I got overwhelmed and distracted when reading for the previous Syria BABEL post and ended up wanting to write a single extensive, if schizophrenic, article on the issues involved. In the end I left most of the interesting abstract stuff out in an effort to make the already long post a tad more cogent. But fear not—rather, BE AFRAID—because here it all is. Meet the Follow Up: angsty and more conversational thoughts on the issues around the historical sites in Syria, why we are afraid for them, and the history of why we are afraid for them, hopefully in an approachable and/or uselessly esoteric way.
Forgive me Father, for I was angry. The previous Syria BABEL post was instigated by an Architizer post written by some poor guy by stitching together several truisms and an interview about “at-risk” historical sites in Syria. The inane and flippant post got me all upset and bothered so I began working on these posts as a kind of response.
Firstly, the post’s obvious disconnection from the war and the ongoing violence in Syria struck me as beyond unfortunate. Secondly, the statements of the interviewee, Dr. Philip Graham, upset me with their hidden ideological presumptions and racist inflection. So I set about reading as much as I could in an effort to bring a little common sense to this situation.
Much has been written on monuments, their preservation or demolition, Memory and Remembering, and architectural heritage, all of which are issues important to this discussion. However, I’d like to discuss the historical sites in Syria alongside Alois Riegl’s seminal essay ‘The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin,’ originally published in 1903 (as well as Kurt Forster’s essay ‘Monument/Memory and the Mortality of Architecture,’ which is a kind of centennial redux/review of Riegl’s essay after its recent interpretation into English). According to Forster, Riegl’s work was perfectly situated at the close of nineteenth century historicism (especially in Vienna, where Riegl lived) and became fundamental for a twentieth century understanding of History and our relationship to it. Surprisingly, or not altogether very surprisingly, Riegl’s work is still pertinent when dealing with certain Historicist or Preservationist issues. Riegl’s interpretation of history and historical architecture provides, I think, access to a most down to earth common sense regarding the Syria discussion. Here are some explanations, thoughts, and claims about historical architecture, its relationship with academia, and how the ideological nature of historical monuments conflicts with their physical reality.
It isn’t a particularly groundbreaking claim to say that historicism was rampant throughout the nineteenth century, especially in Riegl’s own Vienna. After centuries of historical styles and cultural romanticism, Riegl’s work established intellectual taxonomy for the various reasons people adored and romanticized historical architectural remains and sought their preservation. He concluded that historical architectural ruins were valued simply because they were historical (giving them “Age Value”), and themselves preserved and corroborated a progressivist view of history (their “Historical Value”). “Progressivist” in this case meant a historical structure based on a single, absolute, comprehensive narrative. This formula can be considered the formative creed of the Cult of History or Historicism. (Personally I would include Preservationism as a related ideology, but I’ll write about my personal beef with Preservationism some other time.) (Contain your excitement.)
But Riegl recognized that history is relative and must account for shifting values and interpretations of past events. In such a history, picturesque historical architectural remains become ‘Monuments’ whose meanings and social value are perpetually changing according to a people and the historians—and what he calls their kunstwollen, or aesthetic sensibilities. (“Aesthetic sensibilities” includes visual aesthetics as well as historical and academic aesthetics.) A ruin’s age provides the Age Value. Historical Value more closely depends on culture. Specifically: how much importance a culture places on history, which transforms it—the objective array of events and objects passed—into History, the cultural value. Just as Forster explains, “the very idea of [M]onument proved to be at once historically determined and relative to the values of every time.”
Through Riegl twentieth century historians (and architects) were able to divorce themselves from the absolutist, progressivist version of history. After Modernism the Cult of History became an object of mockery, something believed to have been left in the nineteenth century. Let us not get too relieved, though; this victory was affected. Over the course of the twentieth century an addendum was made to the Historicist equation that hid the Cult of History in a different kind of academia: historical remains are not only valuable because they are historical, but also because they can teach us about history. If the equation included education—an obvious intellectual and moral absolute—then historical remains are no longer supported by mutable values but become permanently important. (NB: this is also a convenient argument for archeologists and historians looking for funding.) This is how Monument became Site.
Physically, ‘sites’ have a wide range of forms: in Syria they are archeological as well as the extant ancient or medieval edifices comprising Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage list. But as an idea, “Site” misleads with connotations of an objective value; there is nothing about “Site” that seems questionable; it leaves no room for a discussion of its importance; there is nothing suspect about it. Site is affects objective plainness whose universal value comes from the knowledge it provides about the past and its enrichment of the historical narrative. (NB: “corroboration” is properly replaced with “enrichment,” for the better.) This comes from “Site’s” association with archeology and the objective value of terms like ‘artifacts’ or ‘remains.” “Site,” however, is not “artifact.”
