§Anche le statue muoiono
Someone who is going to look at me.
Notes against peaceful memorialisation
by Micol Bez

The debate about memorialisation is monopolised by two questions: should certain monuments be removed? Or would that mean censoring, rewriting or forgetting history? Starting from the epistemological premise that all knowledge production and representation has the side effect of producing ignorance, and that monumentalisation does not escape this fate, in this article I would like to propose a move beyond such dichotomies, to explore other possible strategies of memorialisation. As soon as one begins to commemorate, they run the risk of extracting memory from the living space of desiring bodies, de facto depoliticising it. The problem is therefore not only that of “bad monuments”, or of monuments of “bad” historical characters. Even for legitimate monuments, memorialisation is always a violent process, one that establishes a mythology, setting the hero in stone and erasing counter-histories (Foucault, 1997). In other words, erecting a monument inevitably produces ignorance. The monument is thus a paradoxical object in that it stops history and interrupts historicity, suspending the active life of historical figures and ideas within contemporary political consciousness. Monumentalisation turns, literally, life into stone. So, truly decolonising our monuments cannot stop at choosing which ones should be torn down, it requires a much more profound questioning of and de-linking from the epistemic and material conditions of possibility of western discourse on memorialisation (Mignolo, 2007). Why not leave monuments forever tagged and marked in red paint? Why not build monuments to shame and shameful monuments? What are the social feelings that a monument should embody, and why are they so regimented?

Starting from a reading of 1994: a love poem by South African poet Koleka Putuma, and of Igiaba Scego’s Roma Negata, I will explore the affective discourse that regulates our relationship to monuments and propose another possibility: that of a critical monument, or a process of memorialisation that sees itself as provocative, conflictual, and indeterminate, not as celebratory or pacificatory. In dialogue with the work of South African artist William Kentridge, and with the Nietzschean notion of chaos as a constantly conflictual field of competing drives, I will propose to reimagine monuments as provocations, and memorialisation as a field of contingency, ambiguity, plurality, betrayal and bastardy (Kentridge & Morris, 2014).

1. An obvious premise: monuments and ignorance
In her book Roma Negata, Italian writer Igiaba Scego describes the way in which Italian colonial monuments are ignored, as well as the way in which they produce ignorance: alimenting — through their unnoticed presence, removal, or even recent construction — the erasure and structural amnesia of Italian colonial history. Let us briefly note some examples. Scego describes a visit to the monument to the victims of 9/11 in Rome, built where once stood the Obelisk of Axum, an obelisk which Fascist generals had brought back as war booty from Ethiopia. The new monument, built to ensure that we never forget the violence of terrorism, plays a role in the obliteration of the memory of colonial violence, which we are all too willing to forget. One memory for another, an eye for an eye, the barter is quick and oblivion always around the corner, as Scego writes:
«But what is left of that passage in Piazza Porta Capena? Only emptiness, silence, absence, oblivion, and Italian forgetfulness» [1] (Bianchi and Scego, 2014, 16).

Screenshot of Scego’s video “Roma Negata”

