Dec 2, 2015

Men, Monuments, Monsters, Memory | In search of missing pieces

An update of my take on the current State of Affairs in Albania, is delivered this time through the words of Terri Kirk's Monumental Monstrosity Monstrous Monumentality* for Perspecta 40. I have chosen a few excerpts that definitely need a more thoughtful consideration and unpacking than just taking them out of their intended context (to a certain degree), but time hasn't been on my side lately, which goes to show that procrastination and deadlines are just the worst combo to have on the plate at any time - more so during the holiday season.

Nonetheless, here are a few excerpts on Men, Monuments, Monsters, Memory - a title I find appropriate because it starts to glimpse at and gesture (provoke even) my ability to see, sometimes miss, and most often project indeterminate pixels of an image that has become Albania. An image constru(ct)ed by its most recent state of affairs. One that never ceases to be still so we can make out its composition, but restlessly polishes its representational scaffold, as if only to hide the ruination of the structure it borrows. An image that, in my opinion, ultimately achieves stillness and (an almost) clarity by way of its young legacy, or the 'selfie' type repetitiveness of its act.

An image that is able to crystallize only at a distance, perhaps? At my distance even? (Such as it continues to be.) An image that up-close might be too tacit and is only discovered or mildly understood, even seen through myopic ways and means. Maybe a distance allows for a more panoramic assurance of its presence, in order to fully see it, be aware of it, and view it more critically. But, just because it has to travel to become obvious (or better yet unravel its monstrosity or monumentality), and this distance is indeed too real, it doesn't mean it survives the temporal algorithm of the digital feed - making its way in the ephemeral abyss of probability, too often left in the mercy of social media mobs with a spasmodic attention span, chewed up and spat out before it is seen, archived, and filed away. Such is the way, and it might be the only way, a few of us see it, and why we sometimes miss it.

The image that is missed differs from the one that is hidden.

In the excerpts below, the author writes that the word monster derives from men, and also memory. He links it to monstrare, which is 'to show' and monstrum to monere - to remind or warn. Monument also derives from monere, to remind, and back to men and memory. One root, a multitude of words and meanings.

Such is the state of the image when it reaches us. The task of seeing it becomes a juggling act of delicate but rigorous, objective but sensible, critical but constructive research and interpretation.

These missing pieces, not quite puzzle-like, an invite to challenge or cherish the carefully-crafted aesthetics (continuously stalling in a state of representation) - make up the moments, territory, and agency where we see the image as a nuanced construct of beings, somewhere in between craft and crafty (metis). We really see and finally experience the image here. The scaffold as blinding armature doesn't fully drape or tightly fit the structure. We take a peak in to explore or exploit the weaknesses or strengths of the image. The image takes a leap into our imagination. A closer and deeper, even slower look. Another juggling act. An image embodied with our fears and anxiety, our desires and inspiration, our demons and vanity, our humanity, our humility, our pride, our narrow and rigid definition of a (national) hero, our wildly fictitious accounts of ordinary men.

Imagination becomes a stitching act, a coping mechanism with the image. Imagination as a craft, a skill and wisdom that, depending on one's disposition and will, can weaken or strengthen the image that has been (cunningly) crafted and shown to us, to remind us, or warn us perhaps, of the same root that ties men, monuments, monsters and memory. An origin that blooms sublime, a bond that grows monstrous.

 *As always the reading and emphasis is mine. I strongly recommend you read the original text in Perspecta 40 to draw your own conclusions.

Terri Kirk's Monumental Monstrosity Monstrous Monumentality

This is a test of aesthetic tolerance. [...] Monsters mark the boundaries of cultural values. As outcasts from our constructed systems of self-definition they fascinate and frighten. [...] How monsters are made is symptomatic of how a culture conceives of collective inquiry to the tolerated limits of its self-awareness.

Architecture comes late to a serious consideration of its monsters, so we must rely upon achievements in the neighboring disciplines of natural sciences and psychology, and more recently literary criticism and cultural anthropology. "Monstrosity" is at present still only a dismissive epithet in architectural criticism. It is usually leveled against anything big, ugly, out of place, or dysfunctional. [...] Reaction to architectural monsters still smacks of a superstitious fear typical of primitive responses to otherness, while our colleagues in other disciplines have "naturalized" their monsters. As Michael Hagner puts it regarding the natural sciences, we too might seek "to integrate, incorporate, and domesticate them in the material and discursive arsenals of enlightened rationality."