Although the original post that inspired this series makes an effort—conscious or not—to avoid the term Monument, that is essentially what is being discussed all along. It is masked under the unquestionable, seemingly clinical term Site whose covert semantics hide the ideological nature of the object. ‘Site’ hides the reality that ‘Monument’ is its predecessor, along with the value that gives Monument meaning. At most, they are similes. Site is the transcendence of Riegl’s nineteenth century Historical Value into a safe role in twenty-first century academia. And through assuming the immutable, objective connotation of Site the well hidden but ingrained ideology of the Cult of History and our academic kunstwollen have elevated the loss of the historical architectural remains in Syria to the level of respect and empathy otherwise reserved for the living, suffering civilians trapped in that war.
(This may seem an aggressive accusation but it is an appropriate evaluation of Graham’s interview. The post (interview included) all but explicitly charges the Syrians as guilty of demolishing their own cultural heritage (in the form of historical architecture and archeological digs), topped off with a combination of “they’ll be sorry” and “they’re so lucky us white people are around to preserve it for them.” Such recrimination could not be made—especially given the circumstances of that damage—without believing, in an academic context or otherwise, that the historical Sites are any less important than those people and their future. So we can at least understand that the object of discussion is not historical architectural remains and archeological digs. Instead, the post and its interviewee were discussing historical Monuments. )
If, then, Sites are ideological, how are we to interpret the new turn of events for historical architecture in Syria? The state of historical sites in Syria and their active involvement in the war seems proof enough that the protective bubble of the Cult of History has burst; their enduring, unquestioned preservation is no longer a priority. I propose that, perhaps, the Syrians have already abandoned Historicism in the face of real threats against their lives, their families, and their country.
Believe it or not, this is in line with Riegl’s own version of history. Not only is the meaning of the Monument relative to the viewer, but the viewer and their values are also themselves contingent upon historical context. In Syria’s case we are seeing a context that has dramatically changed in a very short period of time. We can assume that when dying at the hands of your own government wasn’t a daily issue, the Syrians, their government agencies, and historians (native and foreign) were generally on the same page about the historical Sites, preserving them for Historical as well as aesthetic Value. (I also imagine there was/is a strong level of cultural identity incorporating the monuments, though the only instance I’ve seen of this discussion is in Philip Graham’s own words.) But that peaceful context no longer exists.
The Cult of History that protected the monuments—bolstered by the cash cow of foreign tourism that is itself fed on Historicism—has been [temporarily] suspended in the face of a more serious reality. The architectural ruins have been taken up as militant defenses, have been looted, or altogether abandoned (by both sides). Not that we should be surprised. Perhaps we should have suspected all along that the Cult of History was a luxury of peacetime. The reason the Syrians and foreign academics are no longer on the same page in terms of the preservation of Syrian historical architecture is precisely because their contexts are no longer the same. Confronted with Syria, we are forced to recognize that History, as an ideology and therefore as a cultural variable, is contingent.
This variable is not cultural relativism—for those of you who haven’t been paying attention. (Bitch, I’m clockin’ you.) It’s not even very abstract. The situation is simple and fascinating: it is the partial abandonment of a cultural value that was, very recently, shared across different groups of people. The conflict—the academic one, not the physical one in Syria—arises when one group continues to hold that value and the other does not. Even still, what is comically simple about the issue is that—good or bad, right or wrong—the ideological object (historical architecture) is currently in the hands of the group that does not hold the value in common.
In terms of architectural history this is super curious. What we are seeing is a transfer from a time of peace into one of conflict. Essentially this transition is from a context where ideology has dominated (proven via the preservation of the monuments) into one where physical chaos dominates (which has, of course, inflicted physical battles, destruction, looting, and general damage on the monuments). In specifically architectural terms, then, the implication is that edifices are only allowed to adopt ideological roles when physically permitted, when the physical context allows. Even the alternative would-be precedents discussed in the last post (Al-Askari, Babri Masjid, the shrines of Timbuktu, the Bamiyan Buddhas) served ideological ends only when physically transformed.
But Syria is not one of these. It is a conflict of power in which the people are the targets and because of which their survival and future is at stake. It is a physical conflict; Historicism is not permitted to partake. The situation in Syria sidelines historical architecture’s roles as Monuments, as Sites, as relics of the Cult of History. They have returned to buildings or opportunities that either serve a physical purpose or do not. Which, in turn, accounts for some being abandoned, looted, or replaced altogether—in the case of urban historical sites that are being built over for housing—and others being sites of modern day battles. The former group serves no physical purposes under the conditions of this war. The latter does.
But don’t take my word for it: here are some readings (plus the in-text links) for those enterprising souls with some free time.
Alois Riegl. “The Cult of Monuments: It’s Character and Origin.” Oppositions Reader, Fall 1982.
Kurt W. Forster. “Monument/Memory and the Mortality of Architecture.” Oppositions Reader, Fall 1982.
David Reif. “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance.” Harper’s, August 2011, p46-50.
Gregory Starrett. “Violence and the Rhetoric of Images.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 18, No. 3 (August 2003), p398-428.
Ann Marie Plane. “Embracing the Present: How Societies Create and Recreate ‘the Historical.’” The Public Historian, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring 2012), p5-7.