“ A Dispositif is (…) a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the dispositif. The dispositif itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this dispositif is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements." Michel Foucault 1977.
))) A brief resume of the original paper (((
What is Monumentality?.
Most common definitions of monumentality are fuzzy and imprecise, as if there was an intuitively comprehensible significance for what a monument actually is: a spatial landmark inherited from the past, which operates – voluntarily or not- as the remembrance of some remarkable person, idea or event worthy of imaginary perpetuation. From this perspective, the monument obtains its essence from its historical value: its intellectual content is fully produced by the accumulation and representation of the passage of time upon it. By giving visibility to history in our built environment, Monuments are fundamental tokens for the production and consolidation of social identities, inasmuch as any community´s uniqueness arises from its particular entanglement of memories and oblivions. Therefore, far from being merely a piece of an anthropological archive that gives neutral testimony of cultural expressions from the distant past, monumentality is experienced as the materialization and embodiment of eternity, or the radical continuity between past, present and future inscribed in objects. As we see in these pictures (taken from Google images) of the most popular monuments in York, contemporary society considers that any artifact from ancient times is likely to be considered a monument. But many of these buildings were not raised at the time with the intention of functioning as monuments. They have been monumentalized afterwards through complex aesthetic, social and epistemic processes.
So I will list some of the most significant features of the classical conception of monumentality, in order to clarify and define what gives the monument its specificity in the built environment.
The monument is a memorial.
First and foremost, strictly speaking, classical Monuments were consciously conceived as Memorials. Their key function is commemoration: the collective celebration of common memories likely to become the core of a society’s consistency. From a Hegelian standpoint , the monument is thus the fundamental political device, for it’s indispensable for a Nation to exist as such. the monument is the totemic place or object that embodies the collective ideology by means of symbols and rituals that exhort the individuals to affirm their membership and loyalty to a Nation or a creed, fostering a sense of belonging to a group. This collective identity coalesces around traumatic or meaningful events that get monumentalized and thus perpetuated as sacred material presence.
The monument is a landmark.
They were not built for the visitors, but quite the contrary: they were private to the community, as an expression of the ownership of the land, that is exhibited dialectically as opposed to the community´s outside: the obelisks of the Roman Empire were not only a celebration for the emperor, but also against the barbarians. We could trace the territorial limits of the empire by locating the monuments they were able to erect. According to Ernesto Laclau’s analysis of the floating signifier, any community –and any Nation- must be constructed in dialogical relation to its outside by means of semiotic expression. Commonality is constructed oppositionally, by the production of boundaries, by means of totemic symbols that delimit and articulate the extension of the community, both in the domains of physical spatiality and ideological subjectivity. Henceforth, the monument’s essential commitment is to locate the community’s hegemonic semiosphere into space, namely, to give form and signify the specificity of the Local – as opposed to the universal. In a sense, then, monumentality establishes the basis for the deployment of the privacy shared by the members of a community –a privacy that constitutes its fundamental feature. Historically, after a war the enemy’s monuments became trophies that demonstrated a successful conquest. Monuments are thus signifiers of power, instruments of Law. Their iconicity is parallel to their originality and singularity: no monument can be reproduced or copied, since their identity is correlative to its spatiotemporal location.
The monument is a Statue.
In his book Le second livre des foundations french philosopher Michel Serres traced the original political meaning of statues: The imperturbability of the statue of a dead emperor –as opposed to the finitude of its corpse-, allowed mankind to conceive eternity, or identities as extemporaneous, immortal substances. Embodied in stone, the soul survives the body and sets the possibility for thanatocracy (the governance of the dead), as authority becomes trascendent, above and beyond present time. If the Statue was the effigy of a remarkably powerful person, the Monument is the effigy of a significant event. The materiality of the monument is hence inseparable from its narrative or mythological content: the memorial signifies, celebrates and perpetuates ancestral institutions of governance. As the primary representation of a society’s collective imaginary, the monument –may it be architectonic or not- operates as the immanent political foundation of a communal “spirit” that modulates the ways in which its participants deal with the symbolic significance of objects: at first, monuments signify the authority of the ancestral, and delimit the community from the menace of disappearing over time.
The Monument is a Temple.
Every memorial necessitates some sort of ritual gathering to guarantee its permanence in the collective symbolic regime. One of the fundamental performances of monuments is their role as places of active congregation and celebration: the community most often organizes regular ceremonies that commemorate the persons or events that the monument recalls. Beyond pure contemplation, the monument mediates between the individual subjectivity and collective systems of beliefs by means of ruled celebrations and ritual practices where its narrative content is staged as participatory practices- not necessarily religious.
