There is a small subset of historians in France who have mulled the politics of vandalism, starting with James Guillaume’s “Gregoire and vandalism” in 1901. The locus classicus, here, is Abbe Gregoire’s speeches in the Assembly in 1794 against “vandalism”, which he saw as harming both the Republic and Christianity. In his memoirs, Gregoire famously wrote: “I created the world to kill the thing.” This is the type of claim that invites counter-claims, especially by that counter-claiming tribe, the philologists. They love nothing better than to trump the claim to some “first use” of a word by finding previous uses. The cross-breeding between the philologist and the historians of the Revolution – also a notoriously bickering tribe – has created marginal firefights for more than a century.
Gabriel Springarth’s article in Annales historiques de la revoluition francaise from 1980 is entitled: On revolutionary vandalism (1792-1794). It is an important summing up of the political imagery associated with the vandal. In the last four years, the political use and misuse of the vandalism charge has suddenly become pertinent both in France and the U.S. When the Gilets Jaunes came to Paris from out there in the fields – or, actually, out there in the suburbs, and from the 20th arrondissement, where one can still barely afford to live, etc. – the Macronic reaction focused very much on smashed glass and the grafitti on the arc de triomphe – as well as some of the small pickaxe work on said monument to French victory. In the U.S., about the same time, there was, firstly, the battle of the Confederate monuments, followed up by the extreme right’s trampling through the Capitol with Confederate flags fluttering.
: «... to destroy the statues is not, as they claim, to destroy despotism: it means destroying monuments erected by the arts, and which do honor to the arts. Let me remind you that artists of all nations have have studied their art before the statues of Caligula and Nero which were wrested from the hands of the Goths and the Vandals.”
This touches on the whole field in which politics, symbol, art and history are interconnected. Springarth connects Reboul’s discourse with the Enlightenment program, which posed itself against “barbarism”, quoting Diderot from 1754: By barbarism, I mean ... that dark disposition which renders a person insensible to the charms of nature and art, and to the sweetness [douceurs] of society. In fact, how else do we call those who mutilate statues which have been saved from the ruins of ancient Rome other than as barbarians?”
The sweetness of society – a major theme for Roberto Calasso in his maddeningly charming book, The Ruin of Karsch, which stages an encounter between the ancien regime and the genocide in Cambodia – the latter taken as the endpoint of one kind of dialectic of the Enlightenment. In his chapter, The Origins of Sweetness, he begins with an anecdote about sacrifice from Frazer. In one ritual that Frazer describes, pieces of cake are put in a hat. One piece is blackened with charcoal. The pieces are drawn out of the hat by a select number of persons in an order, and the one who gets the blackened slice is sacrificed to Baal.
Wittgenstein commented on this passage that the use of cake – of sweetness – to convey a sentence of death is “particularly terrible (almost like betrayal by a kiss)”. One of Calasso’s questions, which may seem different in Italian, where Dolce vita is still a living phrase, is how sweetness fell out of our social order. It was, as per the citation from Diderot, a way of talking about what the good life was about in that moment in the ancien regime in which it was suspected, on a large scale, that God was dead.
“After the Revolution, progress forgets sweetness. Its heart does not want it, since it is there that the demon of indefinite process dwells. Its reason does not want it, since reason now claims to be based on the Revolution, hence on the moment when sweetness was killed. And according to reason’s immense fallacy, the sacrificial victim was to be seen as the Enemy. Even its legacy could be contagious. When the very memory of sweetness is eliminated, when all history becomes son et lumiere and no longer cohabitation with protective shadows, then certain well-mening, distressing expressions begin to appear (“leisure time”, “quality of life”), just as people began to talk about “landscape” after nature had already been disfigured.”
Calasso’s thought springs from the roots of reaction. It is not wrong for all of that, although it ignores another Enlightenment theme, which found the roots of sweetness – sugar – and its production to be the imposition of the least sweet of all things, slavery, on a goodly portion of humanity – dark shadows indeed. The transposition from honey cakes to sugar cakes has been perpetually caught in the Middle Passage. It is, even now.
Still, there is something to the idea that sweetness, the sweetness of our compact, or lack of it, is in question when we talk about the politics of vandalism and we ask: who are the vandals? In the case of the Gilets Jaunes, I think the vandals clearly sit on the throne – or in the president’s house – and have sat there for decades. The neoliberal turn is a form of higher vandalism, in which monuments are judged as tourist attractions, and art is a matter of “thought leaders” giving Ted talks. The sweetness is drained form the social compact. And the two forms of diagonal protest, one reactionary, one revolutionary, have emerged around the wound, around a certain fatal sourness in our social arrangements.