Banality of Good; or, the Monumentalized Memorials
A year ago, I stumbled upon a seven-part Twitter response posted by the novelist and art historian Teju Cole. He was dismantling the White Savior INDUSTRIAL Complex1 (WSIC1) in Kony 2012, a viral video posted on YouTube. The third part of his post drew a pedigree from Hannah Arendt's banality of evil regarding the 1961 Eichmann trials in Israelto the present-day façade of WSIC1 being banally sentimental (Arendt 2006). Suddenly I saw the sparkles: The reason why, I always felt a cringe facing any monument representing ethnic violence in Cyprus and how this relates to my feelings about the current academic and artistic work oriented towards glorifying identity politics.
Being both a child of a massacre survivor and part of the generation who seeks peace in Cyprus, these forms of memorials never spoke to me. I was well aware of the experiences that cultivated fear and trauma for my mother and others from her generation, which even I also experienced in a remote and alienated way. All made by male artists, these objects failed to represent the suffering Cypriots had been through in the 60s, under the Greek right-wing Junta until 1974, then the Turkish occupation of the North half of the island.
Cole's posts sent me digging into The Generation of Postmemory (2012). The warnings from Marianne Hirsch about the sentimentality of the post-memorial artworks clarified my feelings. She explains that the sentimental approach only helps the audience to lessen the intensity of the themes and eases their intake of historical violence. It also results in absolution for some, disabling personal responsibility to reflect on historical memories with a critical faculty. Such elimination of historical context also manifests a gratifying assumption that evil deeds are always performed by monsters or unbreakable metaphysical beings, not by humans. In Hirsch's book, an example of a sentimental method is the infantilization of victims, which is often the case for the memorials in (North) Cyprus. Inferred by the emotional responses of the audience, the contrast demonizes the activities of the perpetrator and prevents one from seeing the larger perspective (Hirsch 2012, 140-144). Overall, as Hirsch also points out, I believe this artisanal kitsch technique, targeting the flow of tears to create (bias) empathy is not so different from the simplicity of the (conventional and normative) pornographic language targeting sexual arousal. Similarly, Susan Sontag viewed the appetite for creating images of suffering bodies through the photographic gaze on wars as similar to the desire of showing bodies naked (Sontag 2004).
The post-memory describes the memories of the second-generation survivors, a trans-generational maneuver of traumatic knowledge, a phantasmal recurrence toward the generation at a distance (Hirsch 2012, 1-5). In her book Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison used a similar term, re-memory, to name this Oedipal transmission of time. In demand to save the next generation from the burden of her memories of slavery, the protagonist Sethe killed her first child, Beloved, when she was two years old. Years after, haunting Sethe, her later-born children, and everyone living in her house, the eldest daughter, Beloved, comes back from her death. Re-memory is the recollection of others, like our family members and the persons of history preserved in our bodies (Morrison 2019). The battle between remembering and forgetting that became useful for the narrative of Morrison reminds me of a painting I have never realized, for it was too dramatic to my humorist taste: The scenery depicting a desire of mine dying at the hands of my mother.
Not long ago, just as my feelings about the memorials in Cyprus, I developed another disconnection that cut me off from the academic and artistic work for/of marginalized persons, including mine, which is obsessed with repetitive revisits of the past. One day, I woke up to a reality believing that the iterative dwellings in the content of my practice, on historical and contemporary power structures, have empowered my socio-political consciousness at the expense of my mental health. Such an aesthetic repetition incapacitated me:the more I researched, the more I became furious. Standing hesitant between remembering and forgetting, I was not sure about my feelings toward the paintings I made and the genre I felt I belonged to: Was this what I wanted to paint? Or was I conditioned to do so? Was this my relationship to memories that I mistrusted, or was it the current context that changed the meaning of the memories and how they affect the personal and the communal? Have marginalized artists not been reduced to vessels for that institutional desires, expecting them to act as archeologists and exhibitionists for traumatic memories today?