Monstrosity in architecture is a matter of reception.
"Monsters have their usefulness," wrote nineteenth-century scientist Etienne-Geoffrey St.-Hilaire. "They are a means of study for our intellects." This essay examines our reaction to the transgression of aesthetic limits that makes monuments monstrous, and perhaps monsters in the end monumental.

Monster comes from men, an Indoiranian root, whence also memory, thought itself. Cicero's Latin links monstrum with monere - to remind or warn, as in a portent or omen. "The noun 'monster,'" Augustine tells us, "evidently comes from monstrare, 'to show,' because they show by signifying something" out of the ordinary. For Aristotle, "anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has strayed from the generic type." Monsters are deviant, transgressive, threatening, and therefore horrible, terrifying, and tremendous yet also astonishing, marvelous, and prodigious. [...] "By a monstrosity," Darwin presumed, "is meant some considerable deviation of structures, generally injurious or not useful to the species." Monsters hold some distant but threatening relationship of difference to the norms we construct to order our world.

Monsters proliferate in times of crisis. They are born not of woman but of prevailing apocalyptic mood, usually triggered by political upheaval and threatening loss of control. [M]onsters emerge as concretizations of collective anxieties. The spectator experience of the monster, the curious paying public at a village freak show or a Hollywood monster flick, is essentially a sigh of relief: Schadenfreude. We hoist upon the expurgatory scapegoat our fears the unknown. In capturing, displaying, and killing the monster, we try to vanquish our anxieties.

The most fearful monsters are, then, those birthed of our own perturbed imagination. The imagination is a sense without an organ. It is self-nourishing, untiring, prolific, and the most prodigious of our faculties. Leonardo da Vinci fabricated little monsters out of parts of animals and motorized them with pressurized bladders, causing horror among his unsuspecting subjects, which Vasari relates as a metaphor of creative imagination.

Monsters continue to exert their power because they are ultimately products of culture. They are explicit recognitions of our norms - physical, psychological, and juridical - because they violate these constructed systems. They have what Canguilhem called a negative value and what Foucault specified as our discursive strategy through which cultures make sense of the world and legitimate their conceptions of it. The abnormal challenges the order of things with troubling indeterminacy, violating regulatory cognitive, moral, and aesthetic decorum. They are organisms that not only fail to achieve the ideal but exist in defiance of the ideal. However, this challenging negative value also affirms the norm and helps us define ourselves by resistance to deformation. Monsters reinforce a dynamic polemical concept of normality and inscribe its values.

Imagined monsters continue to fascinate us, repulse our senses, and attract our attention. As repugnant creatures they are horrifying portents; as astonishing curiosities they are marvelous wonders.

The evolution of the sublime matches that of the monstrous in the period of its development as well as in its quality of cultural meaning.

Whereas beauty is merely pleasurable, the sublime terrifies, astonishes, and elevates the soul.

Architecture is sublime, Burke specifies, when it "fill[s] the mind with that sort of delightful horror." The work must cause our imagination "to rise to ... [an] idea of infinity." To do so, Burke admits, will involve a certain "generous deceit on the spectators [to] effect the noblest designs by easy means."

The sublime exercises a power over the spectator. It always involves, as Burke notes, "some modification of power." The sublime, especially in architecture, is a strategy of domination by provoking an anxiety-charged response. "Astonishment is that state of mind, in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object." It is an enthralling violence upon the senses.

As a test of tolerance, the sublime is synonymous with notions of the monstrous. Addison had already focused on the spectator's response to monsters - dreadful "hideous Objects" of "frightful Appearance" - in his essays dedicated to the imagination. [...] The sublime object, like the monster, stuns and strains the imagination.

[T]he concept threads through the evolution of modern aesthetics to transform our criteria of reception. [...] The public became active participants, judges, and subjects of the architectural event. Its efficaciousness is measured not against learned criteria of beauty or allegorical references, but according to its success in moving the spectator. The sublime was understood as a universally efficacious language of form, therefore a potential universal instrument of communication. Coupled with emerging consciousness of nationhood, the aesthetic of the sublime endowed architecture with the means to marshal moral communities onto the foundations of modern civil society. The sublime was hence the most effective formal language for national monuments.

