They can remove a monument, but they can’t erase the sign

2021 has been a year for removing and reassessing monuments around the world, from statues of slave traders to memorials for an uprising.

One of the aims of state sponsored removals has been to eliminate a physical memento in order to obliterate the events it stood for. PSH851, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That aim can never be achieved. The destruction of the physical object can’t wipe out the sign it was part of. The sign is an infinite network of living traces stretching forward and back in time and across space. To obliterate the sign you’d have to destroy the universe. And then you’d remember the crime, inscribed forever on your unconscious. Your mind and body would have to go as well.

When the descendants of a slaver erect a grand statue to his imagined later beneficence, they don’t erase the endless records of earlier violations, with their history stretching from long before the slave trade began, to long after its supposed end. When a government censors memorials to its misdeeds, the censorship itself becomes part of the sign. Far from rubbing out the crimes, it amplifies them and inscribes them deeper into words, bodies and materials.

The traces of a sign can be loud and insistent, like an empty plinth, or they can be soft and latent, like an old book carefully stored in a great library. They can be visceral, like the remembrance of a violent death, or they can be discrete, like a carefully passed on lullaby. But since all these tracks connect, the most powerful moments are always there in the most quiet. Even long periods of shelved testimony contain just revolt.