Global perspectives, such as post-colonialism, that have penetrated north Atlantic interpretations of the past and present, have changed perceptions of “iconoclasm.” Emphasis on the ways Christian sects in this region generated theological disputes and violent damage to visual works of religious “art,” had defined iconoclasm. In that discourse, Christian icons, often referred to as devotional paintings and statues, are distinguished from “pagan idols,” and since Christian churchmen condemned the practice of idol worship or idolatry, works so defined could be destroyed without – until recently – invoking the term iconoclasm. The image breaking that spread along the “Christian frontier,” not only by missionaries but also by other agents of colonization, has recently been viewed as part of “cosmicization” (Corbey in Iconoclash). Yet it has been plausibly argued that such violence stemmed from an unacknowledged fear of the power that might inhere in “pagan” images (“iconophobia”).
In the middle ages “heathen idols” were given demonic form, and artists even depicted Jews and Moslems worshiping such gods (Camille). This fueled the crusading drive to convert, drive out, or kill these peoples along with their erroneous cults. In the modern era on the contrary, some scholars argued that absolute prohibition of representations of human beings in any form by Jewish and Moslem authorities meant that these communities were without “art” (that great invention of capitalism and modernism), and therefore culturally inferior. Such false mythologies have now been exposed (Bland).
Furthermore, the traditional discourse of iconoclasm was so internally focused on the quarrels between Christian sects in Europe, such as Catholics and Protestants, that it had escaped notice that Jews and Moslems very seldom indulged in acts of iconoclasm among themselves or against others (Flood but c.f. Reed). Again, false accusations had prevailed, e.g. the alleged host desecration by Jews in the late middle ages. Such mythologies were still ready at hand when Taliban leaders ordered the destruction of the colossal ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, and many claimed religion motivated the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York’s Trade Center.
In a paper delivered soon after 9/11, I turned to the psycho-linguistic conditions for purging art and people (the link between iconoclasm and genocide). Iconoclasm, in tandem with violence of rhetoric, drives rather than substitutes for assassination or genocide: cases include the slaughter of the native American Pequots by Puritan militia in 1637, rhetorically justified by a need to “make them the bread of our sacrifice” (Kibbey).
Other paradigms have been invoked to think about the programmed destruction of the Bamiyan statues, and “9/11”, neither of which seems to relate to the lingering religious belief systems that have driven so much iconophobia and iconoclasm. The politics of these events are extremely complex, with a pronounced gap between probable and perceived motivation, as also between actual and expected reactions. Different frameworks and terms are needed now. In a diverse and global series of studies exploring theoretical parameters and specific cases, Bruno Latour developed the notion of “Iconoclash” (2000): “Iconoclasm is when we know what is happening in the act of breaking and what the motivations for what appears as a clear project of destruction are; iconoclash, on the other hand, is when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled by an action for which there is not way to know, without further inquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive” (Prologue, 14). As far as the latter, Latour is referring to the popular meaning of iconoclasm as a metaphorical act of “taking down” a person or a work of art that had been idolized. Articles in Iconoclash explore the refusal by the Taliban leaders of the notion that designated World Monuments must be preserved. They viewed the program as part of western capitalist hegemony, so that the UNESCO’s Director General’s pleas to preserve the Bamiyan statues as innocent monuments from the past, not only failed, but may even have spurred on the act of destruction (Clément and Frodon; also Flood and Holtorf).
A number of analyses followed the Iconoclash of September 11 2001 and its aftermath, including its repercussions in Africa (special issues of Critical Inquiry and the South Atlantic Quarterly in 2002, and Signs. in 2004), but most authors skirted the issue of a carefully executed and planned spectacle of destruction deserving to be called iconoclasm; yet their puzzlement over the motivation at least warrants the term iconoclash.
In the aftermath, photographs of the event, and the lingering physical remains at Ground Zero, created a new icon in place of the Towers. I recall watching with the students in a seminar on narratology, the process of narrative-building by the US TV stations: there was a shift from the live footage of the morning to a story that left out the victims jumping to their death, so people were replaced by the Twin Towers in the public view; and the damage to the Pentagon was suppressed, eventually reappearing intact as a backdrop to official press releases. Thus, structures identified with both wings of the military-industrial complex were reduced to the single freighted symbol of the Trade Center Towers. The remains were quickly draped in the US flag, like the coffins of soldiers killed in battle, and President G. W. Bush appeared in front of it to renew the “War on Terror”. US legal code, though not yet federal law, states that we “regard the flag as a living being” (Cornell Law School, web site). This view would have been regarded as heretical in the old Christian disputes over icons, yet it has now transvalued the flag, already a simulachrum with many signifieds. As soon as this representation of the nation and its states was associated with the dominant visual symbol of US commerce, the attack on the Twin Towers could be received as an onslaught on Liberty and Prosperity, on ways of life rather than life itself. Nationwide after a few hours, the flag was no longer hung at half mast in mourning for the victims, but raised as a sign of (future) victory, much as the cross on which Christ died the death of a petty criminal was transvalued as a symbol of eternal life.
This semiotic chain deconstructs the official US interpretations of 9/11, yet it delivers an incomplete picture of the events. It does not ponder the significance of the targets that might have inspired their careful choice by those who planned the attack. In view of the earlier attempted bombings of one of the towers, I suppose the bombers knew that its basement incorporated a bunker that was home to the CIA. A more arcane fact, but one certainly within the grasp of the leadership, is that from the eleventh to the nineteenth century (from Caen to Cologne) twin towers declared the presence of a major Christian church. Crusaders probably brought the composition from Syria (where it is to be seen in fifth century churches). Its use to denote a vast center of commerce might be viewed as a profanation, but more likely as a new form of world dominance. In this configuration, the Pentagon symbolizes the military might that was so often the second wave of colonization. Perhaps the common denominator of all acts of iconoclasm is that the object is seldom destroyed for itself, but for things it has come to represent, and after its destruction it often has a new iconic power (Woodward).
Sources and further reading:
Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory, 2006; Kalman P. Bland, in Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, 1999; Stacy Boldrick, Stacy & Richard Clay, eds. Iconoclasm: Contested Objects, Contested Terms 2007; Madeline H. Caviness in Diogenes 50.199 (2003); Critical Inquiry 28.2/Winter (2002); Jeremy Dimmock et al., eds. Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England, 2002; Finbarr B. Flood, "Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm," The Art Bulletin 84, 2002: 641-59; David Freedberg, The Power of Images, 1989; Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, 1997; Cornelius Holtorf in Graham Coulter-Smith & Maurice Owen, eds. Art in the Age of Terrorism 2005; Ann Kibbey, The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism, 1986; Anne McClanan, & Jeff Johnson, eds. Negating the Image, 2005; Robert Nelson & Margaret Olin eds., Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, 2003; Fred A. Reed, Shattered images: the rise of militant iconoclasm in Syria, 2003; Bob Scribner ed., Bilder und Bildersturm, 1990; Christopher Woodward, In Ruins, 2001.