In the same book, Scego recounts an episode that she defines as a national shame: the construction in Affile, a town in Lazio about fifty kilometers east of Rome, of a mausoleum dedicated to Rodolfo Graziani. Graziani was a prominent Italian military officer in the Kingdom of Italy’s Royal Army, a dedicated fascist who played an important role in the consolidation and expansion of the Italian colonial empire, and a war criminal responsible for employing chemical weapons (Del Boca, 2005) and ordering the massacre of Yekatit 12, which caused the death of 19, 200 people (Campbell, 2017). The national shame of which Scego speaks is, of course, that of having recently dedicated a monument to the highest ranking Italian war criminal to escape post-war justice.
«Affile and Italy found themselves overnight with a monument dedicated to a fascist war criminal. As if tomorrow Germany woke up to dedicate a monument to Himmler or Goebbels» [1] (Bianchi and Scego 2014, 16).
Here, Scego describes a bad monument, one whose construction requires the erasure and rewriting of history, as long as we consider monuments as symbols of social recognition and national identity. If a monument is something to admire, then building one for Rodolfo Graziani requires the production of ignorance — it is almost an analytic statement. The mausoleum, thus, rests on and continues to produce forms of colonial blindness, which Scego attempts to unveil. It is, as she has one of her characters say, the fundamental gesture of her poetics:
«Then the future became clear to me. I decided in that precise moment, but I became aware of it only in the following days, that I would help people to look better. To go beyond the surface, to decode the paintings, the bas-reliefs, and the statues around them» [1] (Scego, 2020, 54).
This is what Leila decides, in Scego’s new novel La linea del colore, after witnessing a disturbing scene: she has been invited to a festival in a small Italian town by a friend and the whole celebration gravitates around a fountain, decorated with grapes and praised by all for its beauty and historical value. Nobody seems to notice that the monument is colonial and that it portrays four black slaves in chains. Leila’s shock is silent, misunderstood, unuttered. She cannot explain to her friends what they are not seeing, what everybody is ignoring, nor the distaste and sense of grotesque that such collective ignorance produces. Thus, Scego writes against collective ignorance and erasure of the colonial experience, against all monuments and their inevitable shadows. Italian colonialism was built on blindness, ignorance was its condition of emergence and the monument one of its privileged tools.
But, how to reconcile the fact that, one the one hand, monuments are built to ensure that we never forget and, on the other, they are complicit if not active participants in the constitution of collective oblivion? What emerges from this quick reading of Scego, which will serve as a fundamental premise of the rest of the argument, is simple: all knowledge production and representation has the side effect of producing ignorance (Peels and Blaauw, 2006), and monumentalisation does not escape this fate. «Exposure is always achieved through erasure», and every monument has to account for the fact that its depiction of historical facts will inevitably engender the erasure of other lines of historical narration (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 31). This, one could reply, can be understood as a specific characteristic of “bad monuments”, like the ones Scego describes, monuments built in memory of “bad historical figures”, like Graziani, or built by Fascists to intentionally hide colonial sins. Arguably, colonial monuments are particularly prone to perpetrate white ignorance created by hermeneutical injustice: a kind of motivated ignorance on the part of white people who, due to their privileged experiences and perspectives, lack or wilfully disregard the hermeneutical tools to grasp and properly consider the experience of black people (Mills, 2007; Fricker, 2016). Let us dig further into the paradoxes of memorialisation to show the general character of our premise. 

2. Being loved like Mandela
In her 2017 collection Collective Amnesia, South African poet Koleka Putuma explores her country’s relationship with silence, amnesia and negationism with regard to the complex history of colonialism and apartheid. She studies how the subject, and specifically a queer black woman, constitutes itself in such amnesiac spaces. Her poetics attempts to unveil the silences that ground the self, exploring the dialectic between denial and violence in a traumatised society. Let us focus on a love poem, 1994: A LOVE POEM, where Putuma unveils through a careful poetic gesture the construction of white ignorance and structural amnesia that resulted from the memorialisation of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The poem (2017, 101, my emphasis) starts with an ambiguous desire:

I want someone who is going to look at me
and love me
the way that white people look at
and love
Someone who is going to hold onto my memory
the way that white people hold onto Mandela’s legacy.

Here’s the first betrayal of memorialisation, the expected one: it sacralises historical characters and leaves the people behind; it leaves the oppressed wanting to be looked at like the monuments that are supposed to represent them; it leaves the poet wanting to be looked at like a statue because only as a statue has blackness been truly recognised in the Rainbow Nation. The first paradox of the pacificatory memorialisation process that invested South Africa after 1994 is that monument-building seems to have served a purely symbolic role and, specifically, one that produced the effect of obscuring the extent to which living racialised and economically disadvantaged people remain at the margins of representation and acceptability. The monument ignores and obscures the regime of the visible and of the liveable: erasing the host of different subjectivities that resist the dominant onto-epistemological order (Butler, 2015). Erasing these impossible and conflictual desires, along with their impossible materialities, their suffering and vulnerability, is the condition of possibility of the pacificatory gesture of memorialisation.
«I want someone to look at me / and love me», says the poet, as that love, that social recognition remain unavailable to a black and queer subjectivity. I could be loved if I were Mandela, I am loved insofar as I am like Mandela, or insofar as I am statuesque: whitened like marble by the common agreement on the stability of my identity, history and iconicity. I am lovable in so far as I am pacified and uncontroversial, like a statue. Nevertheless, the poem bluntly reveals it in the third stanza, this is but a first and expected betrayal. There is much more to the immanent contradiction of memorialisation: there is, if we look carefully, a violence and an obliteration at work in all memorialisation processes. What kind of lover is the one who builds a monument and, specifically, this monument? 

A lover who will build Robben Island in my backyard
and convince me that I have a garden
and fresh air, a rainbow and freedom.

A TRC kind of lover.

