I-cone-oclasm revisited: General Buller and his assorted Guerrillas

I have written previously about the heritage of traffic cones and statues, (November 2013) suggesting that the artful placing of traffic cones on statues should perhaps be understood as just the most recent phase of a statue’s ‘life history’, or ‘biography’. Indeed, some statues really require to be adorned with a traffic cone in order to convey a sense of being a relevant part of contemporary memorial cultures. Perhaps the Duke of Wellington Monument in St. George Square, Glasgow is the most famous example of this. Following public outcry and a social media campaign, Glasgow City Council was forced to acknowledge the relevance of the traffic cone. Perhaps more interestingly, however, both the authorised and unauthorised narratives of Wellington seemed to come together during the Commonwealth Games in the Summer of 2014, when the ‘statue-with-traffic-cone’ enjoyed a semi-official status; its image adorning mugs, T-shirts and a wide range of publications.

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Following the work of Alan Rice (2012), maybe these practices can be seen as a sort of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ – perhaps acting to subvert the hegemonic meaning of the monument as an item of ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’? But are there any further options, perhaps which can be more obviously and purposively ‘critical’?

The equestrian statue of General Buller is Exeter’s own version of Glasgow’s Wellington – often seen sporting a traffic cone on his head. One could argue that this practice subverts the pomposity and authoritative overtones that are imbued within the statue – but maybe the traffic cone inadvertently acts to tame what might be a more critical story? Arguably, the traffic cone takes attention away from General Buller; you end up focussing on the traffic cone rather than the equestrian figure. Who was General Buller? And why is there a statue of him in Exeter?

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General Sir Redvers Buller was born in Crediton, about 5 miles north of Exeter, in 1839, and fought in a series of British Imperial conflicts during the later 19th century, winning the Victoria Cross during the Zulu War. He led British Forces for a time during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1900), and was criticised by many at the time for what were seen as a series of military setbacks. Many commentators since the war, however, have argued that Buller was a bit of a scapegoat for the initial failure, on the part of the British Forces, to grasp a new style of warfare that the Boer War heralded. Indeed, some military historians see him as an innovator, who developed new tactics during this thoroughly ‘modern’ war. By recognising how Buller developed some effective ‘counter-insurgency’ tactics in the task of overcoming Boer resistance, maybe the heritage of General Sir Redvers Buller can provide a field of critical engagement to be further examined, rather than ignored? Does the traffic cone get in the way of this critical re-appraisal?

Perhaps one can argue that this statue commemorates a key moment in the countering of imperial power; one of the first moments when a modern global superpower was humbled by a group of farmers, workers and peasants using guerrilla tactics. Through this statue, therefore, maybe you can trace the resonance of Ireland, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

One of the key technological advancements through which British Forces eventually triumphed during the Boer War was through the massive deployment of barbed wire. Developed in the latter part of the 19th century in North America, the cheapness, ease of use and ubiquity of this device soon made it a key means through which conflicts have been propagated ever since (see Reviel Netz’s excellent 2004 book, Barbed Wire: an Ecology of Modernity). Barbed wire was also handy for the building of concentration camps – the world’s first civilian ‘concentration camps’ were built by the British in South Africa, during the Boer War.

Buller is a key developer of war tactics that have dominated many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conflicts. And, arguably, he inadvertently paved the way for trench warfare, concentration camps and gulags. As a master tactician of counter-insurgency operations, perhaps the use of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics for General Buller is really quite an appropriate gesture.

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The disciplinary H/heritage of G/geography

The discipline of Geography has a very chequered history, linked to imperial endeavour and global exploitation. Some scholars have refered to Geography as the handmaid of empire, while much popular contemporary commentary on Neoliberal globalisation processes sometimes seem to be related simplistically as some sort of ‘inevitable’ consequence of Geographical ‘laws’. We need to examine the Heritage of Geography quite carefully, and indeed: one of the key strands of the last 30 years or so of geographical research has seen the critical reflection on this disciplinary history, as well as its enduring legacy – or ‘heritage’. But perhaps there can be an alternative story?

