On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


Symbolic Violence and Object Power: ISIS, Iconoclasm, and Museums (March 15, 2015)

ISIS operatives, as is only far too well known, have been making quite a show of destroying objects, and sometimes even whole sites, of archaeological, historical, and artistic significance. As can be gleaned from Ian Black’s Guardian reporting, or  by this CNN study by Susannah Cullinane, Hamdi Alkhshali and Mohammed Tawfeeq, ISIS members have recently destroyed vast swathes of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, of the Assyrian palace of Khorsabad, and numerous artistic objects held at the Mosul Museum. As I have written about here earlier, in regards to ISIS’s destruction of such sites as the traditional site of Jonah’s grave, symbolic violence is a crucial component of ISIS strategy. Adept at waging both conventional and unconventional warfare, the destruction of objects of cultural and historical significance is a very provocative asymmetrical tactic: it helps cultivate a recruitment-friendly reputation of fearlessness and fundamentalist bravado, as ISIS flouts secularist values concerning historical and cultural sensitivity. As destroying religiously important sites was an all-too-common tactic among insurgents during the Second Iraq War, predictably effective in spurring both fear among Iraqis and revulsion from Western commentators, ISIS has clearly determined that it will gain considerably from a systematic iconoclastic campaign.

As with the important issue that President Barack Obama—controversially, but, I think, rightly and importantly—raised, about recalling such historical episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery, before assuming Islamists have a monopoly on religiously inflected violence (see some reporting on this in Anthony Zurcher’s BBC commentary, or this actually quite thoughtful and intelligent inter-faith discussion by religious scholars on CNN), I have been thinking a lot about how we cannot exactly dissociate the issue of the destruction of historical objects from their non-destructive seizure and control. For Walter Benjamin, every “cultural treasure”—which implies any object in or deemed worthy of being in a museum—is also a “document in barbarism” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans, Harry Zohn, p. 256). Violence saturates all aspects of art and archaeology, both in their being the material remains of formerly great powers and as material appropriated by those current powers who collect their remains.

Museums can often, indeed, seem like collections of spoils. When I first spent significant time in the British Museum, for example, I recall feeling quite uneasy about room after room filled with Egyptian goods and mummies: in a place that features sculptures ripped off the Parthenon, massive totem poles removed from Northwestern North America, and almost literally countless other artifacts ripped from their original surroundings, the almost dizzying collection of ancient Egyptian mummies more than anything made me think about the imperialist dimension of the museums of former imperial powers. The stories of the territories they took over and controlled is displayed, with all the framing force of the museum as a place of systematized cultural knowledge transmission. (Britain’s control of the Elgin Marbles, by the way, shows that it is not just about static control of an object, but its circulation, as is clear from controversy over the UK loaning these items, claimed by Greece, to Russia, as you can read about here; as you can read here, the Elgin Marbles make Time magazine’s Top Ten Plundered Artifacts list.)

In thinking about the actions of ISIS in destroying various objects of art, I have at times wondered whether such acts of destruction , when it comes to territorial control, are the flip-side, as it were, of museums—they demonstrate geo-political power through the regulation of historical remains. In the same way that, say, the imperial British state could demonstrate geopolitical power—whether actual (or former) territorial control, or simply the military and / or economic power such that it could acquire key objects—by showing off museum pieces, ISIS demonstrates its actual power by flaunting world opinion and spectacularly destroying important artistic and historical objects. It is vital to pay attention to the intensely propagandic power of these actions, for the alleged fundamentalist religious rationale that the actions stem from religious iconoclasm is only partially true: as has been reported by people like Heather Pringle and Simon Cox, ISIS operatives are well known for selling as many precious archaeological objects as they can for fund-raising, and they tend only to destroy objects so large or of so little value that the propagandic value that comes from shocking world sensibilities through the destruction of historical objects becomes the decisive factor.

Iconoclasm is hardly a new phenomenon—and its energies are very vital in Western development. As Simon Schama’s excellent comparison of post-Reformation destruction of art in medieval England makes clear, “Artefacts under Attack,”  the systematic erasure of much visual art plays a profound—and chilling—role in much of the early modern Protestant West. Iconoclasm has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition that most see as central to the West, with Moses’s destruction of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32—which includes his own angry destruction of the original Ten Commandments (32:19), his melting down of the golden idol and forcing of the revelers to drink it (32:20), followed by an internal civil war over idol worship that leads to the killing, by family members and neighbors, of some three thousand of the Israelites (32:27-28). However secularized much of the West has become, such iconoclastic impulses are clearly woven deeply into the religious foundations that still inform much of the West’s activity.

ISIS’s destruction of archaeological objects is in my view both shocking and morally outrageous, and—as someone who loves to learn about all periods of history—deeply sad. Of course, their actions are meant to inspire just these sort of feelings in secular Westerners such as I, eliciting rage that is both highly localized (shuddering at the loss of, say, specifically Assyrian art-works) and universalized (shuddering at the fundamental disregard of history or other cultures held by anyone who could destroy objects and sites that allow us to physically interact with past human cultures). ISIS’s actions also make me think how much power such images have—both as released in shock when we see them willfully destroyed, and as released with wonder and curiosity when various powers maintain and display the objects of others. With ancient Greek sculptures zealously controlled by the British, with facades of Mayan temples currently housed in American museums, and with the works of so many others ripped from their original contexts and housed in institutions across the world, it is clear that we inhabit a world where objects can convey the prestige and power of those who control—and might potentially destroy—them.