There is a common conception that destroying monuments erases history. This is supposed to be bad for one of two reasons: either the big chunk of stone in question is the sacred reminder of a treasured past–a relic–or it gives a lesson, even a warning, from history–a museum piece. Either way, the object deserves our gratitude because of its capacity to admonish us: the elderly slab should be preserved to wag its finger at every new viewer from now til eternity.
But all these meanings happen to already be packed into the original Latin sense of monumentum, and provide equal justification for them to be destroyed by mobs. Etymology is often bullshit because words’ meanings are path-dependent: they shift for chaotic cultural and historical reasons. The Germanic root for “hound” meant “dog, in general” and the root for “dog” meant “a specific powerful breed of dog.” Their reversal doesn’t tell us much about the very being of dogs. But “monuments” are different. Latin monumentum was literally “something that reminds” -> “a tomb, votive offering, memorial record” from monēre “to admonish, warn, advise.”
Why do we set up carved rocks at great expense to “admonish, warn, and advise” us? The brilliant French crackpot theorist George Bataille nailed the politics of monuments–what really makes them monumental–in a justly famous three-paragraph article from 1929:
“Architecture expresses the very being of societies, in the same way that human physiognomy is the expression of the being of individuals. But it is really the being of bureaucrats and officials that architecture expresses. In practice, only the ideal being of society, the one that orders and prohibits, expresses itself in architecture in the strict sense. Thus, the great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all troublemakers: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes. In fact it is clear that monuments inspire socially acceptable behavior and often very real fear. The storming of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters.”
What makes certain public buildings and slabs of stone monumental is the power they have to order, intimidate, and scold the viewer to behave. And after enough of this, people sometimes want revenge: why else would the peasants and revolutionaries attack the Bastille itself?
Not all tall buildings or tombstones are monuments. You need to separate a thing’s monumentality–what it means politically–from its bare physical shape, because plenty of big objects don’t really play much of a monumental role. As the Chinese art historian Wu Hung writes, monumentality is “an integral element that lends a building, statue, or any large-scale thing a common, commemorative meaning.” Monuments are things that play a particular role in people’s memories. Wu points out that already in his 1903 “The Modern Worship of Monuments: Its Nature and Origins” the art historian Alois Riegl broadened the notion of “monument” to things that later acquired commemorative value, such as written documents like the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, he notes, the request after the Civil War to make the farmland and roads that made up the entire Gettysburg battlefield a national monument suggests that a monument can be of any form.
Monumentality, then, is a kind of social contract, but not one we’re allowed to freely enter into. An object gets its monumentality from a shared political relationship with a group of people, but this shared relationship may be as much one of intimidation as consent. What happens when one group of people insist that a heroic statue of a white man is a collective monument of their whole society, and commemorates a shared past, while another group doesn’t agree that this man is their hero, a chosen emblem of their past, that history did not happen like this or mean what the others say it meant? What if in that past the other group were defined as servile or as objects?
In the picture at the top, a Soviet tank was painted pink and had a gigantic–even monumental–dildo stuck on. An object can be changed from a monument to one thing to an anti-monument, or a monument to something else. But if the monument gives only one verdict, attempting to pass the same judgement on its viewers for all time, the only healthy response may be to tear it down.
*This piece was inspired by my work with the UCLA Near Eastern Studies graduate student Timothy Hogue, whose research led me to these ideas and which will result in a totally fresh view of the Ten Commandments as a cultural monument but who is definitely not responsible for the views here.
I’m proud to announce that I’m editing a new book series for Routledge with four amazing new works already under contract and the first ready to go to press!
The titles suggest what’s new about it:
Aaron Tugendhaft, Baal and the Politics of Poetry (in press).
Jacqueline Vayntrub, Beyond Orality: Performance and the Composition of Biblical Poetry.
Alice Mandell, Cuneiform Culture and the Ancestors of Hebrew: Rethinking the Canaanite Amarna Letters.
