with a feel for the aesthetic “weight” or “mass” of architectural objects. But enough of my subjective aesthetics.

    The real problem is the diversion of resources from genuine human needs to the tendentious and propagandist goals of the elites and ruling classes. I observed to my wife in more or less these words:

    “The more a nation sets great buildings and statues in stone and metal for public display and the more it carves fine words into stone (or supposedly fine words, for some of Teddy Roosevelt’s words, for example, are decidedly grubby) the less I would say it applies its grandiloquent ideals in practice.”

    My wife will simply ignore me or say things like;

    “How long you been rehearsing that one?”
    ” I can see what you are saying but there’s more to it than that.” or
    “You think you know everything.” 😉

    But, I still think I have a point.

  2. An Analysis of the Near-fatal Wound Suffered by Benedict Arnold at Saratoga. “What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?” “They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet.”

    Arnold on his deathbed: “Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom, May God forgive me for putting on another.”

    Both likely apocryphal, but fun nonetheless.

  3. JQ says “… represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.”

    Banksy has come up with “memoria amplificationem” and this brilliant idea for toppled statues.

    “Banksy unveils idea for the future of toppled Edward Colston statue

    He said it ‘caters for both’ sides of the debate

    The statue was torn down from its plinth during the Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday, June 7 before it was then dropped into the harbour as jubilant cheers roared across the city centre and harbourside.

    “We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protesters in the act of pulling him down.

    “Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”

    Banksy on instagram…

    I know a decedent of “Governor Lachlan Macquarie, statue in Hyde Park, Sydney”. He is amazed it is still there.

    The Scomo statue will be coming down soon or be enhanced ala Banksy… ABC today reports “While on Sydney radio [ yesterday] discussing the removal of statues like those of Captain James Cook, Scott Morrison said there was “no slavery in Australia”.

  4. There are some people for whom a statue mightn’t be a bad idea, like Einstein, for instance. I’d rather a tree planted instead of a statue, however. Even so, I think history books should speak of these people that the statues implicitly glorified. That said, clearly the history books that Smoco read need some work, for slavery and slavery conditions were rife in the early years of colonialism (as it is so euphemistically called), and it took until quite late in the last century to actually recognise Aboriginal people as having the right to vote, and the right to claim limited possession through Native Title of land that they already had from before arrival of the white guys in funny dress-up carrying deadly fire-sticks.

    It’s a bit rich when the PM is busy batting away these protests, yet is plainly ignorant of our rather fraught shared history, and of why these protests might outweigh the increased risk of Covid-19 infection. As sad as the murder of George Floyd was, it was so breathtakingly brazen that it became a rallying point and an opportunity to protest mistreatment so starkly defined. I hope that protesters take measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission; in Australia at the present time, the risk is not that high, unlike the situation in many other countries, especially so in the United States.

    The simplest and most effective way of stopping the protests is for the PM to actually take real action, to listen to the people who are most affected, and to do something. It’s not like we are shy of Royal Commission reports on the issue, but we are shite at implementing the recommendations of those reports. Fix that, and the reason for the protests is addressed. The combative way to deal with it simply creates the circumstances for more of the same violence and mistreatment of our Indigenous Australians.

  5. There are some people for whom a statue mightn’t be a bad idea, like Einstein, for instance. I’d rather a tree planted instead of a statue, however.

    No matter which individual is selected for a commemorative statue, there’s no way to be sure that individual was not guilty of some cruelty, treachery, or other horror (unless, I suppose, we have statues only of infants …). If we’re going to have statues of human figures at all, I think I’d prefer them to represent generic figures (for example, ‘The Liberated Slave’ or ‘The Loyal Companion’) or personified abstractions (for example, ‘Compassion’ or ‘Friendship’). Now that I think of it, all these would be better represented by figure groups than by individuals, which I think is probably all to the good.

    Even so, I think history books should speak of these people that the statues implicitly glorified.

