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No Offense to Robert Musil, But…

The continuing relevance of monuments

In a 1927 essay, acclaimed Austrian philosopher Robert Musil famously declared, “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” Musil believed that monuments recede into the background as the public becomes more familiar with them over time, lessening the potency of their message and sentencing the people and events they are meant to celebrate into oblivion. Writing during the early stages of mass media, Musil was additionally concerned that public monuments, with their stock imagery and muted aesthetics, were unable to compete with the nascent and increasingly pervasive media environment that was slowly invading public space.

Well, no offense to Robert Musil, but it seems these days that monuments are increasingly everywhere – in large part because of their omnipresence in the contemporary media landscape. Indeed, we can think of many instances of iconic media moments that feature or emphasize monumental structures – Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Washington Monument in 1963; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the downing of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square by U.S. troops in 2003; the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Cape Town, South Africa; and the removal of Soviet and Russian iconography during the 2014 crisis in Ukraine.

Why do monuments resonate so strongly within political and cultural life and, by extension, within the media? Monuments, especially national monuments, play an important role in communicating information about the past to the people of the present. They appear to capture and hold facts and events and they perpetuate highly specific historical narratives. These narratives construct a shared sense of national history and play a foundational role in shaping conceptualizations of national identity. Spaces such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C. manifest as a national timeline that presents the nation’s messy, complicated, and contradictory past in a neat and orderly way. Events are visually and rhetorically narrated in a way that implies continuity between past and present and gives Americans a sense of who they are as a people.

Though monuments often appear as fixed points within our national landscape, their meanings and interpretations can and do change over time in response to political and cultural shifts. This tension between the fixed yet fluid nature of monuments makes them a compelling subject, and it is a source of significant controversy when the structures of the past suddenly seem incongruent with an ever-changing present. Monuments are not just things that we look at — they are things we think with. We use them to think about issues of history, memory, identity, the nation, and more. It is precisely because monuments resonate so strongly within our national consciousness that they play such an important role within the media.

While monuments serve as communicative platforms in their own right by transmitting certain ideas, concepts, values and symbols, they are also things that the media talk with, about, and towards. Monuments are frequently invoked as their own kind of media actor, and journalists and the public alike use monuments and monumental structures as visual and rhetorical tools to discuss, debate, and draw attention to a variety of issues, stories, and concerns. Monuments often feature into media coverage in one of four ways: 1) as subjects; 2) as proxies; 3) as reference points; and 4) as background. By no means mutually exclusive, these different categories can overlap and intertwine in interesting and unexpected ways. What they all demonstrate, however, is that monuments and monumental structure continue to powerfully resonate within today’s contemporary media environment.

First, monuments can appear in media coverage as the subject of a given story. Monuments are a significant part of the cultural landscape, and public interest in their conceptualization and development remains high. As such, it is not unusual to see process stories that focus on the actual planning and execution of a given monument. After their completion, monuments tend to feature into media coverage when the events and people they commemorate become relevant for one reason or another. For example, the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor brought renewed interest in the National World War II Memorial as the site played host to a range of commemorative activities. Alternatively, these occasions may be used to highlight the absence of a given monument, such as when the 100thanniversary of the end of World War I drew attention to the fact that the U.S. does not have a national memorial dedicated to that conflict. Monuments are also the subject of news stories when they are engaged with in unexpected or unanticipated ways, such as through acts of iconoclasm or vandalism. Most of the monument-centered media events mentioned earlier in this essay focus on monuments as substantive subjects that are newsworthy in their own right. However, this is a rather surface-level reading of how monuments feature into media coverage. It is rare that monuments only appear in the media as subjects; even when monuments are nominally the subject of a given news story, they are usually being used in other, more interesting ways as well.

Second, monuments feature in media coverage as proxies or stand-ins for the event or person they are meant to remember and honor. This becomes a way to reconsider or address a particular person, event, or historical moment through a discussion of their monumentalization. We think of monuments as reserved for people and events of great importance, for moments in history that are so impactful or powerful that we have to recreate them in stone to make sure we never forget them. However, changing political and cultural environments, as well as the emergence of new information, can prompt a radical rethinking of specific monuments and the very things they are meant to represent. The contemporary debate about Confederate monuments in the United States is an excellent example of this. During late summer 2016, a wave of protests against Confederate monuments throughout the United States dominated the news. In the wake of violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, VA, people took to the streets to demand the removal of Confederate monuments. Activists argued that these structures promoted and reinforced racist mentalities that provided both a rallying point for hate groups and a tacit endorsement of dangerous supremacist ideologies. Discussions of how the Civil War was remembered and monumentalized became a proxy or gateway for discussing a number of other issues, such as the connection between Civil War remembrance and the growth of white nationalist movements, and the influence of racialized politics on decisions related to public art and public space.

