To trust our common parlance and the idiosyncrasies of our language, we’d think the worst destroyers of public property had been the Vandals. You’d thiNk they were the first to vandalise Europe, to deface the cityscapes with their taste for destruction. But the Vandals are no more vandalising than the Gothic style belongs to the Goths.
In what looks like a renewed age of riots, disturbances and contestation, the Vandals are making a comeback on our lips these days, even if it’s only as a lower-case return. There are no riots without the assault on the shared space. The Black Lives Matter-inspired iconoclasm is by no means archetypical. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris had been vandalised in another set of riots, and similar cases of public destruction are recorded each time the angry crowd gets on the move.
If use and abuse are part of the way in which an object may be received, handled and transmitted in and through history, then can destruction also be thought of as a form of reception? To destroy, topple and uproot is not always the same as to forget (though it sometimes is), although in the absence of a ‘place of memory’, the memory associated with the object is gradually lost. A great deal of loss of cultural capital from previous centuries was due to acts of violence. We remember Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, but we don’t have it anymore, as it was destroyed during the Reformation. We remember the medieval streets of Paris, but they’ve been levelled to make room for Hausmann’s modernising project.
A way whereby destruction might be made a form of reception is to promote what might be called creative destruction. Instead of toppling, smashing or blasting the uncomfortable past out of existence, transformative ways of dealing with it might be found, where the meaning is reversed, though the body remains.