Most of the young people currently demolishing America’s statues were born too late to have picked up the habit from watching the attacks on statues of Lenin in the early 1990s, or of Saddam Hussein in the early 2000s. Instead, they most likely learned about the revolutionary power of iconoclasm in college. It has become axiomatic among professors of the humanities that symbols do not simply refer anymore; they actually do. They are now invested with the power to achieve real effects in the physical world. In postmodernity, symbols are, to use the academic jargon, “performative.”
The concept of “performative representation” suggests that the words we use and the images we look at do not merely reflect, but actively intervene in and alter, what we perceive as reality. In accordance with that assumption, students throughout the humanities are encouraged to challenge the very concept of objective facts. As a consequence, rational debate has been incrementally, silently replaced by the mantra that reason is Eurocentric and patriarchal. There is a serious risk that education, even knowledge itself, may devolve into a competition between various interest groups, in which every side aims to topple the sacred cows of the others. As Tom Wolfe put in in the title of his final novel, we are going “back to blood.”
Post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, whose ideas were politicized by theorists of performativity like Judith Butler, add fuel to the flames of iconoclasm. Butler and her myriad followers believe, for example, that gender is performative. It is not, that is to say, essential or natural. It is not something that one is, but something that one does, something that one performs. Along with many other aspects of human identity, including sexuality and race, gender is constructed out of performative signs. Hence the phenomenon of identity politics, forcing the political conversation away from large-scale issues like economics or foreign policy to the arena of group grievances.
There are certainly coherent philosophical arguments for such developments, and it is not our purpose here to mock them. On the contrary, we continue to write books and articles about them, and we encourage our students to consider them seriously, alongside a range of critical alternatives. But it is surely worth asking why so many of the young generation have become so dogmatically convinced, so abruptly, of what was until the late twentieth century a mode of thought largely eschewed by professional philosophers. Why are symbols now regarded as performative, rather than denotative—as doing rather than meaning? What has made images suddenly seem so potent?
The power of performative images is strongly confirmed by the experience of young people before entering and after leaving the ivory tower. By the time they start college, they are thoroughly accustomed to behavioral patterns characteristic of social media—their native habitat. The virtual environment promotes performative posing, overstatement, and bitter factionalism over rational debate, placing greater value on subjective experience than on objective reason. Online culture orients young people towards “my truth” as opposed to “the truth,” even before professors begin instructing them in the relativism of post-structuralist thought.
The very concept of having an opinion is premised on the notion that the way we experience the world through our senses is unreliable, that it calls for reflection and meditation. Today, however, it is widely assumed that an immediate, sense-based perception of one’s surroundings is objective—that is to say, “true”—simply because it is one’s own, personal viewpoint. If everything is an image, after all, nothing is an image. In order to exist, a sign needs to signify. It needs to refer to something beyond itself. In the absence of referents, the world would consist of an endless chain of empty images—signs without meaning, which are therefore not signs at all, but reality. We would inhabit a world devoid of truth, a world made up entirely of images.
And that is precisely where the postmodernists who populate today’s humanities departments believe we live. Their adjective for a world that consists only of images, a world without truth, is “hyper-real.” They have now convinced several generations of students that hyper-reality, this depthless plethora of insignificant representation, is the stuff of everyday experience. Until the recent flurry of iconoclasm, this philosophical position might not have seemed a matter of much public concern. But over recent months, it has become clear that the way people think about images also affects—some would say determines—the way they think about everything else.
That is why revolutionaries in every age have paid close attention to images. Professor Eric Kaufmann was not exaggerating when he recently wrote in Quillette, “The iconoclasts are changing minds, and could be in a position to enact a root-and-branch reconstruction of America into something completely unrecognizable to its present-day inhabitants.” But rioting mobs alone are unequal to such a task. Kaufmann forecasts the success of this “second American Revolution” because, as he claims, it is enthusiastically backed by the liberal, upper-middle class. Perhaps such people no longer have a choice. The American bourgeoisie is forced to endorse its rebellious children’s iconoclasm because it has given them the intellectual weapons to rationalize such activity. To be sure, parents have paid good money for these weapons.