    I think it is the implicit glorification which is the issue. Commemorative statues do implicitly glorify their subjects in a way that mentioning people in history books doesn’t have to.

  6. I worked on a West Australian sheep and wheat farm near Mingenew, In 1975 (aged 20/21). I received board and $60.00 a week for plowing paddocks and sowing wheat. The farm next door had an aboriginal youth of about 16 doing the same work there. So far as I know he got inferior board and no money; at least no money he ever got his hands on. I also had a choices. He had none. He was directed there from his reserve and away from his family. Sounds like slavery to me. I had (some) choices, living a self-chosen gypsy life at that time. I quit and rode my motorcycle north when the work was going to change from sowing wheat to crutching and treating fly-blown sheep. I said to the farmer, “Sixty dollars is not enough to do that.” He didn’t offer any more.

    Is Scomo stupid, ignorant, deliberately deceptive, morally tone-deaf or all four? He’s not stupid so I assume it’s the other three.

    Actually, this indicates the practice of stealing the wages ended (it is claimed) in 1972.

    “Until 1972, the West Australian government withheld up to three quarters of wages earned by Aboriginal people.”

    But I wonder what was going on in 1975? Was this youth offered an education? Was the money paid to his parents not to him? Was all of it paid? I have my doubts. Even if some payment was made he was sold out as child or youth labor in a situation I am guessing where neither his parents nor he had any good choices.

  7. @Don
    There is a statue of Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, just outside the Einstein Museum. He’s on a park bench and you can sit next to him and have a chat. That felt about right.

  8. There’s statuary and then there’s sculpture. I think that the figures of exhausted soldiers at the Vietnam memorial in DC are sculptural as are Rodins three figures from the gates of hell. And his statue of Balzac – what a statement. Rodin also did busts for wealthy clients, all amazing.

    Plus the sculpture park in broken hill.

    Where do you draw the line?

  9. akarog,

    Well you can draw the line between tendentious glorification and art, I think. Art is difficult to recognize sometimes and can be in the eye of the beholder. But outdated tendentious glorification is pretty easy to recognize for most persons outside the class glorifying its own icons.


    I love Banksey’s idea. Someone should do it, even if they have to make a copy of the original statue. I would also be quite accepting of someone subverting that new statue again by showing an outsize COVID-19 particle coming to engulf the demonstrators pulling down the statue. That could done by bringing in a soft walk-in plastic bubble ball made up to look like a COVID-19 particle with the person inside wrapped up as RNA. It could be a performance piece rather than a statue. However, that may upset some people, so they can roll him away and tip him in the drink. Non-fatal, as those things cushion impacts, float and can travel over water. What meanings could we draw from such continual subversions of earlier art?

  10. Ikon’s great performance art idea “That could done by bringing in a soft walk-in plastic bubble ball made up to look like a COVID-19 particle with the person inside wrapped up as RNA. It could be a performance piece rather than a statue. However, that may upset some people, so they can roll him away and tip him in the drink.”

    They won’t think unless some are upset. When shall we do it Ikon? I’m keen.

    My fave urban ledgend performancen art tale:
    Lazy art student had not otepared a piece. So the got to coat reacks in wheels, tied a bar between the two. Hung anpiece of string. Rushed out of the judging hall, stressed judges as away a fair while. Rushed back in the a bucket and a pair of scissors. Tied bucket to string and gave scissors to judges. “My performance starts when string is cut”. So one of the judges cut thestring. Bucket hits floor and showers sloopy dog doo doo over small area and spotted on judges. Much yelling and ” that is not performance art!” thundered a judge. “No” replied the art student, “the performance was your reaction”. A+ awarded.

  11. Coat racks on wheels.

    Apologies for lack of editor. Redundent these days I’m told.

  12. I just remembered ‘The Innumerable Dawodow’, one of the ‘Woeful Tales From Mahigul’ in Ursula Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It has serendipitous value as comment on this topic. (Dawodow was an emperor, and his titular innumerability was in statue form.)

