Our relation to destruction is closely aligned with our capacity to process loss. Jason Glynos argues that in order to mourn the loss of something or someone, we need to make it visible through the creation of a signifier – a public-formal registration of loss through a symbolic figure or ritual. Using a selection of artworks from the Archive of Destruction, Glynos explores the ways in which social, political and geographic contexts create the conditions for us to effectively process the loss of destruction, including its potential resignification in the aftermath of a destructive act.
Destruction, Death, Loss
Death is by far the most frequent collocate of destruction in English language texts of the 20th and 21st centuries, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which also suggests that destruction is strongly associated not only with death (as in ‘death and destruction’) but also with loss (as in ‘destruction and loss’).
Reflecting on the devastating effects of World War I and people’s attitudes to death, Freud noted that our ability to cope with death and destruction had less to do with the material events themselves than our capacity to process the loss that they represented for us.1 A few years later, when the magnitude of death and destruction associated with the Great War and the Spanish Flu became clear, he famously suggested that his grandson’s ‘fort-da’ game was a coping strategy developed to deal with the absence of his mother who, incidentally, was not spared by the Spanish Flu.2 The child gave his mother’s absence a name, the signifier ‘fort’ (‘gone’), linking this to the cotton reel whose movement he could control by bringing it into view, accompanying this gesture with the joyous expression ‘da’ (‘there’), then making it disappear again behind the cot’s side wall.
The Work of Mourning
Perhaps we can think of mourning as a more targeted and elaborate iteration of the fort-da game, insofar as its function is to detach the survivors’ memories and hopes from the ‘departed’. But while mourning is regularly understood to be ‘the reaction to the loss of a loved person’, Freud was keen to point out how it is also a reaction ‘to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal…’.3 This suggests that while the event of death or destruction can serve as a trigger for mourning, the work of mourning itself centres on the ideas associated with the dead person or destroyed object, and the way our ideational investments in that person or object can be discerned and loosened. What matters to us about the destruction of a thing is not so much the destruction of the thing itself, so much as what that thing represents for us and how that destruction signals a loss of identity support.
However, if it is true that mourning can be understood as a way of coping with the loss of identity support, it is also true that there is a ‘revolt’ in our minds against mourning: ‘it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position’ that encapsulates the affective investments we have made in those things we have lost. 4 This resistance to mourning gives rise to a question inspired by Judith Butler’s effort to make sense of the official American reaction to 9/11, which appeared to go out of its way to block access to mourning: How do we avoid denying ‘vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery (an institutionalised fantasy of mastery) [that] can fuel the instruments of war’5 and affirm vulnerability without slipping into despondency?
The choice of mourning as a response to loss is thus non-trivial and, in acknowledging the steep challenge associated with navigating this tricky emotional terrain, Freud talked not simply about mourning but about ‘the work of mourning’.6 But if mourning occupies an ethically privileged position in relation to the case of ‘blocked mourning’, if blocked mourning appears to be the easier path to follow, an obvious follow-up question arises: under what conditions is mourning likely to take place?
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan quipped that the word kills the thing,7 pointing, among other things, to how the very ascription of a word to a thing makes it possible for us to imagine the absence of that thing, and even anticipate its loss. This suggests that it is not destruction itself that produces our experience of loss. It is the signifier that makes loss thinkable, making the thing capable of being experienced and resignified, and thus ‘treatable’ through mourning.
Public or formal moments of naming and recognition are cases in which signifiers get ‘stitched’ to things. In the absence of the public–formal registration of death through a symbolic figure or ritual, loss cannot be properly signified and grief becomes difficult to process. When the fate of a person is not yet known (as in some cases of abduction), when miscarriages are not widely reported and given due recognition, when extramarital affairs or gay and ‘other’ sexual relations remain unacknowledged and unsymbolized, when deaths are suspected or even known but officially denied, when a suitable burial site is not granted, or when governments ban photo images of war casualties, then a basic precondition of the mourning process does not obtain.
The very possibility of ‘working on’ loss is dependent on there being a signifier of loss. Skwarek and Freeman’s 2011 public art work U.S./Iraq War Memorial uses the standard image of a casket as a way to symbolize loss. Drawing on the Wikileaks Iraq war logs published by The Guardian, the deaths of all civilians and combatants on all sides of the war were made publicly visible to Americans through a simple downloadable augmented reality application. Geolocation software was used to transpose the sites of recorded deaths, translating the distance and orientation of those sites from Baghdad into correlate distances and orientations to Washington DC. In this way, tens of thousands of caskets were superimposed as floating 3-D images across the North East of the United States.
Making death and destruction publicly visible is a straightforward way to build the scaffolding necessary for a signifier of loss to emerge. Mediated through the app, the Washington Monument, for example, becomes an event or site that enacts for an individual or collective subject a publicly shared recognition of loss. Though simple, this act of ‘making visible’ is non-trivial, and its significance is obviously not restricted to dead combatants and civilians, as is clear in the work of Banu Cennetoğlu 2018 The List, which ‘records the thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who have died while seeking refuge in Europe since 1993’.8 It appears then that the idea of ‘loss’ does not emerge naturally following death and destruction: it has to be brought into being through an active process of enactment and performance.
