In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, activists have called for the demolition and removal of statues and monuments that are linked in some way to slavery, racism, and colonialism. At first glance, these iconoclastic acts appear both pragmatic and revolutionary, since such memorials have come to occupy a naturalized, quotidian place within a city’s landscape. Yet, these acts have also upset all the right people, insofar as they negate the nation’s inherited myths. Symbolic disavowal carries with it a monetary consequence as well, given that, materially, statues are expensive (both in construction and upkeep). While our focus here is not on economics, we hope to show how the symbolic nature of statues and monuments allows us to think beyond mere destruction.
What’s at Stake in a Statue?
Through the frame of psychoanalysis, we can envision a bridge between monetary and psychic investment. Even in his early writings, Freud thought of neurons as carriers of invested (cathected) energy, emphasizing the mind’s natural capacity to saturate certain objects, ideas, and people with significance. Freud also thought about this investment in terms of quantity. For him, the definition of the “I” (“ego”) was merely a solid nucleus of memories that retained a more or less constant charge. We might think about this process as applying to society as well: the constant investment in statues, institutions, offices, and other enterprises gives their flavor and style to local communities and the nation as a whole. Re-investment is key, since it is constitutive of the reproduction of the ideological and economic system as a whole. For better or worse, it shows which elements of society are valued and which ones are not.
Monetary investment, in turn, is a measuring stick by which we can see what matters to communities. Both monetarily expensive and symbolically charged, statues come to function as markers for national ideals, and, while they will inevitably be oppressive to some, they also reflect ideologies, both present and past, that have baptized these figures as symbols of a national or collective history.
While statues may be offensive to some, others may think of them as the grounding points within a nation’s history. They may remind the first of past traumas, while providing the second with symbols of identification and pride. As a Brit relates: “My culture is under attack. This is my culture and my English history: why should Churchill be boarded up? Why is the Cenotaph attacked? It’s not right.” Boris Johnson puts it even better: “Yes, he [Churchill] sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero.” Here statues move beyond their function of representation and find their realization as a symbol, namely through the power bestowed upon them by certain citizens and groups.
As Hannah Pitkin puts it, a symbol is akin to the monarch’s relation to God, whereas representation is a lawyer’s capacity to speak on behalf of the plaintiff. In a symbol, a larger ideal, community or nation is invoked; in representation, there is no larger implied entity.[i] This is what makes symbols so pernicious: that they function beyond rationality, beyond thought. The pathos mobilized in them is an unconscious force, inaccessible through thought and argument alone. Donald Trump shamelessly recognized his own symbolic status by proclaiming, “”I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”
Jacques Lacan called these symbols “quilting points”, the threads that hook and tie us into the fabric of society. We are surrounded by these points, insofar as they make up our ‘individual’ constellations. Examples abound: sports, television shows, popular music, and other mass- or niche-market phenomena. While we may be tempted to criticize the ‘reality’ or ‘real value’ of such ‘vapid’ entertainment, to do so would undermine the reason we partake in such activities in the first place. The enjoyment of a show, event or product only goes so far as the communal bond gained through their consumption.
Symbols of Capitalism’s Trauma
The current leftist tendency to remove statues, plaques, and other symbols of oppression, it is not, for the most part, anti-capital, anti-markets, or anti-consumption. Leftists, like those on the right, recognize capitalism as “the only game in town” and argue for a more fair, inclusive, and diverse capital. Statues offend because they represent moments of a brutal “primitive accumulation”, as Marx called it, moments of early modern Europe’s well-documented practice of colonialism, slavery, land-grabbing, and other acts that generated surplus-value through direct expropriation. Hence, the outrage at symbols that materially represent the event and the protracted process of condemning the majority of the global population to poverty and ‘underdevelopment’.
Given that communities are less and less communities of elites, and that political power exists across the spectrum of identities and histories, it is no surprise that we need new symbols. The question is how these new symbols will relate to capitalism, given that capital has the capacity to absorb everything.