Forfeiting the traditional view that it is better to defeat one’s opponent by reason than by violence may yet have dire consequences for such people. The most ruthless, radical fringes of all great revolutions have drawn much of their initial support from more peaceful, moderate parties. They have also been unvaryingly efficient at eliminating their erstwhile allies once their purpose has been served. The English Independents ditched the Presbyterians, the French Jacobins guillotined the Girondins, the Russian Bolsheviks sent the Mensheviks to the gulag. To the immediate right of the extreme Left is often the most dangerous place to be. There are many liberal members of the American upper-middle class who would do well to remember that today.
For the iconoclasts scarcely care, or even know, whose images they are destroying. Their victims range across from Lee to Grant, from Jackson to Lincoln, from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt. In England, it was recently proposed to demolish a statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The point is the act of image-breaking itself. The protestors know that images act, that they do things, that they perform. For them, a performative image is a dangerous image.
In contrast to more broadly aniconic faith traditions, Christianity has often been violently divided on the issue of images. Indeed, there have been several major periods in Christian history when long civil wars were fought over the status of icons. Two waves of iconoclasm took place in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries. Byzantium was a profoundly iconophile culture, until, quite suddenly, much of this devotion was transformed into an equally passionate loathing. The empire tore itself apart for two centuries, as iconoclast rulers alternated with iconodules until the two sides battled themselves to exhaustion, the iconodules finally restoring status quo ante in the mid-ninth century.
Another period of iconoclastic conflict took place during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant Reformation. Religious icons were not the only matter at issue, but they were a high priority for many. Mobs would frequently break into churches to smash the statues that adorned them: as in Byzantium, countless works of artistic genius were obliterated in a righteous, popular frenzy of destruction. It is tempting to conclude that we are living through a similar, albeit secularized, period of iconoclasm today.
If so, we should reflect on the responses of past thinkers to the destructive fury of the radicals. We know, for example, that Protestant leaders like Martin Luther despised the iconoclasm of those he called Schwärmer, or “fanatics.” When Luther emerged from hiding to find that a particularly violent mob of Schwärmer had torn down Wittenberg’s religious images in his absence, he was horrified. If we look at Luther’s Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525), we find that there was a time when the iconoclasts, not the idolaters, were his most reviled opponents. “This is to do away with the images in a Karlstadtian manner,” he thundered, “to make the masses mad and foolish, and secretly to accustom them to revolution.”
In fact, many Schwärmer believed in the performative power of icons even more strongly than those who worshipped them. There is, for all intents and purposes, no point in pulling down a statue unless one believes that it has real, practical power. Andreas Karlstadt, one of the most dedicated of the sixteenth-century Schwärmer in Wittenberg, admitted with shame that he feared the despised religious statues might begin to physically retaliate against their attackers: “I stand in fear that I might not be able to burn idols. I would fear that some devil’s block of wood would do me injury.” This was precisely the kind of superstitious faith in the performative power of images that many Reformation leaders were determined to stamp out.
This brings us to academia today. Over the past three or four decades, it has deliberately toppled many of its own metaphorical statues, purging aesthetic canons of many once-revered icons. In the process, it has openly and proudly abandoned the pursuit of objective truth and value, transforming intellectual disagreement into a cynical competition for dwindling power and resources. Younger academics take all this for granted. But even older generations feel they have no choice but to go along with the demands of the revolution. After all, they taught the revolutionaries how to think.
Nor is iconoclasm irrational under postmodern conditions. If signs and their referents have truly merged into a depthless “hyper-reality,” then a statue is not merely a symbol of a tyrant, but actually identical with tyranny. In that case, the pulling down of statues really is an act of revolutionary heroism. The young iconoclasts at work today are obviously convinced of that. They were convinced of it by those who educated them, and many professors continue to applaud the behavior of their protégés. Should history repeat itself, however, and should the woke wake one day to find that it is not statues of long-dead Confederates rolling along in the tumbrils but themselves, they should at least possess enough historical awareness to recall what the sans-culottes yelled at the dying Robespierre: “It is Danton’s blood that chokes you!”
This article was originally published at The New Criterion.