The following paper is a piece I wrote for the third issue of Studio Magazine which was dedicated to the notion of icon. In order to do so, I tried to elaborate on the article I wrote in July about the destruction of the Timbuktu mausoleums.
Iconoclasts vs. Iconodules: Understanding the Power of the Icon
by Léopold Lambert
In the beginning of July 2012 in Timbuktu, some members of the Salafist armed group Ansar Dine has destroyed several Muslim mausoleums registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This event has been covered in an over-simplistic way in the Western Media who were capitalizing on the short term emotional impact that these destructions triggered. The following text first attempts to examine the reasons behind such an emotion through the argument of the paradoxical absence of essential difference between the iconoclast and the iconodule.
The reading that the Western press gave from the destruction of the mausoleums was unanimously and categorically condemning this act. Of course, the purpose of this paper is certainly not to legitimize the violence of these actions, nor it is to promote Salafism in its combat against the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism that built and devoted those mausoleums. The real object of investigation of this first part of the text consists simply in the epidermal emotion that we, in the Western world, felt when we learned about the on-going destructions. Words like “barbarians”, “god’s madmen”, “illiterate extremists” were used by the European and American press to qualify the Salafists in Mali and, somehow, one could be driven to think that this event was more special and important than the continuous massacre of the Syrian people by its government, or than the immigrants boats sinking in the Mediterranean sea. Does that mean that a dozen of six-hundred year old buildings are to be considered more important than a human life? One might think that the relative definitive existence of a building can indeed prevail on the much more ephemeral vitality of a human being. When confronted to this unlikely situation however, a vast majority of us would choose to save a life rather than a building. Yet, something in many of us is deeply troubled when understanding the loss of extremely old and valuable buildings or documents. Is it simply the potential tourists in us that cries from being depraved from a part of the consumable beauty of the world, or does it tell us something deeper about our relationship to history and the cultural production of a civilization?
As architects we also perceive these acts as a violence towards the medium we dedicate our efforts to. We see each pickaxe destructive strike as an attack against our discipline and attribute it to the hatred of fanatics towards the artifact. We need nevertheless to attempt to go beyond this feeling in order to perceive what they signify.
The very notion of iconoclasm (from Greek eikon, image and klaô, to break) is far from being new. The three major religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have been consistently refusing “any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” During the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire engaged the most intense iconoclast era of Christianity history through a systematic destruction of any representation, painted or sculpted, of Jesus, Mary and the saints. Later, during the 16th century, the protestant reform partially based its scission with the Catholic Church on the refusal of similar representations as well as the status of saint which allows a human being to access a certain form of deity. Historical examples are plethora but it is important to question what iconoclasm philosophically stands for.
Beyond the simple fear of concurrence with god, the destruction of the icon is based on the absolute refusal for an object to be considered, not for what it is – a piece of wood with some colored pigments on it, or a block of carved marble – but rather for what it represents (from Latin repraesentare, to make present). Representation is based exclusively on semiotics and therefore requires an encoding of a subject by the author, and its correct decoding by its viewer. It demands a common understanding of the chosen code and leaves some room for interpretation, which already help us to understand why some religions forbid it. If, through representation, something can acquire more value than what its essence normally allows, no limits can be drawn to restraint this same value which can thus tend towards infinity, and therefore towards god. There is therefore a great danger for a religion to allow iconodulism (from Greek doulos, to serve) to exist. If god can be hosted by an object, then it can be multiply, or worse, destroyed. This is why, in Christianity, God can be incarnated in Jesus only if the latter resuscitates after dying. In this regard, his crucifixion can be considered as the ultimate act of iconoclasm.
This drives us to the argument of this text. The act of destruction of the icon is not motivated by the non-recognition of its power, but rather by its full acknowledgment. Somehow, we could argue that the iconoclast fathoms the power of the icon in a more complete manner than the iconodule does. When the latter might simply appreciate the aesthetical value or the ritualistic approach to the object, the former cannot stand to fully perceive the correspondence between the object and what it represents. How many Catholics receive communion every Sunday without really thinking that the liturgy affirms that Jesus’ body is effectively contained within the holy wafer? On the contrary, French author Antonin Artaud, who was interned in a psychiatric hospital between 1937 and 1946 and who was forced, each day, to swallow the host, recounts the power of such an act:
“at Rodez, under the guise of Communion, a frightful number of wafers [was] destined to preserve me for as long as possible, and if possible for all eternity, in a being that is not my own. This being consists of ascending into the sky as a spirit instead of descending deeper and deeper as a body into hell, that is into sexuality, soul of all that lives.”
This iconoclast writing clearly comes from someone who fathoms the power of the incarnation of the icon, and his description encourages the reader to perceive the strength of the symbol in a much more convincing way than any priest would be able to.
What this latter observation implies is that iconoclasts, in their active destruction of the icon, are more successful to communicate their power – often retroactively to the object’s very existence- than iconodules are able to. We would have never understand so much how the World Trade Center represents Western society than when we saw two planes crashing into it. The very fact that I don’t need to precise where, when and how the event introduced in this last sentence occurred to make myself understood, is a good illustration of the symbolic power of this destruction.
After this long yet necessary digression, we can now go back to Timbuktu and to those recent events. Salafism is a branch of Islam, which refuses any form of representation and, by extension, the status of saint for any human. For them, the erection of mausoleums in opposition to simple graves allows an increase of symbolical value that is not tolerable. In destroying these mausoleums, they nevertheless express an even greater symbolical effect, granting each of those buildings a formidable power, even after their effective destruction. This power is the reason of our affect that we examine at the beginning of this text, as only the knowledge of the codes that drive this violent act can effectively affect us. After all, we could watch the same image with an erroneous code –one that would make us interpret this scene as the demolition of old huts to be replaced by new and better ones for example- and therefore miss completely the strength of the symbolical power.
Iconoclasts and iconodules are therefore part of the same “family”. They both understand the power of the icon –again, iconoclasts might even understand it more- and simply differ in their reaction to it. While the iconodules worship the artifact for what it implies, the iconoclasts, exasperated by what they fathom, crave its destruction. In that sense, they are the two paradigms of phenomenology as they cannot accept the bare reality of the material world.