But signifying loss is only the half of it. While the basic act of signifying loss can kickstart the process of mourning, it by no means guarantees its success. The right kind of space and time is also needed to enable some form of resignification to take place. No matter how robust and permanent a ‘thing’ appears to be when it is born, its meaning and significance is not. We already know that the very naming of the thing – its symbolisation – pre-announces its possible loss. The real labour of mourning, however, begins only once death and destruction have been symbolized as moments of loss, only once they are ‘marked’ for mourning. Only now does the work of mourning come into its own, disclosing its challenges, and revealing itself to be a process of discovery and resignification fraught with potential fracture and pain.
From this point of view James Beckett’s staging of Palace Ruin in Amsterdam’s financial district performs a kind of mourning for the destruction of the 1864 grand Paleis voor Volksvlijt in 1929. ‘Palace Ruin’ seeks not simply to signify this loss, but in signifying loss it opens up a space in which its character and significance can be resignified, for example, by throwing into critical relief the colonial legacy embodied in the ‘Paleis’. Beckett reminds us how the Paleis, Crystal Palace, and other similar celebratory structures were experienced as proud monuments to technological development, Western enterprise, and the modern world’s inexorable progress. At the same time it resignifies it as the embodied fragility and impermanence of the human endeavour. Far from inviting a response of guilt-ridden despondency and paralysis in recognizing the magnitude of the cost associated with our colonial past, however, it reaffirms a capacity to form and grow communities around a shared vulnerability, an at once modest and sobering opportunity to construct a different ‘we’ in relation to loss that is rooted in human beings who share a notion of what it is to have lost something or somebody.9 As Palace Ruin is transplanted from its home in Amsterdam to Riga, Latvia, then Wuzhan, east China, it becomes clear that there is no ‘natural’ home for it, and that the character of mourning is both universal in its appeal to loss and context-dependent in the social and political manner that it can be resignified.
The political dimension of resignifying loss is dramatized in an especially revealing way in Sam Durant’s 2017 Scaffold, indicating the context-dependent conditions and vicissitudes of the mourning process. Its installation in Minneapolis shows how this context mattered deeply. The Dakota Indians as a historically marginalised people were referenced in the subject matter of the artwork in order to critically thematize complex issues linked to the legacy of racism. Ironically, however, the omission of historically excluded voices in the programme surrounding the installation of Scaffold proved to be an insurmountable barrier to any work of resignification, and so the artwork itself was experienced by the Indian community as an affront perpetrated by a white artist entrenching the racist legacy he was setting out to question. Yet, in a strange twist Durant’s immediate response to issue a full and unconditional apology, to dismantle Scaffold, and to engage in a public dialogue with the Dakota Indians about the incident, served to trigger the mourning process on a different footing. The death and destruction of a people embodied in Scaffold – despite the artist’s laudable intentions – ended up reifying the injury and blocking the mourning process; but the destruction of Scaffold itself then became a moment when a new signifier of loss could be installed, triggering a more inclusive process of resignification and reckoning for the local community.
Alfredo Jaar’s 2000 The Skoghall Konsthall is another public art work invested with progressive political hope. Jaar was outraged by the idea that a community in South Sweden could live ‘without the intellectual and critical stimulus that visual art can provide’,10 so when the town of Skoghall commissioned him to produce a work of public art, the Chilean artist proceeded to build an art gallery, on condition that it be burnt down after it was officially opened by the mayor. The public art event itself thus produced a signifier of loss which triggered a desire to resignify the meaning and significance of the destroyed gallery. Although clearly exploratory and experimental rather than programmatic, Jaar’s artwork – serving simultaneously as commentary and intervention – produced the sort of effect one can imagine he hoped it would produce, with Skoghall inviting him back a few years later to design a permanent gallery.
Quite apart from dramatizing the porous and constantly evolving boundaries of public art (what gets counted as public art, what gets dis-counted?), which appear to extend to the effects it produces (should we understand such public art works to include not only the death and destruction it was aiming to evoke and thematize but also its own destruction and the public dialogue it provoked?), it also shows how loss and justified anger can become a creative force, rather than only a source of inward suffering, outward ressentiment, and further destruction. Palace Ruin, Scaffold and The Skoghall Konsthall thus illustrate Audre Lorde’s thesis that under certain conditions anger ‘can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.’11
In one (primary) sense the ‘loss of destruction’ is about how destruction can be signified as loss in order to initiate and facilitate the process of resignification and critical reappropriation. When the destruction of something becomes the subject of an art work, a signifier of loss is produced in relation to that destruction, facilitating the reflective, playful, or critical resignification of the destroyed thing. Sometimes, however, the art work itself can become the subject of destruction, producing a signifier of loss that can also be subjected to resignification. One key function of an archive of destruction is to keep alive precisely the possibility of signifying and resignifying loss. However, in an important (secondary) sense the ‘loss of destruction’ might be understood to be about the loss of the very idea of destruction, and thus the loss of loss itself. This scenario assumes there is no longer a subject out there, a subject of meaning and desire. The ultimate loss – the kind of loss intimated by a climactic and ecological catastrophe, for example – can be said to involve not just the destruction of the archive of destruction, but the impossibility of signifying this destruction as a loss at all.