The destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra is a crime, a terrible crime against us all, an assault on human culture, on the very idea of civilisation. Watch those videos of machine-gunning statuary, and it feel like the gun is pointed at us all. The dull blows of sledge hammers taken to historic fabric fall heavy on us too.
When we see the explosions where antiquity vanishes into a cloud of dust we have a dreadful sense of immediate and profound loss, a shocking sense of bereavement. Before and after satellite imagery engulfs us with an awful feeling of dread at the kind of barbarity humans are capable of. A vicious arsenal of destruction set against the defenceless fabric of history.
These are acts that leave us speechless. Acts that we feel that we can’t begin to understand, let alone verbalise. They trouble us in multiple ways – not least with a sense of guilt that this annihilation of inert stuff seems to shock us even more than the human cost of the conflict.
These are attempts to wipe the evidence of human culture off the surface of the planet, a kind of retroactive genocide. It seems to be a tactical annihilation of history itself in order to rewrite the present.
In response, the western narrative around ISIS also frames its savagery in chronological terms, describing their acts as a form of medievalism. Such barbarity, the narrative goes, are not of our age but those of a more brutal time. The ideology that it seeks to impose too is presented as something out of time, as if rewinding centuries of progress.
In actual fact, as journalist Jason Burke suggests, ISIS is a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon. He argues that it relies on contemporary digital culture, on forms of crowdfunding, on social media and technologies of networked culture. Certainly, as a PR machine it is able to command the world’s attention. And as it does, perhaps there is something more uncomfortable that we begin to see – that ISIS’s tactics are far from exceptions. Indeed, we could understand them as welding the attention-grabbing schlock horror media storm of video nasties with its own ideological goal. Of manipulating and outraging the media with all the skill of an extremist Malcolm Mclaren.
That’s to argue ISIS is not something separate from our world but rather deeply rooted in our contemporary world. And, however much it might disgust us to recognise the fact, we are part of its world too.
By recognising the fully contemporary nature of ISIS’s attacks we also deny them the implicit legitimisation that happens if we contextualise its brutality in an (unspecified) barbaric era. History can be no excuse.
Assaults on history – on chronology and time – are not exceptions either. We should remember, after 9/11, the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” unless it joined the War On Terror. The phrase that itself has history, attributed originally to Air Force general Curtis LeMay who suggested during the Vietnam war that rather then negotiate the US should “bomb them back to the stone age,” by destroying factories, harbours, and bridges “until we have destroyed every work of man in North Vietnam.”
Here, the control of time itself becomes a military tactic. It suggests chronological narrative where culture and technology are arrayed on an x-axis marking progression that can itself be attacked, and can be erased and rewritten according to a contemporary narrative. “History,” Churchill said, “is written by the victors.” In reality, history itself is a continuous battleground.
The destruction of culture as part of an ideological program is too nothing new. Think only of Henry VIII’s iconoclasm in the destruction of England’s monasteries as part of the Reformation. Think too of the Nazi’s so-called Baedaker Raids on British cities during WWII. So called because they used tourist guides as a way to guide bombers towards targets of particular historical and cultural significance rather than military value.
The strategy was articulated by German propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, who said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” The tactic was one of terror, of an assault on the very culture of a nation, an attempt to demoralise the British and hasten capitulation.
The destruction of historical artefacts for ideological and military value has catastrophic effects on our understanding of history. The obliteration of archaeological records obscures the potential for time to be a dialogue between past and present. But it acts on another level too.
The artefacts and sites of history are not simply academic subjects. Their role is more powerful. They are memory made material. They are documents that bear witness to their own production and, just like as the grooves of a record, are able to perform those stored memories in the present. The significance of the historical record of culture goes far beyond archaeology or art history. It is a device that powerfully performs the possibilities of human culture, possibilities that are often at odds with the dominant ideology and power of the present. History suggests that alternatives to the present are possible. This is why history itself is so often a target.
We can trace the kind of destruction we are witnessing in Palmyra back to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These monumental statues of standing Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff, were created around 507 AD. They were destroyed by massive explosions in March 2001 by order of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar. Video of the destruction was circulated to the world’s media.
The voids in the cliffs left by the demolition of the Buddhas are still there. But they are not quite empty. When we look at the nothing, we can’t help but see what was there. We see the statue’s absence as gaping gaps in the present.
Jeff Koons is not often regarded as a politically engaged artist. He’s not often noted for his sensitivity to global affairs. But during one of the Serpentine Gallery’s marathons, interviewed by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist, he floated the possibility of filling in the voids in the Bamiyan cliff with giant inflatable Incredible Hulks.
In his vision, cyclopean cartoon characters would stand in the stead of history, an aggressive occupation of the absence of antiquity with the pop culture of the present. The figures themselves are aggression personified. Remember, Hulk is a figure of rage, Dr David Banner transformed into a bulging green superhuman ready to avenge wrongs. The Hulks would have projected a righteous anger against the acts of destruction that had cleared their very site.
At a fundamental level, Koons suggested that the giant niches would have retained their purpose as the holders of cultural objects, even if the culture that they would have held was of a very different order. This itself, amplified by the incongruity of history, destruction and cartoon figures, was an imaginative gesture of defiance against the destruction of culture. Koons (I hope) was demonstrating that fragments of culture can be destroyed, but that human culture itself is invincible.
And as we watch the wanton destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, perhaps this is the only way we can respond. That the only way to deal with such loss is to fill the space of destruction with even more culture.
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