After the terrorist attacks perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 12th, it would seem that the debate over whether or not Americans live in a post-racial society might cease. But if the election of Donald Trump has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Charlottesville has brought the removal of Confederate monuments to the forefront of American consciousness and has seemingly renewed the debate over the current relevance of race and racism. There appear to me to be two prevalent arguments in favor of protecting the Confederate statues; both of which heavily rely upon an understanding of time as linear and horizontal. The first opinion, that of the white supremacists/neo-Nazis/alt-right, extends from a relatively simplistic retrospective ideology. These groups essentially want to climb aboard a time-machine that will transport them back to when America was supposedly great. This ideology corresponds to Bruno Latour’s description of a modern concept of time where “time’s arrow is unambiguous: one can go forward, but then one must break with the past; one can choose to go backward, but then one has to break with the modernizing avant-gardes, which have broken radically with their own past.” This theory partially explains why violence and anarchism are so important to this group—their desired return to the past necessitates a radical erasure of present and future. This particular mindset bears some disturbing commonality with that held by ISIS. I do not, however, wish to spend any more time discussing the alt-right, given the group’s appetite for attention. Besides, I find the second group of "defenders" far more pernicious precisely because of their banality. This side expresses a concern that by removing the statues history will be “lost.” While these “defenders of history” do not fully deny the relationality between past and present, they desire to keep past, present, and future carefully demarcated. To uphold this ideology, they expect history to have a definitive beginning and end, and refuse to fully recognize that the particular space/context occupied by Confederate memorials actually disrupts a linear conceptualization of time. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” he examines the literary artistic chronotope (“time space”) as an object in which “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time as it were, thickens, takes on flesh…space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history.” While Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope is specific to literature, I am interested in applying it to the object of the Confederate Memorial in hopes of better understanding how these statues occupy space, and how time has stagnated as a result.
Recognizing these memorials as chronotypes, as objects in which time and space coagulate, can tell us a lot about how and why a very particular narrative about the Civil War is being told. Those concerned with the “loss” of history oftentimes have a strangely personal reaction to the removal of these Confederate monuments. This reaction reveals the intimate relationship between the narrative told by these statues and identity. Memorials have always been tied up in social identity as explained by Linda Marie Small: "Social identity, in this context, is a claimed identity based upon such characteristics as rank, status, social roles and social persona. As claimed or re-constructed identity, it is not necessarily bound by historic truth or absolute fact. A populace engaged in reconstituting its social persona creates a mythical history and image capable of incorporating the meaning of their past experience into the present cultural matrix."
While a monument typically claims to commemorate a particular event, in actuality its function primarily works to serve a particular social identity. Those who bemoan the loss of these Confederate memorials might in fact be distressed by a challenge to a social identity reliant upon a narrative of racial relations told by the Confederacy in the 19th Century. The statues therefore do not represent a retrospective glance backwards at a subdued past, but rather the coagulated presence of ideals and ideologies that have not really progressed all that much. Furthermore, this concern over the “loss” of history does not account for the fact that “history” is not at all stable and never has been. To use our current President’s example of George Washington, the George Washington remembered in the 19th century is nothing like the George Washington remembered in the 20th or 21st centuries. The loss of these statues is not about losing Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, it’s about losing a racist ideology and the linear sense of time needed to believe in its mythos.
Bakhtin writes that “All words and forms are populated by intentions.” Because these monuments have a narrative function by the way they occupy a space, they intend a particular interaction with and reaction from viewers. Erected in 1924, well after the conclusion of the Civil War, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville intends to distract its viewers from the active mementoes of the Confederacy that continue to haunt American society. From its elevated position, the aloof gaze of the statue invites no dialogic interaction; its message embodies what Bakhtin refers to as “the authoritative word” and “demands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own; it binds us, quite independent of any power it might have to persuade us internally; we encounter it with its authority already fused to it.” Robert E. Lee sits atop his horse and looks off into space, his gaze intentionally removed from the present. By enacting a sense of removal, the statue demands that viewers adopt its particular view of time and ignore the true legacy of the Confederacy. The statue demands that viewers ignore the association between the Confederacy and the inordinate number of black men who are imprisoned or who are killed by police shootings. Holland Cotter writes, “In short, the Charlottesville Lee monument is far less about mourning a hero and a gone-but-not-forgotten culture than about elegiac sentiment to sugarcoat a secretly seditious present.” In comparison, the Vietnam War Memorial fosters heteroglossia by inviting interaction and encouraging the individual stories of those affected by the war. Its reflective surface directs its focus outward and towards individuals. The memorial is not stagnant; it changes with the seasons, with the years and the changing faces who gaze upon its surface. The monument recognizes that people’s experience of the war will change over time—its very structure and the way it occupies space encourage this fluidity.
By recognizing Confederate memorials as objects intentionally occupying a contextually bound place in time and space, we must acknowledge the actual history of the creation and installment of these objects. Abrahamowitz, Latterner, and Rosenblith describe how in 1924 these monuments were “strategically” erected “atop black and nonwhite immigrant communities” in order to provide “Charlottesville’s white elite with a means of physically buttressing their ever-fragile hold of white supremacy.” Given this origin story, it should be no surprise that these statues continue to be utilized for the purpose of intimidating non-white communities. It should also be noted that these memorials coincide with and precipitated the beginning of gentrification and the displacement of thriving black communities.
A removal of these statues forces a recognition of their current relevance, it recognizes that these monuments, while superficially historical in nature continue to charge the space surrounding them. Holland Cotter suggests that the statues be moved to museums, “where they can be presented as the propaganda they are. For this to happen, though, museums will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions.” I agree with Cotter that the ideological neutrality of museums is a pretense, and that neutrality in this case is especially compromised by the complicity museums have often demonstrated in the development and perpetuation of racist ideologies. I question, however, the viability of Cotter’s solution of explicitly labeling these statues as propaganda. A label merely imitates the authoritative posturing of the offensive object itself. When considering these statues as chronotopes, the space they occupy becomes of the utmost importance. For this reason, I believe that museums can and should display these objects, but within a setting that deliberately encourages the flourishing of heteroglossia. An object placed within a setting that facilitates genuine dialogue has the potential to generate truth, even if that object is a dangerous one.
Abramowitz, Sophie, Eva Latterner, and Gillet Rosenblith. “Tools of Displacement: How Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate Statues Helped Decimate the City’s Historically Successful Black Communities.” Slate, 23 June 2017, slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2017/06/how_charlottesville_s_confederate_statues_helped_decimate_the_city_s_historically.html. Accessed 24 Aug 2017.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Edited by Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 258-422.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Edited by Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 84-257.
Cotter, Holland. “We Need to Move, Not Destroy, Confederate Monuments.” New York Times, 20 Aug 2017, nytimes.com/2017/08/20/arts/design/we-need-to-move-not-destroy-confederate-monuments.html?mcubz=0. Accessed 24 Aug 2017.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard UP, 1993.
Small, Linda Marie. “Grave Goods and the Social Identity of the Vietnam War.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 16, no.2, April 1994, pp. 73-84.