A memorial is an object which works as a reminder of something lost. It can take any appearance, (in-)organic to digital, and most commonly in the form of art, probably a sculpture. On the other hand, a monument is still a type of memorial but more of an institutional one. While it serves to remind us of something, it is more grandiose and invasive in its size, shape, and concept. It is under the control of ideologies that want to represent and sustain power. When combined together, these two vehicles of memory do something to the person who executes them, especially in repetition. As in my current artistic and academic body of work, with this paper, I am trying to conceptualize this mistrust of mine about this combination. Please bear with me!
In this manner first, the memorial will be codified with identity politics and further the social manifestation of various critical theories looking towards the dominant history and currents, addressing social injustices that emancipate the marginalized folks. Second, the monument will turn into a verb,then again to a noun - monumentalization - to signify the gradual growth of fetishization and instrumentalization of the former by many institutions. In this way, I can express my puzzling feelings about how something supposedly, personally and communally, beneficial turns into something, at least for me, unwittingly quite harmful.
Away with the monuments! Nietzsche yelled at the historicism of his time. He expressed this chrono-normative re-contextualization of history, which he believed oppresses the living, as monumental history (Nietzsche 1985, 14-17). A monument disposes of the public memory rather than preserves it by substituting the responsibility of remembrance with its figuration. The iconographical display of historical information distances the subject and transmits them/her/him to the mythic and phantasmagoric. James Young writes about this property of monuments in his essay Memory and Counter-Memory (1999), addressing his concerns about the conventional monuments carrying out and dominating the practice of remembrance, which otherwise would be done by the public. In other words, Young argues that a monumental memorial does dispose of the memory rather than preserving it. By substituting the public responsibility of remembrance with its iconographic figuration, it vanishes the memory (Young 1999).I understood that it was not the memorialization of the memories and history that disturbed me but the desire for monumentalization of those entailing to forget them. Thereby I conclude my argument that the current institutional tokenism for marginalized artists and academics creates a similar effect of monumentalization boosted by - please watch out the new word - the White Savior INSTITUTIONAL Complex (WSIC2). This conclusion inspired the following cheesy poem envisioning a spatially limited zone, a portion of the institutional given to the marginalized, that is inhabitable out of its borders, and for the sake of life, stepping on top of each other turns out inevitable:
I have strong feelings about the symbolic efforts to liberate selected underrepresented persons to give an impression of so-called inclusion and/or diversity, resulting in glorifying the pain for the aura of the marginalized artist. It seems like the halo of monumentalization sets the currency through which our works mostly gain recognition today. An inherently asymmetric relation leads to asymmetric moral duties in a marathon of being wounded. Does not such overtly institutional control of cultural practices bureaucratize those emancipatory duties, which affirms the very discrimination that critical theories claim to destroy? And so, might not such a way of bureaucratization be the way to avoid the potential radicalization of artistic and scholarly practices? These questions and Teju Cole's posts did lead me to Hannah Arendt. In a letter to Gershom Scholem from 370 Riverside Drive New York, on July 20, 1963, she writes:
You are completely right that I have changed my mind and I now no longer speak of radical evil...The fact is that today I think that evil in every instance is only extreme, never radical: it has no depth, and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay to waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface. Only the good is always deep and radical (Arendt 2017, 209).
Let us see what I will say about the condition of "the good" today! Writing Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) was highly personal for Hannah Arendt, in a sense, releasing her from the burden of her past. When the trials started and she, for the first time, saw a Nazi butcher, she was dramatically puzzled by the appearance of the accused. The unsatisfying mediocrity did not end with his looks but further deepened into his flesh, into his mind. An expectation, maybe even a craving, to find a psychopath ruined by her finding a bureaucrat, an ambitious person climbing the ranks further in his career. His incapability to think hindered him from being aware of what he had done in the name of success in a totalitarian regime.
The banality in the book invoked by Arendt is a condition for someone (carrying out evil deeds) with an unexplainable thoughtlessness derived from following the rules. For her, Eichmann was not pathological nor overtly wicked, an analysis that drew condemnation at the time. I do not know why she did not write more deeply about this condition nor give us any clear example of the banality of evil to such she was pointing. Nevertheless, it is interesting to take her tenet, turn it upside down and extend it to the current marginalized academic and artistic works initiated and supported by WISC2 with their supposedly Good-deeds, which may exemplify her doctrine of thoughtlessness that comes from the banality or vice versa.