  13. Ursula Le Guin is a clever and thoughtful writer. I really have not read enough of her.

    Plot spoiler! I remember a short story of hers about ants leaving decipherable hieroglyphics, scratched by mandibles IIRC, on stored acacia seeds. The key text included “Up with the Queen!” It was thought that this was a panegyric for the Queen. It was later realized that this was revolutionary text. “Up with the Queen!” means expel her up and outside the nest where she will die.

  14. The problem is the grey area. Tearing down statues of murderous tyrants is fine. So no Saddam Hussein or Stalin. But what about Churchill or Woodrow Wilson? Well I’d take up arms to defend Churchill’s statue (he saved democracy in 1940) but couldn’t care less about Wilson. Or Captain Cook – basically he was a good guy for his times and a marvellous explorer but obviously other people see it differently.

    Still the best way of thinking about monuments is the ephemerality – the ending of Planet of the Apes.

  15. My proposal for the Colstom statue is to leave it at the bottom of Bristol Harbour, where it will become a tourist attraction for divers.

  16. Ridin wanted his group sculpture of the Burghers of Calais to be placed at ground level, meeting modern citizens as equals, not raised above them conventionally on a plinth. He won the commission but lost the argument on the plinth. They now stand on a compromise mini-plinth. But as they are bronzes, that last for millennia, there’s time for third thoughts.

  17. I suggest inflatable pop up statues with the choice of statue decided by pressing a button. This will include a “zero slavery” option for Prime Ministers.

  18. As Amy Remeikis pointed out in the Guardian, good to see that we’ve moved on to the important issues in BLM*: statues and episodes of Fawlty Towers. (What’s next, I ask you? The Two Ronnie’s? Are You Being Served? When will the madness stop???)

    *This is not a criticism of present company, but of the right wing that must be delighted to switch to their favored battleground, the neverending culture war.
    And three bronx cheers for hero of the left, Albanese, for supporting the Morrison/Dutton/et al line on statues

  19. jackstrocchi,

    Of course you deserve the right to free speech…. but maybe…

    The slave analogy falls down badly. Slavery might have been necessary to build pyramids but were pyramids necessary? If things are genuinely necessary and most people agree that they are necessary for most people, then people will build them by free and/or fairly recompensed labor. There is plenty of evidence that slave economies were and are inefficient.

    One can search online and find good modern free enterprise arguments against slavery, if one accepts modern free enterprise economic propositions. These mostly revolve around the poor value-adding achieved from slavery (problems include unskilled labor, lack of motivation, lack of enterprise, foot-dragging, obstruction, sabotage, escape and rebellion) and also the unavoidable “social reproduction” costs of keeping slaves, the housing costs and the security, oversight and policing costs. Some of these costs are less than under wage labor and some are greater. But the poor value-adding is a very big issue as are security, oversight and policing costs

    One can find good Marxist arguments against slavery if one accepts Marxian style thinking. Indeed this line of political economy and study of history indicates that the rise of capitalism and modern slavery were deeply entwined. Slavery seems efficient to the slave-owning class as all benefits go to them and all costs (pain, misery, poverty and loss of freedom) go to the slaves.

    Finally, the need for dangerous, onerous, difficult and inadequately compensated labor is vastly reduced now. We have better tools, machines, robots, drones, energy sources etc.

    If someone oppressed a person’s great-grandparents (or further back) and an aspect of their entrenched poverty and disadvantage is still both traceable to that effect simpliciter and to other systemic effects reverberating today, then it is invalid to say “You weren’t oppressed. It’s history. Get over it.” It’s invalid, obnoxious and insulting to say that (if anyone does today).

    There is a certain validity to the Hindu concept of Karma.”Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths.” – Wikipedia.

