Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Sometimes a Statue is Just a Statue": On the Interpretation of (Phallic) Symbols

The following was originally written as a paper presented at an annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society. It is in part a follow up to the material presented in my previous blog post.

This is a paper about a paper and the reaction it provoked. It is also a paper about a perennial anthropological topic: the interpretation of symbols and other signs, focusing especially on phallic symbols and icons.

In October, 2003, I delivered a paper to the Gulf South History and Humanities Conference, a conference dominated by Southern historians, with the title of “Race and Public Monuments in Pensacola, Florida,” though the paper itself addressed many components of memorialization beyond just race. In the paper, I focused particularly on two monuments in downtown Pensacola which unlike any other in the city are dedicated primarily to individuals who never actually set foot in the city: Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The monument to Lee sits within a traffic circle on Palafox Street (a main street in downtown Pensacola) at the peak of North Hill. The monument itself is a frankly phallic affair, with a four sided marble pedestal, atop which is placed a column and atop the column a sculpture of a Confederate individual who local historians insist is not Lee, though the monument overall is dedicated to him and the individual does at least resemble the Confederate General. The monument is surrounded by trees which largely obscure it from view when passing by, as well as a circle of outward facing cannons. The site is relatively inaccessible to pedestrians, not being located at a light for safe access. The overall impression when passing by is of circulating around something important – yet something secluded, protected – sacred even.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza is located just a few blocks from Lee Square at the base of North Hill. It is hard not to look at this tableau – the monument to Robert E. Lee atop North Hill looking down toward or perhaps looking down upon the much smaller monument to MLK – as an icon of race relations in the city – and indeed I see no reason not to interpret the juxtaposition in precisely that way, even while there is much more going on. MLK Plaza is located within the median of Palafox St., with a bust of King upon a small pedestal of a different material, with low brick walls funneling the pedestrian/viewer towards the bust – an icon of accessibility and penetrability precisely the opposite that of Lee Square. From the perspective of the passing motorist (and in Pensacola one is almost always a motorist, almost never a pedestrian), the monument and plaza are a small affair, easy to miss while driving by, in contrast to Lee Square where it is impossible not to notice that one is passing by something of importance – even while that something is largely secluded from the gaze. Once noticed, though, - if noticed – MLK plaza is much more visible, more open to the penetrating gaze.

In the 2003 paper, I discussed the nature of public memorials and monumental architecture as repositories of public signs, presenting signs of a particular narrative of history or of what is significant. I also discussed the ways in which these two monuments are “about” a variety of things, including race, class, and masculinity, both through what is said and what left unsaid.

The thing which most clearly ties the two together is race. One odd thing about both monuments is their commemoration of specific individuals who never actually set foot in the city, but each is clearly associated with events and processes that transformed race relations in the city and region. An ambivalence towards race is noteworthy. In Pensacola, as throughout most of the South and country in general, race is a structuring element in virtually every interaction between black and white – though this is a basic social fact that largely goes unremarked in the sense that to remark upon it is virtually taboo. Perhaps to be expected, the monument to Lee and the Confederacy leaves race issues unmentioned. Its main dedication reads, “The uncrowned heroes of the Southern Confederacy, whose joy was to suffer and die for a cause they believed to be just. Their unchallenged duration and matchless heroism shall continue to be the wonder and inspiration of the ages.” There are additional commemorations to Jefferson Davis and Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen R. Mallory (after whom the local Sons of the Confederacy chapter is named), along with a quote from Mallory, “’Tis not mortals to command success; But we’ll do more sempronius, we’ll deserve it.’” Not surprisingly (at least to me as someone who grew up white in the South), there is no mention of exactly what the just cause of the Confederacy might have been – or that it might have had anything to do with slavery – nor for that matter just what in the heck to “do more sempronius” might mean. More surprising is the utter lack of mention of race equality or the civil rights movement at MLK plaza. The sole inscription there (aside from a plaque listing primary donors) quotes from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from December 11, 1964, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Certainly a sentiment worthy of commemoration, further standing as a reminder that King was a leader and hero for all, and not just a hero and leader for Black Americans – though he certainly was that. At the same time, though, if you didn’t already know much about King and his struggles, you leave the monument with no additional knowledge about King and his struggles, and the signification of King’s universal humanism, and only that, serves to present racism and civil rights as insignificant, not worth commemorating, or at the very least something best left unsaid.