The Monumentalizing effect of the current institutional tokenism fueled by WSIC2 or, what I like to call Netflix Good, turns the beneficial intentions of well-meaning personsinto irradical shallowness.Though highly bureaucratized, memorials do something good, just like how Netflix makes my mother less homophobic.Nonetheless, their radical properties get neutralized by the power monumentalizing them. Hypothetically, an assumption of being angelically heroic paralyzes the critical faculties on the personal level. Like quantum mechanics show, sub-atomic objects can be in multiple states simultaneously until the moment of calculation. I think banality has such uncertainty in an ethical sense. It has a dormancy to any moral-binary conclusion relative to the spacetime in which the measurements are conducted. Therefore, it seems in the present-day institutional context, the good-doings of memorials, unfortunately, are destined to be assimilated into power, making nothing angelic about them. And when digested, there is nothing left but a manifestation of pure thoughtlessness. I can not help but think of the moment I saw 14,000 refugee life jackets, which Ai Wei Wei gathered and installed on the pillars and the windows of the Berlin Konzerthaus in 2016. I admit it was very touching at first! But, isn't this the result of the ambitions for personal advancement through following the shortcuts of the cultural industry's bureaucratic banal rules to glamorous success? Or am I wrong?
Every well-meaning person requires self-validation through their efforts in research or art-making. It is nothing new or surprising, nor is anything wrong with it. However, when the way to such self-gratitude declares autonomy upon a binary state of the virtuousness of being Good, there is also nothing wrong with challenging this mindset by emphasizing its thoughtless banality as ethically uncertain. My interest here is not to reformulate the well-known contradiction of asymmetrical power relations between researchers and research subjectsor thequestion of agency as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks: Can the Subaltern Speak (2010)? I am only interested in pointing out the very nature of this power relation, of this speech, which is seemingly very distinctive in binary, as being highly assimilated in conventional morality. We can and should develop different strategies of criticality in such contexts today. For Eve Tuck, an example of a new way is to celebrate our survivance rather than grieve our brokenness, which for me has become only a fetish monument, which is, overall, beneficial no more. Gerald Vizenor (1998) writes:
Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry.2
In limbo between white supremacist structures and the narratives of woundedness resulting in moral supremacy, the suggestion of Tuck to focus on survivance has significance in helping me formulate my confusion, ease my anger, and allocate myself to research-based art practice in a self-critical way. In her Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities (2009), Tuck names this sophisticatedly monumentalized body of work, which I struggled to express above, as damage-centered research. Referencing various marginalized groups, especially her own indigenous community, she calls on researchers to take into account of long-term effects of damage-centered research. She warns accumulating documentation of pain, trauma, and brokenness that helps hold those in power accountable while still assigning the task of dehumanization in the core of our communities like a self-sufficient engine. How?
I argue that such an artistic and academic body of work encourages an individual to reflect on the trauma in an aesthetically repetitive manner creating a danger of paralysing hypermnesia. Subsequently, one cannot observe the outer realms of the body, and its past, thereby depriving them/her/him of other modes of action because repetition changes the human brain and neural identity through time and stabilizes the performative. Iteration crystalizes the series of actions as an identity.
Challenging the affirmative neuroscience notion of plasticity, Catherine Malabou claims the plasticity of the healthy brain, which learns and adapts quickly, is very much influenced by capitalism. Reductive understandings of this neural identity turn plasticity into the flexibility of the ideal worker (Malabou 2008). Further, Malabou engages with brain injuries of those "traumatized by war, victims of natural or political catastrophes," Alzheimer patients to explore the brain's destructive plasticity. Without denying the difficulties of such conditions, she shows how the plastic brain is also capable of radical transformations, can say no to taking any definitive form.
Artists experience disasters. Instead of using such plasticity radically, these experiences generally turn into well-behaved, -identified, -controlled expressions of repetitive iconography (Ibid.). Namely, the artists' suffering gets defused with rewards, leading them to continue to re-enact it: Repetition conditions one to become the thing habitually repeated. For Nietzsche, repetition is another name for revenge leading to the inability to forget (Malabou 2012). Whenpracticed through arts, revenge becomes active-remembering. The correlation between artisanship and higher neuroplasticity made professionals consider art therapy as the treatment for various neural conditions. Thus, might not the brain change physically under aforesaid tokenistic rewards and cause repetition?Does not this intellectual iteration damage the capacity to recover and push instead towards becoming the embodiment of trauma itself? Is it maybe possible that for some people forgetting is also empowering? Argumentative!?