19th Century crisis in Monumentality.
But in the mid nineteenth century this canonical consideration of monumentality went into crisis. A series of cultural transformations coalesced as the industrial revolution, the modern idea of universalism and the expansion and acceleration of international intercourses of all kind set the basis for a new articulation of the local and the global, the individual and the collective, ancestrality and authority, past, present and future. Moreover, the rise of mass tourism radically altered the role of monumentality in the urban imaginary
Institutional architecture goes through a period characterized by revivalim and pastiche, through eclectic recreations of former monumental languages, in line with one of the great contradictions of post-romanticism: on the one hand an optimistic confidence in universal, never-ending progress ( the utopia of a peaceful and prosperous cosmopolitanism), and on the other the nostalgia for a past that retains its aesthetic appeal, but devoid of the political and social connotations it once had. In this context of transition from the old regime to the industrial era, the emerging bourgeoisie is seeking hard to find a specific architectural language likely to illustrate the most suitable Monumentality for the new zeitgeist.
Significantly, during the second half of the nineteenth century the so-called "Universal Exhibitions" were born, as international meetings in which different nations presented strongly iconic theme pavilions aiming to illustrate the technical wonders offered by the engineering and industrial progress.
The construction of the Eiffel Tower for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889 was the zenith of the new monumentality. Facing the previous historicist architecture that intended to recreate the forms of the past, the tower expressed a new collective attitude towards history. Monumentality was finally released from the ancestral and apparently emptied of any political content. The tower is a monument that does not commemorates any significant event or national trait, but seeks to illustrate a utopian future whose harmony is guaranteed by technological progress and universal cosmopolitanism.
The conversion of technology into urban spectacle, internationalism and the break with the past is perpetuated throughout the twentieth century in most buildings that aspired to acquire a monumental dimension, such as the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building or the Guggenheim Bilbao. Futurism supersedes historicism.
But the new configuration of monumentality in the twentieth century not only affected the newly created monuments, but also the role that older monuments play in our collective imagination. The political, symbolic and aesthetic link between past, present and future entered into a crisis that some authors referred to as "the end of history" with its many derivatives: the End of Art , the end of humanism, the end nation states, and even the end of reality. This cultural atmosphere of questioning the role of history in the present days, took Freud to analyze the nature of monumentality as part of his general theory of culture. In his 1917 essay "Mourning and mellancholly" Freud states that any monument expresses a collective sense of loss, a traumatic event that ends in an absence or longing for what was lost, and is perpetuated in the collective identity by adquiring a legislator role . With this starting point, he developed his theory of the role of commemoration as the founding process for the individual to become a member of a community, or congregation. According to Freud, by building a monument, societies create an externalized location that becomes involved in the shared mourning process.This correlation between monument and authority is plausible in the definition of the superego given in "The Ego and the Id": "Superego is the memorial of the former weakness and dependence of the ego, and the ego mature Remains subject to its domination." (The monument is therefore the symbolic embodiment of a form of authority).
If, as Freud states, monumentality implies the mourning for some traumatic loss, in the case of postmodern tourism the loss is history as an ongoing process. Ancient monuments become memorials for universal Historicity in general. German philosopher Boris Groys reflected upon this contemporary cosmopolitical and post-historical milieu in his analysis about the tourist gaze. By recovering the ideas of Alexandre Kojeve (the philosopher who presented the concept of “the end of history” for the first time), Groys states that the way the tourist looks at historical objects monumentalizes them by recognizing the radical discontinuity between the past that they embody, and the present. Henceforth, the positive universalism of Posmodernity and the distancing from mythical beliefs of the past, necessarily elicit a gap or imparity between history and post-history, that can be experienced by visiting the monument. Ancestrality is no longer experienced as authority, but as otherness.
As we said, the popularization of mass tourism fosters universalism and globalism. Tourists enjoy the Notre Dame cathedral without necessarily being catholic, for cathedrals are monuments not only of Christianity, but rather of the overall history of mankind. Monuments are no longer honored and used exclusively by the collective that provided them with their former narrative content, and pass to belong to humanity as a whole, through the appearance of a new cosmopolitanism that urges citizens to enjoy the visit of foreign memorials without identificating with the authority they represent. When the former symbolic content of the memorial is considered illusory and sterile myth by the postmodern beholder, monumentality is transformed into what I´ll call hyper-monumentality
The tourist cult of historical artefacts expresses his intimate feeling of distance from history, the radical hiatus implicit in the post-modern sense of chronology as disrupted from the teleological continuity of historical temporality. The monument dies and becomes a fossil of itself, but its corpse gets mummified and revives as a memorial of Universal history. It no longer pertains to a private community, but to the whole of mankind as an undifferentiated unity. Hyper-monumentality commemorates the otherness of history, and the obsolescence of original monumentality.
