I keep seeing laments online for what the members of the Islamic State are doing in museums — laments that easily slide into virulent critiques of their humanity since they obviously have no civilized respect for our collective human past.
I’ve written about this before, but what I wish to highlight here is how quickly otherwise nuanced people forget their own understanding of such things as the ideology of the museum, the politics of world history and discourse on civilization/barbarity, as well as the constructed nature of the past — quickly, that is, when their own taken-for-granted narratives of progressive development, value, cultural authority, and historical interconnection/lineage are called into question by those who, presumably, subscribe to a rather different narrative.
While I have no interest to smash any statues (ancient or plaster casts), to rip apart any paintings, or to defend what has lately been going on in, for instance, Mosul, Iraq (from which the above screen shot is taken), I do find it curious how the actions of our own predecessors — those so-called explorers or collectors who hacked away and carved up other people’s things or cherry-picked souvenirs from other people’s tombs (aka 19th century archaeology in Egypt, for example), surely leaving a mess while crating things up to be carted off to museums on the other side of the world — are not part of this conversation for those so shocked by the Islamic State’s actions. For the very existence of the modern museum — notably a museum devoted to that troublesome notion of world history or world civilizations, presupposing deep affinities and teleological narratives that usually lead to us — is so closely tied to the idea of appropriation that one has to do some nifty intellectual maneuvering in order to protect our own actions while critiquing those of others, those accused of ruining other people’s history (i.e., our history). So, while not condoning those sledgehammer-wielding men in the videos, I have trouble seeing this as all that different from what people for eons have done when it came to items that signified, to them at least, systems of authority with which they differed or disagreed — either razing them to the ground as if they had never existed or, in other cases, resignfying and then enshrining them as evidence of their own newly acquired prestige. In fact, if anything, it’s a sadly predictable and thus, intellectually, rather uninteresting technique that we use to do this, given just how common it is to stomp all over your predecessors by wrecking what they left behind and whatever still bears their mark.
It’s almost as if some of the people I’ve seen commenting on this, from within the study of religion at least, didn’t pay close enough attention when they read, say, the chapter “Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain” in Bruce Lincoln’s still important book, Discourse and the Construction of Society.
Sure, it’s not something you see everyday, and of course you probably disagree with it, maybe virulently, but read the chapter and maybe you’ll find that it is something that we can nonetheless come to understand. Symbolic inversions — making high places low is but one example — are powerful techniques (as Lincoln also makes plain).
The key then, as a scholar, is to figure out how not to respond in disgust but, instead, to determine what in these actions we see as familiar even if not agreeable; for, unless we demonize the social actors beyond any trace of being human (and we’re apt to do that surprisingly quickly sometimes), they, like us, devise symbolically potent ways to assert themselves in distinction from positions with which they disagree — so much so that they are willing (as are we on more than one occasion, by the way) to kill people and lay waste to regions, all in the pursuit of their goals. This is not unfamiliar to us — no matter how closely our own sense of place and self is linked to a narrative of lineage (“It’s our history they’re destroying!” some say) that we assume stretches in some unbroken fashion from us to the ancients so sadly disrespected in these acts.
To make my case, I could cite Lord Elgin and the workers he had deconstruct large portions of the Parthenon’s artwork (such as the opening pic above, long housed in the British Museum), but that’s likely too far removed from many people today (at least people outside Greece…) — though large numbers in Britain, when asked, would never think of returning these artifacts to modern Greece, for somehow they think that they just rightly belong to the once influential colonial power.
Or maybe I could insert a screenshot of an item from my friend, Craig Martin’s, Facebook wall:
In the same vein, it might be handy to refer to the infamously staged toppling, in April 9, 2003, of the state of Saddam Hussein, as American troops entered Baghdad.
Or what about adding a clip of how the large Nazi swastika, rising above the Zeppelin Grandstand, was blown up as Allied troops arrived in Nuremberg near the end of World War II.
In the realm of more recent fiction we could name that scene from “Boardwalk Empire” where the local city official and bootlegger pays to have his rundown father’s home — his own childhood home — fixed up to give to someone else as a gift, but then, at the last minute, standing in it and recalling all the terrible memories he has of the place, of his father, of his own childhood, he burns the freshly refurbished home to the ground.
Or better yet, I could just make reference to the brand new season of the much celebrated Netflix series “House of Cards” in which the scheming protagonist, now that he has finally become President of the United States, makes a visit to his father’s grave and, without his entourage seeing, urinates on the tombstone of a man for whom he obviously does not harbor fond memories.
By now my point should be abundantly clear: like it or not, we, as humans (and I do mean all of us) do precisely this — we signify our present at the expense of how we read, and how we erase, the past. We burn old lovers’ letters, hold dear to yet other mementos, and tear down buildings and cut down trees — all in an effort either to create a moment now divorced from or somehow linked to some long past then, as if the past were a contagion. (Oh, how fascinating a late-19th century scholar studying magic would find all this, no?) We contest the many possible presents by undermining others’ efforts to legitimize themselves through their use of the past — what we portray to ourselves as our past, asserting exclusive ownership over what was someone else’s to begin with. (Did King Tutankhamun wish to find his final resting place in one of our museums, as part of a traveling exhibit?) We stomp on the world of those with whom we disagree and we regularly rename and make ours things that were made by others who had no idea that we’d eventually come along and break the seals on their tombs.
We pave paradise to put up parking lots, we name our professional sports teams after peoples our ancestors decimated; and it’s not by accident that the Roman gods were Greek gods but with different names.
But if you read all this as condoning what members of the Islamic State are doing, then you’ve really missed my point altogether. My hope would be that, instead, you could come to see that the interesting thing is not that they’re doing this but, first off, that it is, as mentioned above, so curiously typical and thus uninventive but also, secondly, that we do this ourselves when it suits our purposes — predictably failing to see the similarities, which allows us to be shocked and insulted when other people bring the sledgehammers out.