“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” writes George Santayana. In the midst of the argument that the #RhodesMustFall campaign is fuelled by a misguided desire to “erase the past”, it seems to me that it is ironically, but precisely, this argument that is hampered by a deeply short-sighted approach to history as such as well as to the role of history in the protests. Why? First, the student movement has made it abundantly clear that there is a massive difference of degree between the removal of a statue from a public space and the erasure of the past.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that the removal of one offensive statue is utterly unable to erase the chequered and bloody history of white privilege in South Africa. As far as concerns the argument that the removal of the Rhodes statue will open the floodgates for the erasure of the aesthetics of entire South African histories (including, God forbid, the Voortrekker Monument), I cannot help but notice how, once again, this argument resides in a pathological fear that all too closely resembles the “swart gevaar” white paranoia of the apartheid era. Far from “erasing the past”, the students have repeatedly made the point that it is precisely history, the past, that got us into this mess in the first place. In other words, it has been a central feature of the students’ campaign to emphasise how the presence of the past in the present has shaped it. And they have expressed their view that the past has negatively and destructively impacted on the present.
What the students are in fact denying is a certain version of history — one that has been all too prevalent in South Africa, past and present — and one that is aesthetically exemplified by the location and form (collectively, the symbolics) of the Rhodes statue. Johan Snyman has referred to this as the “monumental” version of history. The monumental approach adopts a reading characterised by a celebratory attitude that accounts history as a series of achievements, advances and conquests — it “reads” what Alain Badiou would call the “evental” moments in history as evidence of progress and overcoming. It privileges and highlights those moments in the past that deserve to be celebrated.
An example of the monumental version of recent South African history is encompassed in the version that accounts the transition between 1990 and 1996 as “a miracle” achieved by the “rainbow nation”. This celebration of the past comes, in fact, at the cost of memory and remembering in that it suggests that the human cost, pain and suffering of what Gillian Rose has called the “disasters of modernity” can “now”, “finally” be forgotten / buried at the feet of the great heroes and their magnificent achievements. And it cannot be denied that there is an aesthetics that accompanies this monumental version of history.
As Bert Olivier reminds us in an otherwise disappointing post, the Rhodes statue “distributes the sensible” — it is not aesthetically neutral or ambiguous. UCT vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, has admitted this by stating that it is “the particular location and setting of the Rhodes statue that is the problem and it cannot be addressed by contextualising the statue or installing alternative icons. It is because the brooding presence of Cecil John Rhodes is located in pride of place, at the focal point of the campus, that it acquires the connotations of founder, hero, patron, role model, and embodiment of UCT’s heritage”. In this sense, the Rhodes statue, exemplifying as it does the imperial gaze, is a monument. It portrays colonialism and imperialism as incontrovertibly positive historical progressions. And many find this aesthetic absolutely offensive and hurtful.
Snyman opposes the monumental version of history to the memorial approach. He argues that whereas the monument celebrates, the memorial commemorates. At the University Assembly in Jameson Hall last night, it was deeply significant to me how many student speakers articulated a need to mourn, a desire to weep, a being “saddened” and disappointed. To a considerable extent, one could say that the Assembly inaugurated an aesthetics of commemoration. In my previous post, I argued that the politics involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign can be characterised as the confrontation of a logic of the police with a logic of disagreement. These logics can be aligned with the monumental / memorial distinction. The police logic exudes the monumental stance, the protest logic of disagreement has adopted a memorial and commemorative posture. However, I also think that the lesson of deconstruction should be restated here, namely that there is no such thing as a “pure” opposition. In the terms I have employed here, deconstructing the monument / memorial binary would suggest that there is always a certain “contamination” of the monument by the memorial, no memorial without a monument. To put it another way: the logics of disagreement and the police can undo one another. The possibility of this undoing and of what will come undone is what is at stake in politics.
Jacques Derrida’s point, however, was not just this but also that one of the terms in an opposition is ideologically or structurally or historically privileged. Deconstruction could serve as a strategy by which it is possible to unseat the privileged term, to disturb it. For this reason, the deconstructive insight in relation to the Rhodes statue need not culminate in a relativistic conclusion — quite the opposite. We need only to observe here the aesthetic consequences that have already been concretely attendant upon the Rhodes statue: it has been entirely covered in black plastic, in the colour of mourning. Clearly, the monument is at this very moment already a memorial (which is not to say or suggest that the physical statue should not, eventually, be removed). And what, then, of the memorial? The Derridean insight could well be aligned here with the Santayana aphorism with which I opened this post: “learning” (which is, after all, what defines the student) and “learning” from history here would precisely entail vigilance that the memorial does not become yet another totalising and oppressive monument.