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Monuments Put From Pen to Paper

by Adam David Morton on October 3, 2017
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The death of Heather D. Heyer in Charlottesville recently during protests against far-right white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members wanting to sustain symbols of racism and slavery, such as the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, has once again catapulted the role of monuments, statues, and other markers such as flags to the fore of contemporary political debate.

It was declared in the lyrics of the anti-fascist pop song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, by Manic Street Preachers, that ‘Monuments put from pen to paper / Turns me into a gutless wonder’. But, rather than gravity, or shame, keeping peoples’ heads down, or vain, it is clear that a critical questioning is underway about monuments and how the past is shaping the present through monuments, statues, place names and memorials. In Australia, only in recent months have place names in Queensland—such as Nigger Head, Nigger Creek, or Mount Nigger—been struck from the contemporary cartographic record. As Paul Daley has stated in relation to the pioneers who murdered aboriginal Australians, marking the country up to the present, ‘place names and statues have no value at all unless we can appreciate the truth behind and beneath them’.

My latest research published now and available for First View HERE in Journal of Latin American Studies asserts a focus on monuments as a way of revealing the history of the modern state and the political economy of the urban landscape. Delivering an analysis of the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City my central argument is that the ways in which the state organises space in our everyday lives through the streets we walk, the monuments we visit, and the places where we meet can be appreciated through two key thinkers about space and the modern state.

The first source is Antonio Gramsci who wrote in 1930 in his Prison Notebooks on what he called the ‘material structure of ideology’. This refers to:

how the ideological structure of a ruling class is actually organised: that is, the material organisation meant to preserve, defend and develop the theoretical or ideological front (Q3§49).

Paramount here in his analysis is reference to the role played by the press in general, publishing houses, libraries, schools, the church, associations and clubs, as well as the very spatial grid and layout of streets and their names in shaping new state spaces. As Gramsci goes on to indicate, all these factors should be evaluated in order to ‘inculcate the habit of assessing the forces of agency in society with greater caution and precision’.

The second source is Henri Lefebvre who asserted in The Production of Space that ‘any definition of architecture itself requires a prior analysis and exposition of the concept of space’ and, subsequently, that, ‘monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath the signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought’. The modern state constructs space in a specific way within capitalism, argued Lefebvre, to ensure its control of places, to construct hierarchies and homogeneity, and to arbitrate, occupy, map, control, reproduce and contain.

Within the spaces of capitalism, then, a monument or statue as a work of architecture can be situated within the triumphal rise of the state, as a spatial support to power, engaged in the partitioning of space to subdue a class- (and race- and gender-) divided civil society. Equally, though, as the state seeks to consolidate its origins of power it also produces contradictions, oppositions, and differences that unfold in the urban complex to contest power.

I carry these insights into my analysis of the history and political economy of state formation that fed into the Monument to the Revolution as one of the foremost commemorative spatial sites of state power in Mexico City. Completed on 20 November 1938, the monument has served as the stage for official ceremonies remembering and honouring the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and its heroes ever since.

The site of the Monument to the Revolution was originally proposed in 1897 as the Federal Legislative Palace under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). The construction was then abandoned until after the outbreak and unfolding of revolution. Following the institutionalisation of the revolution through the state in the 1930s, plans to convert the site and indeed the revolution itself into a monument were proposed and completed.

Subsequently, the site on Plaza de la República in Mexico City where the Monument to the Revolution stands has been the location for official ceremonies remembering and honouring revolutionary heroes on 20 November, Revolution Day. Since 1942 the ashes or mortal remains of a pantheon of revolutionary heroes have been interned in the bases of the monument. Venustiano Carranza (1942), Francisco I. Madero (1960), Plutarco Elias Calles (1969), Lazaro Cárdenas (1970), and Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (1976) were all transferred to the pillars of the monument.

More recently, renovations to the monumental site were announced in 2010 with the Mayor of the Government of the Federal District, Marcelo Ebrard, remarking that the recuperation of public space would be accompanied by the remembrance of the great achievements of the Mexican Revolution, including labour rights, agrarian reform, access to education and health, Mexican nationalism, and, of course, the expropriation of petroleum. The Monument to the Revolution and the Plaza de la República—a space of 49,000 square metres—has now been completely renovated. At a cost of around US$25 million, the restoration includes a new observation deck (or mirador)—reached via a new glass elevator located in the monument’s central axis—that offers 360° views of Mexico City; nocturnal illumination; the “Adelita Café” and gift shop; working water fountains; and the reopening of the National Museum of the Revolution.

In terms of tracing the history of the monument, it is important to develop a spatialised view of this commemorative site, meaning a recognition of space as a product of interrelations, the existence of a multiplicity of trajectories that coexist, and a plurality of competing struggles. Also, it is crucial to develop a temporal understanding of struggles over space, meaning awareness of time as overlapping, plural, and coeval rather than as a flat horizon.

I have carried these insights into my new research on the Monument to the Revolution based on archival work at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City that has produced original documents accessing historical and photographic material as well as new developments linked to the monumental site itself. In the endeavour to grasp a spatial-temporal analysis of the Monument to the Revolution, my research suggests a threefold periodisation that makes better sense of its contemporary history. These interconnected conceptions of space and time include the periods of: (1) State Power (1933-1968)—when state space was itself represented in its directly “political” sense at the site; (2) State Crisis (1968-1980s)—the apogee of collective social protests and violent suppression; and (3) State Rollback (1980s-present)—the era in which the site was almost abandoned until the rise of neoliberalisation wherein the monument has been turned into a commodity through a private concession granted to Grupo MYT to run the site as a tourist attraction.

To sum up, combatting the forces of reaction in his own era, Walter Benjamin stated that ‘. . . we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’. This comment always provokes reflections in me about the Monument to the Revolution and I think it is something we can all consider in relation to wider examples of monuments, statues, architecture, street names and places that should be assessed with greater caution and precision in contesting spaces in the constitution and construction of the modern state, as Gramsci reminds us.

Consequently, monuments stand as profoundly ambiguous carriers of state power and, at times, utopian promise in which present generations may communicate with the contested claims and hopes of past generations, as witnessed with the Monument to the Revolution as a focalisation for the relief effort in the most recent Mexico earthquake, joining the hashtag #FuerzaMéxico. The significance of architecture may then still turn on the effective participation of the present generation in contesting the demands of state power and in constituting alternative spaces of difference, as future struggles may attest.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
2 Comments
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  • Neale Towart
    October 3, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    One aspect of the Cook monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park is that Indigenous people can be said to be acknowledged. Not Australian people but Hawaiians who are noted because they killed him!
    Also the feeling of being taken aback I had when I saw (not being a TV viewer to any great extent) an advertisement at Sydney’s Town Hall station for Jack Daniels seemingly celebrating a place called LYNCHBURG, Tennesee. A lot of meaning in those names.

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