Sunday, January 08, 2006

life after memory

In Killing Yourself to Live Chuck Klosterman makes exactly one comment about architecture, but it's kind of interesting. He says this:

"...I have no interest whatsoever in looking at any of the tourist attractions in [Washington D.C.]. I guess I don't understand what such things are supposed to teach us. For example... the Washington Monument is big, and I suppose it could be classified as impressive or noble... but what is the 550-foot masonry structure supposed to tell me? What is it supposed to make me understand? Am I supposed to spacifically think about George Washington? Because I didn't. Am I supposed to be reminded that I am in the nation's capital? Because I already knew that. Am I supposed to feel patriotic? Because I don't understand how an inanimate object has any relationship to how I feel about living in my country... what does the Washington Monument speak to? Man's potential to master concrete? Man's desire to overcome gravity? I really don't get it. It's just . . . tall."

The first crisis I thought of here was one of representation-- how are images from a dead past supposed to speak to someone who derives all symbolic meaning from rock music lyrics? And in any case, what was so Egyptian about GW in the first place? D.C. is already an anomoly, an "American" monument designed by a Frenchman in a strict reimagined Roman classicism. The obleisk is, to Klosterman, kind of like the background to that awful Will Smith Song "wild wild west"-- a sample of a cover of a standard for a movie that was a paraphrase of a television show.

But if anything, this is liberating. The obelisk, so ruthlessly torn from context, is now a kind of primal form. Yes, it is tall. Yes, it is white. Yes, it has two red lights on top of it. Ultimately the Washington Monument is a symbol of itself, instantly recognisable and a powerful organiser of space.

In fact, the true crisis here is not one of symbolic meaning but the purpose of monuments themselves. Klosterman believes that a monument has to be didactic in order to be useful-- in another part of the book he says

"[A friend] always wants me to visit him in Arizona so that he can show me the Grand Canyon, but I know I'll never go. . . I have no desire to see the physical manifestation of erosion. The Grand Canyon is just an attractive accident; it has no inherent meaning. I'd be far more impressed if a collection of civil engineers used dynamite and laser beams to construct a perfect replication of the Grand Canyon on a one-to-one scale; that would show mankind's potential to master nature. . . would speak to man's desire to overcome 5 million years of adversity."

"Inherent meaning" to Klosterman is thus tied to a specific implied history that is not subject to debate. This may very well be true. But inherent meaning is very difficult to fabricate; a monument like the one described is really just a monument to itself. No convential monument, save perhaps ancient battlefields and great works of civil engineering, have any inherent meaning. What Klosterman is actually talking about is the failure of monuments to specifially direct an understanding of their form.

I think this is misguided. In its early history any monument will serve its purpose, but successful monuments always act as a conduit for the healing processes of history-- they are supposed to aid in understanding and reevaluation. Thus any good monument will hasten its own obselesence. And the real afterlife of a monument is not only to remind people of its namesake, but to act as an urban fragment, a magnet for the production of new memory. The Washington Monument is only nominally about our first president; it's also about people's trips to the mall, senators jogging by, and views from the top. The point where it becomes mute is the point at which it is reborn.

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