The key published disciplinary histories tend to focus on Geography (with a capital ‘G’) – see the work of people like Mike Heffernan, Felix Driver, Robert Mayhew (etc.). While these excellent broad syntheses tend to involve a gloss on the ‘early Geographers’, such as Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, the overwhelming emphasis of these disciplinary histories is an institutional story, which focuses of the developing discipline in the early modern era and rise of Geographical Societies in the 19th century; some key ‘explorers’ and navigators. This is certainly a laudable project, and the reflection that such a critical history has prompted has been one of the key intellectual developments during my lifetime as an academic; since being an undergraduate in the 1980s. But, do these histories do ‘geography’ (with a lower case ‘g’) a disservice?

Jerry Brotton’s (2012: 4) ‘History of the World in 12 Maps’ argues that “the urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct”. In other words, from early childhood, we make sense of the world through a sort of unconscious ‘cognitive mapping’ process, through which individuals acquire, order and recall all sorts of information and data about their spatial environment; all subconsciously “in relation to a vast and terrifying ‘world-out-there’”. Indeed, on a simple level you could say that humans are not alone in doing this – lots of animals are ‘geographers’ too: marking territory; travelling on migratory routes; dancing to demonstrate where the nectar can be found – though it seems that humans are the only ones to make the leap from ‘mapping’ to ‘map-making’. This suggests that we need to make more room for a project that explores the (lower case) ‘heritage of geography’, perhaps alongside the critical examination of legacy of (upper case) Geography’s Heritage.

If we take Jerry Brotton’s statement seriously, then we really should be diverting our attention to realms beyond the formal discipline: perhaps we need to explore the (all lower case) ‘heritage of geography’, as well as the more grandiose ‘Heritage of Geography’. Is Eratosthenes really the ‘first geographer’? Did the ‘first map’ really get produced to aid a trade mission in Mesopotamia (at Nuzi, in present day Iraq) around 2300BCE?

Map from c2300BCEMap from c2300BCE~2

[IMAGE: Early land map from Nuzi, Iraq, c.2300 BCE. Thought to be depicting a trade route]

Such a project would make space for relations between the human and the non-human, right from the outset – perhaps a key notion within and behind all conceptions of what ‘geography’ is meant to be about. And it also immediately takes us beyond the ‘famous people’ (usually ‘great’ white men), and beyond the formal, powerful institutions. This is what I am getting at when I talk about the distinction between ‘small g’ geography and ‘Big G’ Geography – and which can perhaps be mirrored by a distinction between ‘small h’ heritage, and ‘Big H’ Heritage.

If we take a slightly simplistic view of (small ‘g’) geography – as a knowing articulation and reflection on being in the world, which perhaps can be demonstrated by the use of a ‘map’, in whatever form, then the practice of map making must have surely been undertaken by early hominids? Maps are from before the time of homo-sapiens, or Neanderthals. Map making is probably older than speech or literature – or perhaps can be seen as a means of communicating that is commensurate with early ‘literature’. Indeed, perhaps bees (and other non-humans) were the world’s first ‘geographers’? ‘geographers’ (as opposed to ‘Geographers’) have always been with us; we have always been geographers.

The Heritage of Remembrance: Personal Poppies in the Service of the Nation

As the national print and broadcast media go into ‘poignant-reflection over-drive’, this week seems to be an appropriate time in which to reflect on the heritage of remembrance in general, and the heritage of poppies in particular. What with the Centenary of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the final withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, (not to mention the apparent ‘terror threat’ at the Cenotaph events on Sunday 9th November) this Remembrance Day period seems to have had a larger profile than ever. As usual, the ‘festival of remembrance’ seems to contain many of the standard set-piece elements; of the Queen at the Cenotaph (joined, this year, by the Irish Ambassador) together with the countless regional and local events that follow a similar pattern up and down the country. Such a consciously ‘national’ activity, repeated through thousands of local rituals has become one of the key uniting tropes of British national identity. The poppy has long played a significant part in these rituals, and this year it has taken on an even greater role through the incredibly popular artistic intervention at the Tower of London.