Monument derives, like monster, from monere, to remind, and back to men, memory, thought. Monuments are constructions that concretize collective memory. Monument connotes the eraction of a sumptuous edifice to keep in mind a notable person, action, or event. It commemorates, and as Shakespeare used the word, it warns: "And wherefore gaze this goodly company | As if they saw some wondrous monument | Some comet, or unusual prodigy." [...] Monuments impose themselves upon our psychic and physical landscape with a dreadful purpose.

Monuments constitute the larges and most prominent architectural production of the nineteenth century. A "monumentomania" swept Europe and America, invading its cities in the crucial gestation of modern nationhood. Monuments served as focal points for moral civil society, legitimizing cumulative self-understanding. Rome's monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II was conceived with a carefully wrought aesthetic as the nation's foremost expression of the political relation between the state and its people.

His commemoration afforded the first opportunity to express the nature of the new state in monumental and permanent form.
The Vittoriano, as it is often referred to, is the epiphany of national consciousness, a setting for the liturgy of the nation-state enshrined in stone and bronze, and renewed in continual ritual. It is the keystone of national symbolism - an instrument that communicates the moral and political messages of the monarchy - meant to forge collective memory and establish a historiography of its players while counterbalancing ecclesiastical tradition.

Everything about the monument has been designed for maximum impact. [...] Central to the monument's function is a modification of power. The senses of the spectator are worked upon with violence to the end of dominating the former papal city, its formerly divided citizens, and all subjects of its imperialist aspirations.

The sublime operates in environments market by collective anxiety. The real magnitude of crisis is in inverse proportion to the force of the sublime employed. Architectural form, like the rhetoric of political speech during national crises, seeks to effect a modification of power. Be it the architecture of monumental cemeteries or the spaces of totalitarian rally grounds, the sublime manipulates mass subjects in a climate of fear to affect "that state of mind," to cite Burke again, "in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror." [...] The sublime is an aesthetic of sensory violence. Any concrete realization of it transforms a threat into reality: an architecture of ominous disquiet that oppresses.

The subjective aesthetic faculty worked, as Kant theorized, universally, but by shifting the parameters of reception - or deconstructing their cultural frames - the marvelous and tremendous may quickly become transgressive and terrifying. There is an inherent volatility in the aesthetic of the sublime. When a monument's sublime language is seen in a different light - in the flash of an atomic bomb - its force becomes repugnant. The monument turns into a monster.

The Italian monarchy laid the groundwork for the subsequent Fascist regime; in fact, it guaranteed it. The monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was the stage of the nationalist rituals of Mussolini's rise to power.

The monstrous trauma of nationalist hysteria found the ideal stage for its violence against the individual.

The monument's continuing presence in the Roman landscape makes it unbearably monstrous to anyone with memory of the recent past. Indeed only tourist - by definition viewers without cultural memory - actually like it. It is an enduring reminder of egregious collective transgression that was the paroxysm of Italian nationalism. It remains a frightening monster in our midst, particularly unnerving for a collective conscience that has not seriously confronted in any other way its responsibility in supporting twenty-two years of dictatorship and its crimes against humanity.

This monstrous monument rising in the heart of the nation's capital is an omen of political pathology, a collective scourge. [...] There have been famous attempts to destroy it: architectural competitions for its removal or hurried reduction to a ruin, attacks with paint bombs, and closure for decades on end. These measures of dealing with the monster are fatuous insofar as they are not accompanied by recognition of guilt. The collective political conscience of Italy, unlike Germany's, is deficient in serious self-reflection, so comments on this monument remain naively restricted to dismissal of its formal qualities alone. This monster reveals the disquieting potential of miscreation from within, and therefore is most terrifying.

This monument tests the tolerance of our receptions to prodigious architecture. By design, monuments inhabit the volatile region between tremendous and transgressive, exactly as monsters do. The fascination we feel for such experience reveals the dynamic nature of the architectural aesthetic of the sublime. (fascism vs. fascination)

Examining the monstrousness of monumentality serves as a discursive strategy to make sense of the architectural world in crisis, to legitimate our norms, and to mark our boundaries. Monsters proliferated at the outset of Modernism and at its decline. The sublime was the monstrous face of architecture that filled the anxious space between wonder and warning. In our current cultural atmosphere of crisis, it is not surprising that the language of the sublime has returned. We have witnessed recently the proximity of our understanding of the monstrous, the prodigious, and the monumental.


No comments: