The Monument Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez
A monument is an instrument for conveying idealized notions or naturalized values held up as desirable and immutable. As an embodied means to constitute history or what are projected to be life-story anecdotes, monuments are crafted to address the inevitable loss of meaning and the failing of memory, as well as to act as a buffer for fabricated or fashioned narratives. A monument is a materialized, deliberate marking-off of a juncture in time combined with a prescribed aspirational reading.
Monuments are applied toward the constant need to reassert claims to territory, resources, and positionality within the local and global arena—matters intrinsic to the project of imagining a nation, or what Southeast Asian studies specialist Caroline Hau calls “the construction of ‘nationness.’” Monuments are thus meaning-making vehicles that further the project of equating state and people and of producing the governed or producing community (Hau 110) by cultivating patriotism or the ownership of state endeavors in various ways.
Monuments are, in various degrees, focal points for mobilization. They literally become primary sites for assembly or convergence during annual commemorations that serve as rituals facilitating the perpetuation and legitimation of the state. These yearly remembrances then constitute calls to reaffirm allegiances to a collectivized sense of public good.
It is this performative aspect of monuments— their literal incarnation of odes and calendared retellings of specific readings of history—that have made them fodder for semiotic analysis and critical inquiry into practices enabling visual literacy. More recent strains in cultural studies have called attention to how these primarily statist symbols remain vulnerable to alternative, dissenting interpretations. Precisely because they are recognized as didactic tools to propagate what ought to be emulated by acquiescent civil agents, these canonical interpretations are contested or thwarted in various modes: the physical remaking (sometimes the defacing or outright tearing down) of monuments; their appropriation within often homemade or do-it-yourself tableaus evoking distinct counternarratives; or symbolic site occupation, as has been the case for various “people-power” mobilizations around the world. It is in this sense that such charged symbols are taken back or taken out of the officially-generated discourse, as when approximately one million (cross-generational, mixed race crowd) Americans recently flooded into the Washington Mall on the occasion of Barack Obama’s swearing-in as the United States’ first African-American President. While this may have been an arguable case of state and people meaning-making coming to a fluke-ish détente, the reference to the late Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, also made at the foot of the Washington Memorial, was repeatedly invoked as a poignant remembrance of how Obama’s ethnic lineage would have precluded him from winning the presidency at a not too distant time in the country’s past.
In a discursive vein related to Hau’s invoking of the dichotomy between state and people, Filipino political scientist and anthropologist Floro Quibuyen also writes on how monuments as symbols are generally appropriated to perpetuate a myth—that is, to establish the supposed intrinsic equivalence of nation and state. In a text in which he attempts to distinguish the Filipino National Hero José Rizal’s privileging of “ethical/moral community” as opposed to language and common descent as a basis for constructing an acquired culture that in turn constitutes the members of a nation, Quibuyen relates how various colonial and postcolonial administrations have strategically recruited Rizal, the national icon (portrayed in variably-sized monuments around the Philippine archipelago) by omitting or precluding any references to Rizal’s writings and biography which could be interpreted as radically challenging the state apparatus. Quibuyen further cites Benedict Anderson in this regard, who states that as denigrated symbols of official nationalism, these (Rizal being only one of many symbols) have become “mute statues for its dead heroes to make sure that they ‘are seen and not heard.’” It is this virtual and literal containment of contestation and dissent that is being addressed in more recent theorizing about the agency of members of the public in negotiating meaning between themselves and structures of power.
Quibuyen further cites Etienne Balibar’s notion of “producing the people”—that is, how individuals are “nationalized” or “socialized” to belong to a community that finds affinity with a specifically constructed sense of shared/public culture. The same text also brings in George Mosse’s idea of the civic cult being born out of public festival, political ritual, and monuments; these conjectures are also made in light of John Bodnar’s sense of public memory, which comes out of negotiations between official and vernacular culture.
As image-makers, artists are routinely called on to participate in these various sites of contestation. And while there should be no illusion regarding the fact that such creative agents are in such totally privileged positions that they are able to wholly negate the strictures of preapproved representations and impositions intrinsic in state-commissioned endeavors, extant cases will show how such struggles within the field of meaning-making are hardly predeterminedly decided in favor of statist canons. Such, for instance, was the tug of war between militarist, civil-society advocates, and mainstream church advocates about how to memorialize the 1986 People Power event in the Philippines, that at least two separate public monuments were eventually constructed—one was an image of the Virgin Mary toweringly installed on the roof of a Catholic shrine built on the corner of the major thoroughfare where massive mobilizations of people took place, and the other was a clearly more sectarian and “people-centered” rendering of the event which was nonetheless still ironically situated on the corner of one of the two military camps that were the sites of proposed sieges by Ferdinand Marcos’ forces against his disgruntled defense chief and armed forces chief of staff. To this date, dissident, military-generated readings of the event look upon EDSA 1 (as the first uprising is now known) as a weakening of the civilian-military chain of command while the two other major actors continue to uphold the event as the triumph of civilian authority vis-à-vis the church’s reading of it as being a miracle facilitated by the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps Quibuyen, again, best sums up this tangle most succinctly: “How the struggle is fought and won depends on who can wield effective control over signs and symbols. This, in turn, largely depends not only on who has the monopoly of violence, but also, and perhaps more important, who has the monopoly on dispensing rewards. In other words, the appropriation of symbols, the articulation of meanings, is a function of power; it all depends on who has access to, and control of, the symbolic resources … The battle for meaning is not a fair battle of equals. The one who wields effective power has the edge. One of the functions of hegemony is to marginalize competing claims or better yet, render them absent, push them to the background. This point underscores the complementary role that the threat of force or punishment plays in the building of hegemony.”1
1 / Floro C. Quibuyen, A Nation Aborted, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City 2008, p. 343–344.
Caroline Hau, On the Subject of the Nation: Filipino Writings from the Margins 1981 to 2004, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City 2004.