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The paradox of (de)commemoration: do people really care about statues?

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Since the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was pulled down on June 7, the presence of public memorials to controversial figures – even those that are essential forgotten – has become a subject of heated debate. In this context, it can be enlightening to look at the social effects of public calls for remembrance in contemporary society, an approach known as the sociology of memory. This doesn’t look at what should or should be commemorated, or how, but calls on us to consider why we tear down statues that are of almost no interest to anyone.

Tearing down statues as (de)commemoration

The toppling of statues is a practice that has been around for a long time – for example, it was a major phenomenon at the end of the Soviet Union. In 1991, in Fort-de-France in the French overseas department Martinique, a statue of Empress Josephine was decapitated in protest against the re-establishment of slavery in 1802 by her husband Napoleon I, and the fact that Josephine herself was the daughter of one of the island’s landowners.

The term “de-commemoration” is sometimes used to describe the practice of withdrawing reminders of the past from the public space. The term recognises these acts as forms of commemoration – not politically authorised and sometimes violent, but commemoration nonetheless. Several commentators have asserted that tearing down statues is a result of reading the past through the lens of the present, which they condemn as anachronistic. Yet commemoration is always amended and above all appropriated by those who experience it into the present. That a society transforms a previously established commemoration is therefore neither new nor unique.

However, this practice has accelerated since the beginning of the 21st century. In this dynamic it is not exclusive to popular demonstrations or social movements, and is not particularly associated with the history of slavery or colonisation – far from it. For example, where the French state had established only four new commemorative days over the half-century between 1954 and 2000, since then (so in only 20 years), it has created at least 12 more, each time involving a rereading of the past in light of the present.

The indifference of passers-by

Generally, most of these commemorative days, statues, plaques, and other monuments go unnoticed. As an experiment, ask people around you to list the statues in their neighbourhood. Most of them won’t be able to. And even if they remember the presence of a statue, they probably won’t be able to tell you who the figure is, what that person did, or the meaning of the inscription.

This is the case even when the past commemorated in the public space refers to a recent event. In January 2016, a “Memory Oak” was planted in Paris to pay homage to the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks. Since then, an ongoing sociological study has shown that it is extremely rare that inhabitants or passer-by are aware of the existence of the tree, not to mention its specific meaning.

The ‘Memory Oak’, Place de la République, Paris… Sarah Gensburger, Author provided
… and its commemorative plaque. Sarah Gensburger, Author provided

This indifference often persists even after the statues are toppled. In 2017, New York City set up the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. The cases examined ranged from the figure of Christopher Columbus to Marshal Pétain, head of the French collaborationist state during World War II.

The statue of doctor J. Marion Sims, then in Central Park, was among them. Sims was a gynecologist who practiced experimental medical procedures on enslaved black women. The commission recommended that the base of the monument be preserved, with an explanatory plaque, but that the figure itself be taken down and replaced by a new statue commemorating black women. The statute of Sims was moved to his tomb, where it took a private status. As of spring 2019, the new statue has not yet been erected.

The pedestal of the J. Marion Sims statue in New York after the removal of Sims himself. Spencer Platt/AFP

My students at the Institute for French Studies at New York University, with whom I was studying de-commemoration in Paris and in New York, conducted a series of interviews with people using this part of Central Park. This empirical fieldwork demonstrated that only the few people who had supported the removal of the statue of Sims were aware that it had been removed. The overwhelming majority of those we spoke to, including several Afro-American respondents, had at best noticed that “a statue” was gone and that its now-empty base gave children somewhere new to play.

What is the true impact of memory policies?

The question is no longer simply whether a particular statue should be kept or not, but rather what the monuments to the past in the public space are really for. Studies call on us to be cautious about the impact of such statues and other vectors of commemoration.

Contrary to what might be commonly believed, the transmission of memory rarely if ever transforms the representations of those at whom it is aimed. The studies available suggest that the intended messages essentially reach only those already convinced. Sometimes they may even reinforce stereotypes that they had sought to transform.

Sarah Gensburger, Author provided
Sarah Gensburger, Author provided
Sarah Gensburger, Author provided
Commemorative signs in Paris, January to June 2020. Sarah Gensburger, Author provided

Many of those defending the causes of victims of racial, sexual, gender, or religious discrimination seem to consider that commemorating their heroes or heroines in the public space is an effective way to promote their cause. Thus, over recent months, fictitious commemorative plaques have been plastered on walls around Paris as a symbolic gesture.

Thus, and unlike what is suggested in most political commentaries – for example, the speech made by the French president on June 14 to President Trump, who considers those pulling down statues as “violent extremists” – the demands of this de-commemoration do not come from people who would want to separate themselves from the rest of their fellow countrymen. Instead, they are proof that those making these demands are fully part of the country. They share with their opponents the use of memory as a shared political language. The primary efficacy of contemporary memory policies is not to change the representations of the past and thus guide future behavior, but to mobilize an increasing number of social actors and create a shared political space – even if that space is conflictual.

Western countries and international organizations have constantly connected the transmission of violent pasts with the contemporary fight against racism and anti-Semitism. It is thus not surprising that the claims made in the fight against racial discrimination are expressed through memorial demands in which statues and plaques are just one example. This situation is the perfect demonstration of the participation of these actors in the political field that Western states have constructed with their public policies. The recognition of this fact is an essential precondition to a constructive public debate on these questions. It is thus from this paradoxical relationship between indifference and activism that memory policies draw their strength.

The need to implement systemic changes

It is thus futile to seek to bring about systemic change through the promotion or removal – both being sides of the same coin – of individual figures.

Changing society is not about transforming individuals from “bad people” to “good people”. Instead, it involves transforming the relationships that bind us together. The study of the effects of memory policies has shown that transforming the representations of individuals is far from enough to change their behavior. Similarly, wanting to reduce past situations of domination or future emancipation to the exemplary nature of a few people is ignorant of the mechanisms that are at the root of these same dominations, discrimination and inequalities.

To cite a tragic example, three of the six police officers charged in 2015 after the death of the young African-American Freddie Gray were black men. In the United States, police forces are structured by racial issues, and the officers may have acted in a racist manner even though in civilian life they bear the stigma of skin color that makes them potential victims.

Sociology has likewise highlighted that to change the status of women, the creation of compulsory paternity leave or the implementation of binding rules on working hours is likely to be more effective than, say, promoting female heroines or establishing programs to combat stereotypes.

In the coming months, citizen and expert commissions will no doubt be set up in countries around the world to discuss the form that “memory” should take in the public space, be it in regard to colonialism, slavery or the place of women. As in the J. Marion Sims statue in New York, they will no doubt give rise to stimulating recommendations, but working toward ending discrimination and achieving true political, social and economic equality should not be confined to discussions of taking down this or that statue. Indeed, the heated media coverage can push a full, open debate over the structural and economic consequences of slavery as well as its abolition into the background. Reparation cannot only be symbolic. What is at stake today is the systemic transformation of the present.

Translated from French by Katharine Throssell and Leighton Kille.

This article was originally published in French

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