The iconoduly of iconoclasm

There is no outside text, Jacques Derrida once wrote, and immediately the waters of deconstruction flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty years.

The project of iconoclasm hasn’t started with the tumbling and defacing of statues in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Nor should iconoclasm be considered solely as a reaction against physical images.

Iconoclasm in the West began with the Reformation. Although Martin Luther was not an iconoclast in the classical sense (quite the opposite), what he himself and the Reformation pioneered may be seen as the overture to an age of iconoclasm which extends to the present day – and probably tomorrow.

The destruction of images, which had been happening before Luther (the Romans did it, the Byzantines did it and coined the term, the Spanish did it), extends beyond statues, artefacts and physical icons. It is an act of contestation, of rising and raging against the ikons of authority, tradition, established doctrine and dogma. The iconoclasm of the Enlightenment, of the French Revolution, of 1968, of the 1970s, of 1989, and so on, are all tributaries of this great sacred river of opposition.

The upheavals which shaped the present age have all been fundamentally iconoclast.  But the major difference between ‘classical’ iconoclasm and modern iterations is that the representatives of the latter have become iconodules of their own iconoclasm. The iconodules (from ikon and doulos for servant, the serving of images) of the 8th and 9th centuries upheld the veneration of icons, which the iconoclasts disputed. Iconoduly had the final word in the iconoclastic controversy in Eastern and Western Christianity, and the cult of icons and other religious symbols was maintained to this day in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Unlike religious iconodules, the modern iconoduly of iconoclasm rejoices in the constant or periodic destruction of the images of the past and ends up sacralising the simple act of legitimised destruction, which becomes the founding gesture of an entire dialectic of progress and liberation.

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