Melissa Ramos, The Performance of Doom: Ritual in Deuteronomy.
This series is dedicated to consensus-challenging new work on biblical and ancient Near Eastern culture. Its unifying theme is the power of philology—how ancient language worked in its own living context—to reveal how people of the remote past understood the supernatural and themselves. The books in the series will bridge the gap between technical monographs and broad explorations of central topics. Each one will aim to solve or change how we think about a key problem in biblical or ancient Near Eastern studies through masterful studies of ancient primary sources.
There was a time when the language of the ancient Near Eastern was thought to contain answers to vital intellectual concerns. The Romantic philosopher Herder once imagined an “archive of paradise” containing the first writing in the world from its oldest civilization: primordial texts that held keys to understanding human nature and historical change. In unearthing the remains of the ancient Near East, scholars found something tantalizingly like Herder’s archive–but it remains mostly unread. Herder’s search for answers has been replaced with “safe” techniques, from sweeping theories of oral societies to atomizing redaction criticism to monocausal legitimation theories that reduce all culture to power. Yet this archive retains great untapped potential to understand where we came from, patterns that will not go away, from the mysteries of ritual to the shock of terrorism to the power of revelation.
This series is focused on religion and language, both independently and when intertwined, as the most richly informative and longest-lasting aspects of ancient culture. In the form of enduring religious texts like the Hebrew Bible and rediscovered ones like the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the data of ancient language can bring some of our earliest and most formative cultural models to light, helping us work through their hidden dimensions that may still persist in determining us. Each book will freshly consider a whole body of key data that is either unmined or has not had the right questions asked of it. And each will bring a new set of questions, unsettling or dismantling old paradigms where they have not provided adequate answers and suggesting new ones.
Some books in the series will include an online “digital humanities” aspect. This will range from brief popular versions of some chapters to digital philology such as primary sources, databases, and other information best visualized online. It will serve both to disseminate the book’s ideas and to engage the topic, writer, and broader discussion in the wider digital world.
Titles and topics
Aaron Tugendhaft, Baal and the Politics of Poetry. Narrating the victory of a divine hero who is not divinely loved, the Ugaritic Baal Cycle violates modern assumptions that the political purpose of ancient religion was to “legitimate” the current order. Instead, the epic draws on and challenges the language and values of Late Bronze Age diplomacy. These new discoveries shows us a way that myth is not just a reflection of society but a way of a reflecting on it.
Jacqueline Vayntrub, Beyond Orality: Performance and the Composition of Biblical Poetry. Why have scholars always struggled to understand biblical poetry on its own terms? This book suggests an answer based on how it is defined in the biblical texts themselves.
Alice Mandell, Cuneiform Culture and the Ancestors of Hebrew: Rethinking the Canaanite Amarna Letters. This is the first study to present the Canaanite Amarna letters as both the earliest known vocalized documents of Hebrew’s ancestors and as politically crafted works of verbal art in a Late Bronze Age scribal context.
Melissa Ramos, The Performance of Doom: Ritual in Deuteronomy. This book moves beyond a narrow view of Deuteronomy as an essentially scribal document to analyze the full range of ritual elements it shares with other Near Eastern treaties. Bringing a range of striking and never before considered Mesopotamian sources into consideration, it argues that Deuteronomy has its most plausible roots in late Iron Age and political ritual performance.
Safwat Marzouk and Seth Sanders, eds., Ancient Terrorism: Religion, Atrocity, and Resistance from Sumer to the Maccabees. Both ordinary people and experts are confused on how far back the roots of terrorism go and in what way religion motivates it. What do the earliest documents of political terror tell us about the nature and origins of this pattern?
Paul Gauthier, The Sources of Mesopotamian Religious Knowledge. This book will challenge the “scriptural” bias that still holds in much study of ancient religion. Most Mesopotamian knowledge about the supernatural world came not from reading texts, but from the careful observation of ritual actions. The observation and textualization of ritual drove both the creation of much Mesopotamian religious literature and its remarkable endurance over time.