Third, monuments act as reference points within media coverage. Rhetorical and visual references to monuments can act as a shorthand for certain historical events and people in a way that is useful for explaining contemporary events or situations. Unlike monuments as proxies, monuments as references points are not meant to stand in for an actual event or person themselves. Rather, these references use commonly understood assumptions about the meaning and symbolism of monumental structures to make sense of other events or persons. For example, the 2003 toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue by U.S. troops in Baghdad’s Firdos Square was largely made intelligible through the invocation of other moments of monumental iconoclasm. Initial reports contextualized the toppling by relating it to the downing of Lenin and Stalin statues throughout Eastern Europe during the anti-socialist protests of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This comparison frames ensuing coverage of the toppling that perpetuated a series of later-debunked myths about the event – for example, that the event was a result of spontaneous democratic protest by the Iraqi people instead of an orchestrated military action, and that the the toppling symbolized the end of the war in Iraq and inevitable, swiftly forthcoming regime change.

Finally, monuments feature into media coverage as background or backdrops. This involves drawing upon the commonly understood symbolism of a monument or monumental structure to bolster or elevate the meaning of a story of event. The use of monuments as background can be either passive or active, depending on the level of explicit interaction between the monument and the story. Passive engagement might entail utilizing an image of monument in a news article or in a news package, without explicitly invoking the monument in the story. The monument is seen as a powerful representation of the story, and can “speak for itself.” This was exemplified in a recent op-ed published by the New York Times, which featured a 2003 picture of a Saddam Hussein statue in front of burning building in Baghdad. The op-ed was critical of U.S. involvement in Iraq, and the captivating image implies an ironic comparison between Hussein’s rule and the destruction caused by U.S. occupation. Active engagement involves curating a more explicit connection between the monument and the story being covered. An example of active engagement is the recent protest art installation created by Avaaz, who placed 7,000 pairs of shoes on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to call attention to the estimated number of children killed by gun in the Unites States since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. While the shoes alone are sobering, utilizing the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol building to mount an artistic display of the effects of gun violence on children creates an even more affecting image. Drawing on the visual and monumental imagery of the Capitol dome, the symbolic seat of American political power, the interplay between the shoes and the building draw a parallel between the absences created by youth gun deaths and the absence of action taken by Congress. Placing the shoes on the Capitol lawn creates a visual that the media could not ignore, and indeed essentially every broadcast and set of news images were framed to include the dome. Journalists repeatedly commented on how the interplay between the Capitol and the shoes strengthened the action’s emotional resonance.

In many ways, Musil’s concerns over the invisibility of public monuments seem assuaged by the very institution he considered to be a threat. While monuments have always been important cultural and political touchstones, contemporary media coverage has granted these structures a renewed and vibrant public life. Whether functioning as subjects, proxies, references points, or background, monuments and monumental structures are increasingly visible on television, online, and in print. Media engagement with monuments highlights the ever-shifting and fluid nature of memory and the past by illustrating the different ways that the monumental form in general, and specific monuments in particular, can be re-worked and (re)presented in a variety of ways to suit present-day concerns and contexts.

Samantha Oliver is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where her dissertation examines Cold War commemoration in the US, Germany, and Russia through the lens of monuments and memorials. Visit her on Twitter @sam_oliver4.

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Samantha Oliver

  • DPSnyder

    This is a very strong essay that I will share with my local progressive group which is working tireless to support the UNC students who wish to remove Silent Sam from their campus. After a Confederate memorial in Durham was pulled to the ground (the woman cited for this “crime” by police was exonerated), we became more inventive with the status, using it as a blackboard for teaching the public about the meaning of the statue. Recently, colleagues have taped “speech bubbles” to the figures to make them “say” history in a truer way. We are also planning to project images of slavery upon Silent Sam. In other words, we are making Silent Sam say what we want him to say until they take it down, as one day they must. Meanwhile, here in the South Neo-Confederates are focusing on raising more and bigger flagpoles all the time. From Virginia down into the northern part of NC, there is an effort to penetrate more purple areas of the state with these enormous flagpoles and outsized Confederate flags. There is an instinctive human need to “mark territory”; here in the South, the marking is currently at a high pitch. PS: I’d add, as a classmate of Maya Lin who was there in Saybrook dining hall when she got the news she had won the contest (it was an glorious sound!), I think there’s another category of monuments that may not fit into your categories above (or maybe it does) as markers of social progress. In Maya Lin’s case, it was not just her interpretation of the war (a great rift in the earth) that resonated and caused conflict among those who insist on glory in war despite all reason and fact, but it was also that a person of Vietnamese ancestry designed it. I have not read Reston’s probably excellent book on the topic, but it seemed like a huge step in at the time that an Asian American woman should design the memorial for America’s vietnam war dead. Some monuments increase and grow with meaning in time (hers did), others reveal themselves to have been born from cheap and ugly motivations (like the Confederate monuments in the South, most raised to symbolically raise the flag of Jim Crow). We must be ready to lose our monuments when their symbolic content is no longer rich or meaningful for society. We must never use monuments to oppress our fellow citizens.

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