You don’t know love
until you have been loved like Mandela.
You don’t know betrayal
until you have been loved like Mandela.
You don’t know fuckery
until you have been loved like Mandela.
You don’t know msunery
until you have been loved like Mandela. 

And this is one of the many residues of slavery
being loved like Mandela.

In these lines, Putuma describes the forms of love, betrayal and colonial blindness that have shaped the sacralisation and memorialisation of Nelson Mandela. Portrayed in every banner, airport terminal and keychain, Mandela quickly became a symbol of the pacification of post-apartheid South Africa, promising the white-washed horizon of a post-racial nation. This poster-child for the Rainbow Nation became a sacralised and simplified pacifist, a tool of late-capitalism and a silencing force for all further struggles, losing all traces of his political radicality. Mandela’s memory became the projection of the white dream of a race-less South Africa, wilfully ignorant of perduring social conflicts. Using Mandela to obscure the social and racial inequality in South Africa, using Mandela forgetting that he was black, forgetting that he was an anti-capitalist, forgetting that he was, after all, married to Winnie:  these are the colonial betrayals Putuma is talking about. Not only do pacificatory memorialisation processes leave oppressed people behind, wanting to be looked at and loved like statues, but they leave the historical characters themselves behind, wishing they were not loved in such violent and destructive ways.
In order to convey this strong sense of betrayal, Putuma resorts to heterolinguality: the word msunery, in fact, is a slang term that puzzles the foreign readers, as well as a large portion of South African readers. It comes from the isiXhosa and isiZulu word msunu, which means “anus,” and the English suffix -ery, denoting «a class or kind, an occupation, a state, a condition, or behaviour [or a noun] with a depreciatory reference» (GQOM, 2020). This neologism for fuckery or assholery is a recent acquisition, in large part developed within the epistemic territory of Black Twitter, becoming viral as a category of behavior to be documented through pictures, memes and testimonies. Msunery is an inaccessible word because apartheid has created separate, if porous, material and epistemic environments in South Africa. It is a specific kind of fuckery, msunery, the kind of fuckery that you only see if you experience it, if you have experienced blackness. Otherwise, if you do not, and if you have not opened your epistemic world to black culture to some extent, you might not see the specific kind of colonial betrayal Putuma is talking about. You might not even understand the word, as it belongs to a different epistemic space.
Mandela is eminently loved, the most loved. Indeed, «You don’t know love / until you have been loved like Mandela», even if admittedly this love implies profound acts of violence and betrayal. As soon we begin to commemorate, we run the risk of subtracting memory from the living space of desiring bodies, which alone can be the prelude to politics. If memory is alive, it is because it is already involved in a dialectical movement with oblivion — with the shadows, the unspoken, and all that constitutes the conditions of emergence of a historical moment. Pacificatory monuments interrupt such a dialectic with the violence of a stable identity: the loved one is to be narrated and remembered as an icon. Putuma’s poem thus unveils one of the conditions of possibility of the “good” monument: in order to earn the right to stand, a monument should be the result of a consultation in civil society, it should be uncontroversially considered representative of stable and secure values. A monument, a “good one”, is fundamentally pacificatory. And in order to be so, it needs to kill the historical person it represents, moulding them into a fixed representation. What the poem reveals, in other words, is the affective regime that governs memorialisation: love. We commemorate who we love, as a society and as a Nation. We build monuments to the lovable, or to those whose image can be constructed as lovable — thus tracing the line between what counts as lovable and what does not. Making monuments is a loving process that attests to the line of filiation, parentage, recognition and acceptance between the Nation and the historical content represented. This is, then, the reason why it is so imperative that #RhodesMustFall: that we get rid of bad moments, i.e. of the wrong children of the nation. If building a monument is like writing a love poem, then moving a monument is like translating a love poem in another language (Marais, 2019, 129) or, sometimes, moving it in another affective space all-together. Tearing down a statue does not just mean erasing it but translating and displacing our collective relation to that memory. It is imperative that we stop showing collective love and care to the wrong people. Like a bad boyfriend situation, a bad monument testifies to a toxic, pathological or abusive relationship between Nation and History. Or so the argument goes.
But is love the only acceptable affective regime of memorialisation? Is it possible to imagine a memorialisation process that mobilises a different affective economy? And what would be the risks and advantages of such reversal?