Nevertheless, Tuck urges suspension or a moratorium on damage-centered research, which is by now in competition with itself to come up with even better and more clever explanations, and further advanced analysis of being depleted and ruined than ever before. She identifies a persistent increase of researchers lined up at the doors of institutions hoping to research these communities they propose as "broken." Tuck does not dismiss the fact that once it was a necessity to expose the inhumane conditions people lived or still living in. She conveys her appreciation for the ones who came before us, who paved the way to the rights and a portion of the emancipation we have today, which enabled her to articulate the necessity for such contemporary critique. New critical positions, like hers, would only be possible because of the lessons learned by prior generations of researchers. She accepts the fact that there was a time and place for damage-centered research, as also many from those generations agree while believing they are no longer sufficient. With this letter, she welcomes us to join her in reimagining artistic or academic study while considering the long-term side effects of thinking of ourselves as broken in the light of an already well-documented history of oppression.
I think survivance is a word that balances the history and present to connect us with the future. It is not overly obsessed with the past nor tries to govern the future. In my opinion, Juliana Huxtable's existence as an artist and a figure who is very much influential to me is a good example of such temporal stabilization and practice of survivance. Famously Walter Benjamin wrote about Paul Klee's Angelus Novus as the angel of history:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (Benjamin 1969, 257).
From today's perspective, and as evidenced by its influence on many intellectuals, Benjamin's conceptualization of history became our intimate methodology not only in the manner of cultural production but also in how we define ourselves as individuals. Unlike some feminist thinkers, such as Sara Ahmed who insists on the need to give space to stories that "kill our joy" (Ahmed 2010), I personally come to believe that in the journey of overcoming the dehumanization of countless -isms, in desiring to restore our humanness, we have tended to take this exhausting more-than-human angelic role for a long time without predicting its long term side effects. Yes, history is a bitch! Especially when I look at the research that has already been done. I am quite shocked and still getting shocked unearthing astonishing scholars and artists I have never heard of: the humongous amount of brilliant work explaining what we have been through and we still being through. We can not do a better job than those who have already done in articulating the power and our woundedness in centillion ways that are still waiting for us to be discovered and learnt. Isn't it best to show our fidelity and kinship to those who have cleared the way for us today and have never had the chance to be heroes, by celebrating our vitality, sharing what we have with those who do not, rather than imitating what they have done and being angelic heroes instead of them?
Although I have been talking to myself throughout this text, I am quite sure about something. It is time to remove those wings, slow down, and turn to the front with the knowledge of what is behind us, or we are not going to be part of that future, personally nor communally!
1 A Combination of both white savior complex and military-industrial complex, theterm used in U.S to address the economic interdependence of the state apparatus to the defense industry: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/
2 Vizenor, Gerald. (1998.) Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. 93, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 2006. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on Banality of Evil. New York:Penguin Books.
Arendt, Hannah. 2017. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. Marie Luise Knott (Ed.), Anthony David (Trans.), 209. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Illuminations. Hannah Arendt (Ed.). New York: Schocken Books.
Friedrich Nietzsche. 1985 The Use and Abuse of History.New York: Macmillan.
Hirsch, Marianne. 2012. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
Malabou, Catherine. 2012. The Ontology of the Accident. New York: Fordham University Press
Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should We Do with Our Brain. Cambridge: Polity Press
Morrison, Toni. 2019. Beloved. New York:Penguin Books.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. Rosalind Morris (Ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Sontag, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Pain of the Others. New York: Penguin Books
Vizenor, Gerald. (1998.) Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. 93, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Young, James. 1999. "Memory and Counter-Memory," In Constructions of Memory: On Monuments Old and New No. 9. Harvard Design Magazine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Graduate School of Design, University in Cambridge.
Tuck, Eve. 2009. "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities" in Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79 No. 3, 409-428. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Publishing Group.