In the hyper monument, history is devoid of its former jurisdiction and its political foundation, and past events are frozen in a chronological limbo, radically discontinuous with present developments. The “memorial” becomes a simulation, illustrating the triumph of global, pan-humanist ideology over former local or private cosmogonies. The Hyper-monument profanes the sacred myths and doctrines that gave sense to the monument in the first place, and commemorates history as a sterile, harmless set of aesthetical delights. Deprived of sovereignty, the whole History becomes picturesque. Former rituals and ceremonies are superseded by the universal rite of taking photographs.And such a cultural passage has strong political connotations, for it extracts people’s identity from their chronicled roots, and re-locates it in the post-modern experience of time as hyper-present and global synchronicity. History becomes hyper-story.
Besides, by getting hyper-monumentalized, historical monuments become extremely important economical devices in many countries and cities where the GDP is dependent on tourism income: they become commodities, and as such they are submitted to all sort of marketing strategies that aim to create a specific aura for them. The former symbolic value of the monument is replaced by its economic value..
The hyper-monument is thus an extraordinary dispositif for the worldwide spread of the cosmovision of globalization.
Dispositifs of Monumentality.
The original monument was the flagship of a Nation’s particular and hegemonic inter subjectivity, while its contemporary significance has turned merely iconic, universalizing and post-historical. This progression is equivalent to the passage from syncretism to monotheism: monuments were formerly as diverse as the different cultures that produced them, but after the globalization the new hegemonic usage of Memorials has turned, as Deleuze and Guattari foresaw, from the narrative to the purely sensorial and sensational. The multitude celebrates itself through the universal and undifferentiated experience of “visiting monuments”. The images from the remote past have acquired the status of phantasmagoria, or what Jacques Derrida called "the paradoxical state of the spectre, which is neither being nor non-being”. Hyper monumentality may so be seen as the disguise by which post modern societies try to hide the powerful significances inherent to the original monument, by a camouflage strategy that what could only be dismantled by means of what Derrida called hauntology, an endeavour that should be minutely developed on further monumental studies. The spectre of History is embedded in the hyper-monument –which is a paradoxical mummification of history’s concluded dynamism with its vigour weakened to (seemingly) death.
In this picture we see a resume of some of the transitions derived from the passage from monumentality to hyper-monumentality:
The memorial of particular events becomes memorial of universal history.
The landmark of the local becomes an Icon of the global.
Ancestrality as authority becomes ancestrality as otherness or myth.
The privacy of the community becomes the universality of the whole mankind
The symbolic or narrative value is superseded by economic value.
What was ruled by local laws is now subjected to international legislation.
And as we´ll see, Simulation becomes dissimulation.
On his investigations about cultural simulacra, Jean Baudrillard defined the opposite semiotic acts of simulating and dissimulating. "To dissimulate," Baudrillard has written, "is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have” . According to such approach, Disneyland may be the paroxysm of simulative artefacts, for its entire aura depends on fake castles, false magic, illusional characters and all sorts of spatial fictions: it replaces its inexistent history by means of pure hyper-symbols that are reminiscent of certain daydreams shared by its potential audience. The hyper-monument may reversely then be considered pure dissimulation, since the original political potentiality has been hidden under the purely aesthetical surface, so that the commemorative function can be replaced and normalized for the global denizen that inhabits hyper-reality.
Finally, the difference between the classical monument and the post historical hyper-monument is not clear cut. Monumentality is a matter of experience: it doesn’t rely exclusively neither in the object neither in the beholder. Ontologically, Monumentality appears as a particular relationship between the Subject and the Object of his contemplation: its therefore a relational event, that depends of meaning, subjected to the fluidity of the correlation between the signifier and the signified. Its an affection. Every artefact is likely to acquire new significances over time. A general theory of Monumentaly should be a theory of objectified memory. Or entombed memory.
We see in these pictures the Brandemburg Gate under different hegemonic regime:
In the 19th Century.
During the Third Reich.
During the Cold War.
During the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During a U2 Concert.
During the Gay Parade.
...and any day, today.
The importance of this debate has to do with power and law: when a site is deemed to be Monumental, it renders it exceptional in all senses. And worth of perpetuation, immune to the rapacious, cannibalistic and unstoppable urban mutations. Who decides what is really a monument? Where are our collective shared memories really incarnated? Which are the temples of our identities?