Alongside this ambivalent presentation of race, I also talked in the 2003 paper about the ways in which the monuments present a discourse on class, though also largely through occlusion. For example, wistful nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy, whether in the 1890s when the Lee monument was dedicated or more recently, depends in part upon erasure of the class dynamics among whites of the Antebellum South, and certainly today is based in part in contemporary class dynamics, based especially in the anxieties of working class white southerners in a time when working class Americans generally often fell rightfully anxious. With the King monument, King’s thoughts, words, and actions with regard to class and class inequality are potentially occluded to an even greater degree than his racial civil rights activism, in the sense that even though civil rights is not mentioned at the monument, it can be largely assumed that passersby will be familiar already with this aspect of his legacy in a way that cannot be assumed regarding his actions on class inequality late in his life.

I had expected when I presented the paper that if there were any controversy that it would be from these comments on race and class. I was after all talking about two of the most provocative topics in American culture – and talking about what was not being said, a controversial sort of discursive analysis since Foucault’s emphasis on presence and production in discourse. Instead this went unremarked, though I’m inclined to think that this was probably due to the great ambivalence and discomfort with dealing with and speaking about race and class in the South and the U.S. generally. Instead, it was a part of the paper – the phallic nature of monuments representing great men – that I had regarded as fairly non-controversial (I mean, really, who doesn’t think that war heroes atop giant columns are a tad phallic) that generated a mini-firestorm of reaction.

This was a part of my analysis I had assumed not only to be straightforward but also to be “objective” in the sense of being based in the interpretation of symbolic and iconic aspects of the empirical components of the monuments, in contrast to the other analysis which I myself regarded as more tenuous because based largely in what might be "said" in the unsaid. I drew attention to a general pattern of memorialization of great men in phallic symbolic and iconic form in western culture, while at the same time monuments of less obvious masculine and heroic figures or events tend to take other forms, e.g. the Wall commemorating Vietnam veterans in the absence of heroic triumph or the Holocaust memorial in Boston, which are decidedly non-phallic. In the case of Lee Square commemorating Great Man in the form of War Hero par excellence, the statuary itself takes what I saw as indubitably phallic form, to which is added the contextual components of forced circulation about the monument and its near impenetrability to the gaze and physical access (remember the trees shrouding it – not to mention those cannons). Even more interesting, I thought, was the case of King’s monument. King is often remembered as a clearly masculine figure and absolutely a Great Man, though in a quite different mold than the war hero more typically commemorated, being instead a vulnerable hero – as are all non-violent resisters, dependent ultimately as they are on the eventual acquiescence of their oppressors – and also a more open figure by virtue of his own universalism. I hypothesized then that for such a man would be found a monument phallic in nature (with the pedestal topped by bust fitting the bill nicely if on a smaller scale than with Lee Square) – but of a less typical nature – and here I addressed in the 2003 paper how the (severed) head bust atop pedestal of different material marked a vulnerability (if not arguably castration), as well as the accessibility and penetrability to the gaze and to physical access.

The reaction to my arguments by the audience of mostly Southern historians (an interpretation on my part based on mode of dress, self-presentation, discursive style, etc.) was interesting. Nobody talked about the things I had thought most controversial, which in hindsight is not so surprising since basically it meant that nobody talked about the topics of race and class that generally nobody talks about. Instead, there was an incredulous response to the idea of public monuments as phallic symbols or icons – and a frankly anti-intellectual response which consisted not of counterargument but of flippant attempts at dismissal. This was perhaps summed up by one comment of the panel’s discussant, “Sometimes a statue is just a statue.” A ridiculous assertion in general – a statue is rarely if ever just a statue, given that such monumental architecture always involves presentation of public values and what is deemed important for memorialization, and is generally expensive to boot. And a statue, erected in the 1890s just a few short years after the end of Reconstruction, and dedicated primarily to Lee and secondarily to Jeff Davis and Stephen Mallory, is just a statue? That aside, I found it amusing that a gloss of the famous quip that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar from Freud was being used in an attempt to dismiss the possibility of phallic signification.