Any good Marxist knows that the atomization of society is a direct consequence of the capitalist mode of production. Social atomization was, and still is today, violently and brutally reinforced. As Marx puts it, “These methods [of expropriation and primitive accumulation] … all employ the power of the state… to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode…”[ii] His point is that force must strip away old modes of social production to institute new ones. The effect of individualization, though, is social destruction. And while it always receives a pushback and is hybridized, it impels the individuals themselves to change their investment in communal symbols that have previously worked.
The Impotence of Iconoclasm
While statue-toppling is popular now, it is not a new phenomenon. Iconoclasm also shares a link to past modernization projects. Ideologically, many nations attempted to modernize without westernizing, which meant partial destruction of the previous social order combined with integration into a capitalist mode of production.
One of the best examples of the link between iconoclasm and capital is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, where the pursuit of modernization was prioritized through the destruction of tradition. Specifically, war was waged against what was referred to as the “Four Olds,” which included Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. The violent imperative of novelty shares a lot with the capitalist imperative of accumulation. As Alain Badiou elucidates it, “capitalism itself is the obsession of novelty and the perpetual renovation of forms”.[iii]
It was in fact Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who saw in the ashes of the failed Maoist project a far more potent generator of deterritorialization, namely, the free market. We can imagine how the raw negativity of market forces leaves nothing behind in the funeral procession of constant primitive accumulation. Since capitalism itself pushes society to dissolve social ties, it is no accident that the CPC is forced to retain intense censorship. As Samo Bruja notes, President Xi understands “top-down stability at any price… Xi is trying to circumvent normal controls established by Deng because he believes that, without such circumvention, ideological failure is inevitable, and it is this failure that represents the greatest threat to the CPC.”
The Statue as Contradiction
Given the potential for iconoclastic acts to be appropriated by the logic of capital, we should preserve something within tradition that recalls a wound inflicted on individuals and societies in from a traumatic moment of capitalist accumulation. The real question is what such a figure of contradiction might look like. One example might be the Vanderhof house in Frank Capra’s 1938 classic You Can’t Take It With You. The house not only stands in the way of a large-scale development project, but also offers refuge to several eccentric guests, all of whom make little or no contribution to their society in economic terms. If such a statue is to properly withstand the fierce winds of capitalist change, it must reject the injunction towards constant progress proposed by the market.
Hence, the pertinent question shifts from “what statue will fall next?” to “what might replace it?” We think that the “replacement” needs to go further than any sort of liberal sanitization and that it should embody contradiction rather than idealization. As we have mentioned, while capitalism presents itself as the vast iconoclasm of tradition, the left should take this vacancy as an opportunity to draw attention to the disavowed elements of society that hold it together far more tightly than any washed up 17th-century slave trader or merchant.
How do we construct symbols that both retain the trauma of history and represent something hopeful for the future? How do we move forward without disavowing the traumatic Real of expropriation and human enslavement? How do we form a synthesis that is positive, without neglecting a negative element of history?
The elements we have in mind exist not only in the past, but also as contradictions in the present. Elevating them amounts to building on our wounds, instead of burying them. Two symbols appear especially pertinent now: migrant workers, who are forced to continue working in the most unsafe conditions, and the homeless, who are exposed to greater risks due to COVID-19. For a left that dares bare its teeth, these figures must be addressed and could prompt a change in how society writ large relates to statues: as figures that symbolize the truth of a capitalist system. We believe that we must elevate the truths that society cannot afford to forget, instead of idealizing those it wants to remember.
That said, a crucial pitfall must be avoided, namely the valorization of the excluded as “overzealous workers” or “model minorities,” seeing that both fail in forcing us to wrestle with the negative. In this way, our solution presents itself not simply as an injunction to erect new symbols that “add” to a vast already existing assemblage, but as a reconsideration of our very approach to the statue-form of memory. Consequently, statues might begin to act as points of contradiction that practically criticizes our idealized national history. They would, then, force us to reconcile with a traumatic past, rather than the past as we would like to remember it.
To sum up, our invitation might look like a reappraisal of the classic Brecht joke, namely: what is the demolition of a racist statue compared to the erection of an anti-racist one?
[i] Hannah Pitkin, The Concept of Representation, 1967, chapter 5.
[ii] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1979, p. 915-6)
[iii] Alain Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”, www.lacan.com/issue22.php.