3. The virtue of bastardy
Let us resort to a radically different affective register to continue talking about love, history and monuments. In his 1990 short animation film title Monument, South African visual artists William Kentridge operates a parallel displacement to the one we see in Putuma’s poem: he interrogates the ambivalence of love, betrayal and fuckery at work in the making of a monument. The animated series of large-scale drawings in charcoal and pastel tells the story of a wealthy real estate developer, Soho Eckstein, self-appointed “civic benefactor,” who erects a monument to the black South African work force from whose labour his wealth is derived.

Screenshot of Kentridge’s video “Monument.” Film, 35 mm, shown as video, projection, black and white, and sound (mono).

The monument is a huge statue of the African worker, which, during the unveiling ceremony, begins to suffer. The anonymous worker thus comes to life as we are transported from the sound of the excited public to that of the suffering individual, and the statue becomes irreducibly singular. Slowed down only by the weight on his shoulders, the worker wonders off in the desolate landscape of Johannesburg’s mines. Kentridge’s statue comes to life and walks away, indignant for the fuckery that constitutes its condition of emergence and for the ignorance and erasure that its very presence produces. But what does it mean for a monument to come to life? What divergent affective economy is at work in the relationship to the monument in this piece, what “grammar of reversal”? (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 7).
I propose to read Kentridge’s short animation as an example of counter-monument, which reverses the affective regime that governs memorialisation. In other words, Kentridge’s is a monument that loves back, upsetting the passivity of stone and engendering new questions. If before we asked, with Putuma, what kind of lover is the one who builds a monument, and specifically a post-colonial one, now we come to ask: how does the monument love back? What affective reversals and subversive feelings are provoked by a monument which dares to love us back? Let us identify some of these reversals.
In his beautiful interview with Rosalind Morris, William Kentridge announces his table of content in a characteristically puzzling statement:
«Before we start talking, I’ve made a note of three/four headings that we could cover. One has to do with the migration of images, which is connected with what I am calling the virtues of bastardy and the question of provisionality. That is linked to questions of imperfect translation and construction. I am thinking here of a bridge or a plank over the gap of what you don’t hear or don’t understand, or of what’s not in the narrative and hence requires the activity of the viewer. I think it’s all part of one topic» (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 5).
The topic Kentridge alludes to here seems to be the possibility of an artistic gesture capable of operating, acting and representing, whilst maintaining an active awareness of the ongoing relationship between erasure and construction — to attain, in his words, «both construction and archeology at once» (Kentridge & Morris , 2014, 73). Kentridge’s drawings and video installations attempt to make visible a multiplicity of simultaneous conversational lines, reminding us that «during the process of things unwinding, more than one possible result is actively unfurling» (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 13). To the unity and firmness of stone, Kentridge opposes the provisionality of a monument that displays, dynamically and openly, its awareness of the relationship between erasure and construction. It is a monument that reverses the stable recognition of memorialisation to transform  it into a lively process of constant mis-recognition, foregrounding the multiple betrayals and giving visibility to that which must be erased in order for the monument to emerge against a neutral background. Finally, Kentridge’s is a monument that reverses filiation and un-clarifies parentage through a virtue ethics of bastardy:
«It is important that the expression implies not a repudiation but an ‘unclarity’ about parentage, about origins, and certainly a kind of refusal of purity. In that sense,  bastardy, as opposed to hybridity — which implies that you know what you are suturing together — is a powerful term. […] So, my work is a kind of rejection of the authority of descent» (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 86-87).
What is at play here is a fundamental refusal of identity, purity and monogenesis, seen as falsifications of the chaotic nature of reality, of the «too-muchness of things» (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 73). Like for Nietzsche, for Kentridge thinking means trying to make an attempt (Versuch) of provisional and local mastery over a certain number of interpretations of a chaotic and evolving reality, which escapes us continually (Nietzsche, 1886-87, 299). The artistic gesture should then attempt to maintain and represent such provisionality, as well as the perpetual conflict that accompanies it. Thus, in this framework, what the film Monument is stating is not just that there are certain monuments that are built on a fundamental betrayal, but that the very notion of a “loyal monument” is impossible. What we should strive to do is employ the bastardy involved in the narrative emergence of historical processes and characters, without refusing it in the name of a myth of national purity or identitary stability. Monuments need to surrender to their own promiscuity, forcing themselves and their public to the awareness that meaning is never fixed or singular, but always “hunted by doubt and dubiousness” (Kentridge, 2014, 37). As Jessy Simonini argues, «we must never give in to the rhetoric of tombstones. We must, on the contrary, verify the names, always doubting them» (Simonini, 2019).
Can we build bastard monuments? And what kind of Nietzschean affects would such a notion of memorialisation mobilise? Anger, conflict, provocation, insult?