I was reminded of another experience, this time on an archaeology field trip to a Native American site in the Everglades accompanied by several professional archaeologists. It was a village site on a raised mound with several projecting raised fields. One archaeologist who had worked on the site tentatively put forth an idea that seemed to make sense to me. In plan view, these projecting fields were distinctly phallic in shape; they even had irrigation channels running down their centers – iconic of urethras perhaps. Further, opposite the main “phallic” field, at the “rear” of the village was a garbage dump, an iconic anus accompanying phallic symbolization. Another archaeologist was initially dismissive, but when the first persisted, pointing out how the interpretation fit, this second shifted from dismissiveness to something more serious, “But you can’t prove this.”

While the crowd of historians had been mostly just incredulous (and scandalized by talk of Lee or King in terms of phalli), there was also I think a similar more serious undertone. Given its inherent polysemy, symbolic phenomena is irreduceable to definitive proof, and this can create a rift between different practitioners of the humanities and social sciences who work using different modalities of the production of knowledge. Historians and archaeologists, though of course not a homogenous lot, operating in a modality of proof, are typically wary, and as I have encountered occasionally dismissive, of symbolic interpretation.

There is much to be said for both historical and scientific methods leading to proof, and when dealing with social phenomena amenable to such approaches, as for example with many cultural ecological analyses, it would be silly to dismiss the value of proof (though that doesn’t stop some). At the same time, semiotic phenomena do not become less significant because less amenable to rigorous testing and definitive proof, and though also not a homogenous lot, cultural anthropologists, like scholars in some other humanities disciplines, tend to be more open to a variety of hermeneutic and interpretive analyses, taking as a matter of course things like the interpretation of men’s sacred flutes in the New Guinea Eastern Highlands or the Central Amazon as phallic symbols. Or, take the example of Robert Shanafelt’s excellent paper presented at the 2004 Southern Anthropological Society meeting – presented only a few months after my paper to the Gulf South meeting and also dealing, among other things, with public monuments to Confederate figures in the South. At one point he showed a slide of a monument quite similar to that I described for Lee Square in Pensacola, though this time to a room of mostly cultural anthropologists. At some point, he mentioned the clearly phallic nature of the monument, and in this case no one batted an eye.

But this is not meant as a self-congratulatory exercise. Instead, we must ask in the absence of absolute meaning and in fact the impossibility of proof of symbolic meaning, how do we know when our interpretations are convincing? Clifford Geertz argued that a convincing interpretation of cultural phenomena is one that sorts winks from twitches. I’d agree, but then have to ask how we know when we’ve done so without lapsing into a circular argument that amounts to something like, “The convincing interpretation is the one that convinces.”

To get back to pesky statues, I really don’t think a statue is ever just a statue, but it is certainly possible to see more than is really there. This I think is a key part of the response: A convincing interpretation is one that is consistent and fits the set of objects being interpreted. That is, just because we are dealing with semiotic phenomena does not mean we are engaging in a non-empirical enterprise. Just as with art and literary criticism, there is no definitive interpretation to the work, but some interpretations are “wrong” in the sense that they do not consistently address the qualities of the work or fit those qualities consistently. That is, a convincing interpretation has a systematic and iconic relationship with that which is interpreted. Barring this, we have a confabulation, that might be interesting in its own right, but which is unconvincing as an interpretation. The more consistently the interpretation meshes with and explains the full set of facts, the more convincing it becomes. Referring to any old thing with vaguely columnar shape as a phallic symbol is not particular convincing, but when the interpretation takes into account the form of a particular monument in relation to other monuments to other war heroes, in relation to other monuments to groups such as Holocaust victims or veterans of a non-triumphal (and even non-heroic) war, and in relation to surroundings like an encircling fringe of trees and cannons within a traffic circle, then we have something to me more convincing.

Even here, though, we must be cautious. As Emerson posited, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and there is nothing quite so consistent as a conspiracy theory. But, we should also note that it is foolish consistencies that we want to avoid, and key here is that it is not just consistency that makes for convincing interpretation, but consistency plus fit. Conspiracy theories are usually internally consistent, but often fail to fit or have much of an iconic relation with the world of facts. But even once we have an interpretation which is consistent and systematically fits the facts at hand, what we have is not proof but a good basis to believe that we have a convincing argument – at least in the absence of counterargument more convincing.

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