Performing Destruction: Confederate Statues and Iconoclasm

It is with great trepidation that I’m going to wade into the world of current political events, but I feel totally lame hanging around on the sidelines and feel compelled to offer my perspectives on the current controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate war memorials across the southern states. 

But first, go and read Rosemary Joyce’s really excellent response to calls for archaeologists to somehow be involved in the discussion of the removal of these moments.

And before reading further, I want to be entirely clear that I am not apologizing for these monuments, their place in the painful and massively destructive history of American race relations, or those who insist on their preservation. By all means, remove these statues, undermine violently any claim that the Confederacy, the Civil War, or the political leaders from the South were somehow heroic in their treason, and by removing these moments, subvert the tragic racial, social, and political history that surrounds the placement of these statues in the urban fabric of the South. I’m likewise not advocating for a moderate approach or for compromising with groups who are clamoring for their preservation. 

What I’m trying to do with this post is to offer my view of what archaeologists and historians could do to unpack the complexities surrounding the histories of these monuments and current tensions surrounding their legacy and their removal. This is adapted from a Facebook comment.

What has interested me the most about the current debate surrounding the removal of these statues is that there has only been spotty discussion of how various groups are actually removing these monuments. For, example in North Carolina, the state has filed charges against a group for illegally toppling a Confederate Memorial. In Baltimore, the city voted to remove four Confederate memorials and the act of removal was done with far less pomp, taking place in the middle of the night. In New Orleans, the removal also took place at night with the workers wearing body armor. In New Orleans and Baltimore, the removal of the statues seems to have been funded by the city; in Gainesville, the county offered the United Daughters of the Confederacy a chance to acquire the statue of “Old Joe” when they voted to remove it and that group moved it to a cemetery outside of town. It seems to have taken place during the day without any protests or problems.  The New York Times offers a thorough list with very interesting photographic documentation (worthy of a study in its own right).

I think there is far more significance to how these statues are being removed – both procedurally and physically – than what the statues mean. In fact, I worry that we’re sort of fixated on reinforcing the historical meaning of these monuments in order to make the political work surrounding their removal a socially acceptable gesture of restorative justice rather than seeking to understand how the statues produce meaning in public spaces. In other words, we have tended to privilege the original intent of the statues (which was morally repugnant) over their lives as monuments in living cities. This is not to suggest that we allow these monuments to stand and it certainly is not to suggest that these monuments don’t continue to represent a painful, immoral, and tragic history particularly for the black community or that they don’t, in part, carry forward the intent of their racist makers. What I guess I’m responding to is that archaeologists have tended to complicate this kind of historicism and locate objects and monuments in relation to changing perceptions and attitudes. By reading the meaning associated with these statues in such an intensively historical way, we’re promoting a gestural and spectacular approach to transforming contemporary culture. This isn’t bad unto itself, but it evokes certain elements of contemporary “slactivism” that sometimes function to detract from the real hard work of changing racial attitudes. If we can just remove the monuments, then we’ve done something.

(And again, this isn’t to detract from the hard work behind removing these monuments or even the impulse behind it, but to question whether these kinds of performative acts are more about political capital than the hard grinding work of social change which so often is invisible. Maybe, the removal of these monuments reflects and celebrates this work? Maybe it’s a clarion call telling the rest of us how much more we have to do? What does this moment really mean?)

At the same time, the removal of these statues is a far more potent act than whatever repressive, offensive, and racist meaning that the statues themselves carried. This isn’t to marginalize unduly their role in the history of race in the U.S. or the brutal work of white political leaders and communities in the southern states to negotiate a politically and culturally expedient identity in the face of the demographic, economic, social and political changes of the early-20th-century. Instead, I’m reflecting on some of Ömür Harmanşah’s work on the destructive acts performed by ISIS (albeit for a despicable and terrible cause). To my mind, the public acts of removing the statues matter far more than the statues themselves or some utopian notion that ALL the Confederate memorials in public spaces could be somehow removed. As an aside, this seems unlikely, probably impossible, and possibly even undesirable as neglect and even irony can sometimes be more potent tools than iconoclastic performances. As an alternate gesture, think of the so-called “Arlington House” (or the National Robert E. Lee Memorial) which offers a far more nuanced and complicated expression of Lee’s legacy bound up in the changing political and cultural understanding of Lee and the Civil War. 

There is an undeniably element of political theater in the removal of these statues as I suspect there was in their commissioning and original placement. And, again, to be clear I’m not proposing a moral equivalency here between those working to remove the monuments and the motivations that led to their placement. If archaeologists – and historians – are to invest energy in the critical reflection on these monuments, perhaps we should work more to understand them not as static indicators in the landscape, but as part of inherently political and performative character of place making. This impact and implication of this kind of gestural politics is the kind of complicated discursive process that archaeologists and scholars of visual culture have reveled in over the past several decades. My hope is that archaeologists can get beyond debating the historical significance of these monuments, whether and how they should be documented, and whether they should be preserved or destroyed, and move toward understanding how the moment of removal and the impact of their present/absence makes meaning for their communities and the nation. 


  1. As the debate over Confederate monuments continues, some very good articles have been published, or rediscovered, on repurposing monuments of violent and hateful regimes, such as Stalin’s boots in Budapest or the zeppelin field in Nuremberg, site of Nazi party rallies. To my knowledge no one is doing this or plans to do this with any confederate monuments.


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