4. And there’s always someone who’s drawing on top of encyclopaedias
I propose, as a starting point for future development, to consider the possibility of memorialisation as a conflictual field of competing instincts, affects and narratives, aimed at foregrounding the relationship between erasure and construction, and articulated through a conflictual affective regime. It would then be possible to recognise as memorial gestures a variety of acts of defiance and vandalism, such tags and graffiti on monuments. Let us consider one last example to illustrate the potential productivity of such framework. During the occupation of the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, in the spring of 2018, somebody added, on the side of the war memorial, an impromptu tombstone in red spray paint, which features a list of names of the recent victims of police brutality. Now, this intervention can be read as an instance of memorialisation, one that operates through a different affective regime, or at least a double one.

Photo of the graffiti on the ENS war memorial, courtesy of Jessy Simonini

It is, plausibly, a gesture of love and recognition of the victims of police brutality, but it is also an act of defiance and aggression against the original monument. Most importantly, it is not a pacificatory gesture, nor one that results from a consultation of civil society. Not at all. It is an act of open conflict. This gesture, this trace Kentridge would say, operates by establishing a conflict of possible memories and unveiling that which the monument was hiding in the white background — the unspoken of the memorialisation process. «There is always someone who draws on encyclopaedias», wittily admits Kentridge in the interview. And there is always someone who tags the monument, I add, which is a remarkably similar gesture, one that constantly creates interesting gaps «between the presumption that the page», or the plaque, «has a content and the fact that you can lay something upon it, which will have a very complex, discontinuous  relationship to what we assume is the content of the page» (Kentridge & Morris,  2014, 58).
Recognising such acts as proper memorial gestures would mean opening the possibility of monuments to shame and shameful monuments, or of critical and conflictual monuments that function as bridges over the gap of what is not in the narrative and hence requires the constant activity and reactivity of the viewer, opening «at the level of signification, the coexistence of two planes: the object and the meaning that is assigned to it, the resistance to interpretation and the reading» (Kentridge & Morris, 2014, 21).

[1] All the translations from Scego 2020 are mine

Butler J., Senses of the Subject, New York, Fordham University Press, 2015.
Campbell I., The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017.
Del Boca A., Italiani, brava gente?, Neri Pozza, Vicenza, 2005.
Foucault M., Il faut défendre la société. Cours au collège de France 1975-19976, Paris, Seuil/Gallimard, 1997.
Fricker M., Epistemic Injustice and the Preservation of Ignorance, The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, Ed. Rik Peels and Martijn  Blaauw, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.
GQOM, Talking Back 2.4—M: makoya, mjolo, msunery, Mzansian, 2020. Accessed December 9, 2020.
Kentridge W. & Morris R.C., That which is not drawn, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2014.
Kentridge W., Monument, 1990. Film, 35 mm, shown as video, projection, black and white, and sound (mono).
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Nietzsche F., Posthumous fragment 7 (60), written between the late 1886 and the spring of 1887, in Friedrich Nietzsche, Frammenti Postumi 1885-1887, eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Adelphi, Milano, 1975.
Peels R., Blaauw, M., The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.
Putuma Koleka, Collective Amensia, uHlanga Press, Johannesburg,  2007.
Scego I., La linea del colore, Bompiani, Milan, 2020
Scego I., Bianchi, R., Roma negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città, Ediesse, Roma, 2014.
Scego I., Roma Negata, book trailer of the book Roma negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città, Ediesse, Roma,2014.
Simonini J., 3 frammenti inediti da Z A D di Jessy Simonini, La macchina sognante. Contenitore di scritture dal mondo, viewed 4 January 2021.

Micol Bez is currently teaching in the CPES (Cycle Pluridisciplinaire d’Études Supérieures) at the University of Paris Sciences and Letters. She is a graduate of the École Normale de Paris. Her research focuses on the epistemic resilience of race in post-kantian philosophy and on the political uses of the quasi-transcendental. She is also currently working on phenomenological approaches to fear in sexual abuse, on the production of ignorance  in memorialisation processes and on the epistemology of denialism. Originally from Italy, she did her undergraduate work at Georgetown University, and has studied at Sciences Po, the University of Paris VIII Vincennes-Saint Denis, and the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (Kingston University London) before entering the École Normale Supérieure in 2016. She is also a published poet, playwright, and dedicated teacher. In 2019 she taught as a temporary lecturer at the University of Johannesburg.