    At an historical and social level we can now see the outworking of “secular Karma”. Our civilizational wrongs and excesses (colonialism, slavery, sexism, cruelty, greed etc.) are now catching up with us and there are real prices to pay. The proces are actually greater if we don’t change. We have to face up to the issues of wrongdoing and compensation, “sin” and “redemption” even if that be in secular form. I am certainly a secularist not a religionist but any Christian (for example) more than a hypocritical Sunday Christian ought to feel these issues, if anything, more keenly. However, an amoral, narcissistic, solipsistic, unempathetic, ideologically rigid or sociopathic person just won’t care. Thus, these type of people unmask themselves and alert others to be very wary of them.

    The comedian is fine. He plays a “people’s jester” role. He alerts us to “of course but maybe” issues and brings out comedically what we may have difficulty admitting to (our own internal doubts and hypocrisy). It’s not all about hypocrisy for sure. But often the “but maybe” internal reasoning is worse being both hidden and personal prejudice influenced. The tested public reasoning, provided it is not groupthink (and that exists too) is usually better logically and morally.

  20. Challenge for a citation on the proposition that the pyramids were built by slaves, as per Hollywood. IIRC the pharaohs simply took advantage of the fact that the annual Nile floods make agriculture in the Nile valley highly seasonal. The peasants were essentially unoccupied and wastefully enjoying life for half the year. Coercion was surely involved. I suspect the status of the peasants was closer to serfdom than chattel slavery. Corrections from credentialled Egyptologists welcome.

  21. . ..” credentialled Egyptologists welcome” – these 2 may suffice…

    “Slaves Built the Pyramids
    Perhaps the most well-known depiction of this image comes from Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, which famously portrays Charlton Heston as Moses, bravely standing up to a slave-driving Pharaoh (portrayed by Yul Brenner) in order to liberate his people.

    The idea even seeps into politics.

    “He is the author of Ideas of the Liberal Party and Ireland: a Short History (4 editions), ”

    “Who Built the Pyramids?
    Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

  22. In his last term as premier Jeff Kennett commissioned statues of Victorian premiers who served at least 3000 days as premier .The statues stand outside our treasury building. Kennett unexpectedly lost the next election and so narrowly missed out on getting his own statue.

  23. Jeff Kennett somewhat reminded me of the character in “War and Peace” called Berg. Berg was at one and the same time so good-natured and likeable and yet so naively and transparently entirely self-interested that he both amused people and endeared himself to them. There was no intended malice in his natural self-interest. He seemed an open book and thus nonthreatening.

    Berg joined the infantry as a low ranking officer. Upon hearing a bon mot from a cavalry officer, “The infantry is such a plodding career!” Berg replied in all seriousness, “On the contrary, casualties are higher so promotion is more rapid!.”

    Of course, I have only seen Jeff Kennet through the media and from afar so I don’t really know what he is like.

    I’d prefer to see more statues of great philosophers, artists (all arts) and scientists. I believe they enrich our lives far more than politicians do. Of course, some philosophers and artists are problematic: say John Locke and Martin Heidegger or poet Edmund Spenser (involved politically and benefiting financially from the colonization and subjugation of Ireland).

    Leo Tolstoy might be seen as problematic, (coming from the aristocracy, fighting duels over gambling disputes as a young man and so on) but he redeemed himself I believe. He was involved with emancipating serfs on his own estates, developing and producing reading and educational materials and setting up schools (with his own time and money) for the children of the serfs and organizing famine relief for a starving province, among other initiatives.

  24. I’m not greatly in favour of pulling down old statues who we’ve now decided are villains rather than heroes (some of them are offensively bad art, though, so maybe they should go on those grounds). Villains they might be, but they really are part of the history of the country. And in the case of people like Cecil Rhodes it’s not as though their contemporaries weren’t also aware of their villainy – these were not usually universally loved figures. The evil men do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones.

    By all means put a long plaque on the plinth saying what else they did apart from the acts that got their statue built. Or put another statue nearby of one or more of their victims. Or just let the pigeons cover them with appropriate matter. But pulling statues down comes uncomfortably close to book burning for mine.

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