Is a new form of iconoclasm emerging?
In a popular video circulating amidst the national debate over Confederate monuments, protesters chanting, “No KKK, no fascist USA,” throw a yellow rope around a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina and wrench it from a pedestal. The statue twists and crumples as it hits the ground. The crowd cheers. Some come forward to take pictures with the toppled statue, which lay in its position of vanquish until hauled away the next morning.
The revolutionaries break images to repudiate the presence to which the images attest, and yet they break to proclaim—to prove—a new presence and power.
The iconoclasm in Durham is both new—it speaks to the particular racial anxieties of our present moment—and also familiar. It echoes the French revolutionaries smashing signs of the old regime in their efforts to establish a political order of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It echoes, too, the early Protestants breaking, burning, and mocking the images in the Catholic Church that they had renounced. The images that worried early Protestants most were those depicting the divine, for such images, according to their detractors, falsely pretend to bear God’s presence. The Protestants defaced images of Christ to say—to prove—that God is not present in them. God, they insisted, is present everywhere, unbounded by materiality. These iconoclasts, then, broke images both to deny God’s presence and affirm it. A similar dynamic characterizes the iconoclasm of political revolutions. The revolutionaries break images to repudiate the presence to which the images attest, and yet they break to proclaim—to prove—a new presence and power.