The scars of violent revolutionary history weigh heavy over a city such as Paris. One only has to walk from the ‘Place de la Bastille’ through to the ‘Place de la Concorde’ to notice how Parisian monuments are frequently testaments to the reordering of the French State and the city itself. Very few statues, statuettes or memorials to the once reigning monarchies remain. They were, as is unsurprising, destroyed or re-appropriated during one of France’s three bourgeois revolutions. With the recent rise in political protest on the streets of Southern Europe, and their subsequent violent repression by the State, new monuments are appearing throughout the urban landscape, memorialising novel moments of potential revolutionary history.
The Place de la Bastille, Paris, 11e
Monumentalisation: the Tour-de-Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie
The Tour-de-Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, once located next to the markets of Les Halles, used to be a highly decorated church erected during the 16th century to mark the point of departure for pilgrims marching toward Santiago de Compostela. Today, only the tower and a park remain. As a symbol of affluence and reflection of its patrons’ wealth, the church was pulled down and sold bit by bit during the first of the French revolutions until it later become a bullet factory for fire arms. It was then re-appropriated by Napoleon III during the Second Empire and re-monumentalised with a new statue of Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, placed at its feet. It is of course now a UNESCO world heritage site.
At each stage of the tower’s history its meaning has been symbolically and functionally re-appropriated by a new ideological order that has subsequently sought its justification through a form of memorialisation. To be able to change the status of the tower’s symbolic meaning has always held the power of institutional legitimacy. This is still undoubtedly the case with its inclusion onto the UNESCO world heritage list. The UN’s protection of what they deem ‘heritage,’ or ‘global public goods,’ should be seen as going hand-in-hand with what the UN deems as the history of the world’s progression. That is, the protection of the UN itself, as progression. Although the material safeguarding of natural as well as cultural sites is of course an important topic, it must be taken into account that the UN likewise re-enforces the legitimacy of its own institutional power through the right to this safeguarding and re-naming. For to hold the right to name, is to hold the right to power itself.
The tower of Saint Jacque throughout its tumultuous history has thus been a representative symbol to a diverse and conflicting set of ideologies. It has represented the power of mercantile wealth, religious submissiveness, enlightenment reason and now the political hegemony of the United Nations. Importantly, the tower’s history opens up a ‘theory of monumentalising’ that establishes some of the function that monuments play in the symbolic maintenance of institutional power. That is, new political powers need to legitimise their sovereignty by physically re-writing themselves into history through forms of monumentalisation within the built environment. This occurs through constructing both new monuments as well as re-appropriating old ones in the aftermath of seizing power. The important question, however, and what is really at stake here, is why does the physical or material documentation of transitional power need to occur so hastily, or even at all?
Succinctly, all new political regimes are founded through
revolutionary demands for justice that throw the country into moments of
political uncertainty. This uncertainty is the period in which the transition
of sovereignty is possible. One of the most famous examples of this often
bloody uncertainty is the French ‘Reign of Terror,’ a period where the Jacobins
and Girondins fought to assert their own power in the void of monarchy. This
period of uncertainty is also the period in which the sense of monuments, monuments
such as the tower de Saint Jacques, can change their symbolic and functional
value. This change is possible because, no matter how small it might be, there
is always a window in which no sovereignty controls absolute power over both
the State and these objects.
"Monuments are quilting points that hold ideological power from spilling out."
Therefore, if the physical documentation of power
through monumentalisation did not swiftly occur, one might, as a transitional
political subject yourself, be tempted to realise that the legitimacy of power
really only rests on the fragility of this window of change. One might then be
further tempted to push back against the course of history, holding this window
open and denying sovereignty itself the chance to be re-established. It is this
fragility that is held together by the monument. Even during the Reign of
Terror, the Guillotine’s blade became the symbolic monument holding the
Revolutionary Government’s power in place. In short, monuments are quilting points that hold ideological power from spilling out.
The Tower-de-Saint-Jacques-De-La-Boucherie, Paris, 4e
New monuments of contestation
The theory of monumentalisation need not just be applied to old towers and the history of the French revolution. A number of new monuments that have recently appeared throughout different parts of the world, marking both transitions of power as well as rising protestations to authority itself.
"Never" on the Shpirag mountain, Albania
For instance, written into the Albanian mountain of Shpirag, a mountain range which directly faces the popular UNESCO world heritage site of Berat, the word ‘NEVER’ can be seen for miles in white. Previously reading ‘ENVER,’ this lettering was once a monument to the now disposed Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Being a contested site of power, the monument has been destroyed and rebuilt several times both by the hard-line communists of the era as well as the armies opposing Enver’s rule. Decisively, Filja, the original painter of the monument has recently swapped the first two letters in order to represents both a swipe at Hoxha's Stalinist brand of Balkan communism, but most importantly, ‘to scream about’ the slow pace of progress under the corrupt political clique that replaced him. Filja’s hope is that by taking action into his own hands he will stir ‘a new generation’ to fight for change against the corrupt Albanian system. What’s central to Filja’s action is that through his own acts of protestation the monument ceased to be a memorial to institutional power but become a monument to the contestation of authority itself.
Moving south from Albania to Greece and to the Athenian quarter of Exarchia, it is possible to see another, albeit quite different, monument to the contestation of authority. Notwithstanding the fact that this Athenian quarter is a stronghold for anti-fascist and anarchist support, in the middle of Exarchia there now stands a shrine to Alexander Grigoropoulou, the young man shot by police in 2008 which set off the Athens riots. His name, and now this monument to him, have become crucial focal points for anti-establishment sentiment and the continued struggle against both the brutality of the Greek police and the rise of the Greek right.
Memorial to Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarchia. Mendhak/Flickr
To return finally to France, much the same form of memorialisation is now occurring with the recent death of anti-fascist supporter Clément Meric. Clément was killed in June 2013 by a member of the JNR (Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionaire) due to a fatal blow to the head. Since his death, much outrage and indignation has swept across the world in objection to the continued rise of fascist organisations and their ever present violence. Comparable to the case of Alexander Grigoropoulou (and now in addition the murder of Pavlos Fyssas), it is evident that both Clément’s name and face are being used as symbolic quilting points for political protest. Throughout Paris his face and the messages: ‘Clément vit dans nos luttes’ (Clément lives on though our fight), and ‘A jamais dans nos mémoires, à jamais dans nos cœurs’ (forever in our memories, forever in our hearts) can be found graffitied and painted onto the paving stones and shop walls. In addition to this, flags and banners carrying silhouettes of his face are highly present at anti-fascist demonstrations throughout Europe. Many people even outside of these often tight political groups recognise the symbolic value of both Clément’s name and face.
Typical graffiti currently found around Paris memorialising the death of Clément Meric.
Importantly, and to conclude, these emerging types of shrines, monuments, and memorials are not being constructed by sovereign powers in order to legitimize their rule. They instead represent the struggle against these powers. Utilising the same principles of monumentalisation they are serving a counter purpose. Alexander and Clément’s name are therefore being used to focus the energy of the left into precise symbolic points of reference. Where many people have criticised the left for not having a clear message, these symbols have given a new lease of life to what should be a patent message of resistance against the violence both of the State and of the right. As defined above, when points of reference are symbolically focused in such a way they give legitimacy to the forces that have constructed them and help to hold ideological messages together. In this case, instead of holding authoritarian power in place, the monuments holds together the protest against it. The hope, as with any monument, is to keep the message that they carry alive by being always physically present.
Get our weekly email