Lumière's Revenge (First of a series)

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation was decapitated in a local park in Montreal. Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadians across the country. To make matters worse, the head was stolen. A year passed and no effort was been made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further although a new head has been put on it. From time to time journalists have commented on the history of this loss but the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor did the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply reappear when the statue was restored.

Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn. So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start.

It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes similar levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation. The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on context and the subjective choices of the interpretator.

In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the base of a hierarchy of interpretations upon which we build and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations. Although headless, the statue retained all the qualities which allowed it to be identified with Sir John A. Macdonald. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada it mattered little whether the head was there or not. Yet as an image, the loss of the head brought the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada. 

History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.