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red: Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper. 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower of London’s famous moat since the summer. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war. As well as being a popularly well-received arts intervention, the exercise is also a fund raiser: the public have been invited to buy the poppies: £25 each, 10% of which will be shared between 6 military charities. While politicians and most of the press have been highly supportive of the exercise, there have been a few critical voices. Jonathan Jones, of the Guardian for instance, drew a good deal of venom from the right wing press, who called him a ‘sneering leftwing critic’ for having the temerity to suggest that the poppy installation was a little ‘toothless’.
See: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/31/world-war-one-poppies-memorial-cameron

It strikes me that the humble poppy has been given a lot of weight to bear. So what is the critical heritage take on this episode? The poppy installation seems to have been a resounding success in terms of public profile and interest, but what does it mean? How can this be seen as an example of ‘heritage in action’?

Taking a critical political-economic stance on this event, it strikes me as perhaps a good example of how ideas of heritage have been enrolled to raise money for essential services for ex-servicemen. One could argue that this installation invokes heritage as a NeoLiberal replacement of State responsibility with Third Sector activity, perhaps combined with a more general increasing visibility and acceptance of a Military Society. Whether one is broadly critical or supportive of the UK’s approach to military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, I find it slightly worrying that a more universal feeling of emotional debt, gratitude and reverence towards the dead of the First World War is being actively conjoined with contemporary military policy in the 21st Century. In other words, the near-Universal respect for the soldiers of the First World War is being used as a means through which to cement support (or even bully public acquiescence) for the wars of today. Rather than encourage reflection on the causes, consequences and ethical positions regarding the use of military power within any specific context, all wars are seemingly packaged together and aligned with a sense of deep reverence for those that fought in the First World War. Furthermore, the practice of using the individual soldier as the lens for all remembrance activity tends to deflect away any further critique – of why any war was being fought in the first place. A critique of any military action – the invasion of Iraq or the Suez Intervention for instance – is replaced by an all-consuming sense of general ‘poignant reflection’ on the lives and deaths of individual soldiers.

While the lens through which much of this activity takes place operates through the lives of individual soldiers, the wider ritual of Remembrance has become a powerful, and specifically NATIONAL event. This is reflected in the ‘Blood Swept Lands’ installation, in which the 888,246 ceramic poppies represent only British military fatalities during the war; not Commonwealth; not allied and certainly not including the enemy. Is this installation a prompt for reflection on the sadness, horror and futility of war (in general), or is it an exercise in the celebration of a specifically ‘national’ sense of identity? The sense of ‘pride’ that people might feel is indicative of the power of the nation, and this is a heritage practice that invokes a deep sense of national pride.

The increasingly ubiquitous omnipresence of the poppy implores us to take events into our hearts; their unquestioned significance seeping into our everyday personal consciousness. But at the same time, they prompt us to recognise the supposed stability and legitimacy of the NATION: their seemingly universal messages of vague ‘respectful reverence’ acting to crowd out other voices. Joining in with the poppy-filled reflection seems to have become a key aspect of celebrating the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. There is an imperative towards personal conduct (the wearing of poppies – particularly for anyone with a public profile); each one of ‘us’ has both a birth-right and a communal responsibility to act in accordance with a perceptibly ‘national’, yet specifically ‘everyday’, brand of common sense that is founded upon a supposedly shared heritage that ought to trump all other axes of identity. And of course the poppy provides a good setting for gratuitous Royal photo opportunities, involving a carefully chosen dress of a certain shade of blue can look so striking when seen against the sea of red.….

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As well as the Royal photo opportunities, the striking visual imagery of the red poppy has also been recently deployed by the staff of the GCHQ secret listening centre in Cheltenham, who formed a giant ‘poppy’ of colour-co-ordinated people in uniforms, which was only visible from the air (perhaps from passing spy-drones).

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These poppy-pictures are slightly banal, but that is the point of them: their banality makes them powerful. In her work on the heritage of bus shelters in Norway, Halldis Valestrand has recently written [International Journal of Heritage Studies, volume 21(1)] about the importance of taming potentially dangerous and ambiguous items of heritage by making them commonplace-and-predictable. In Valestrand’s work, every-day objects, which have potentially dangerous stories associated with them, are harnessed by the State through a process that is specifically designed to make them vague, general, predictable and banal – in her case to tell uncontroversial stories that support the idea of undifferentiated ‘Norwegian-ness’. It strikes me that the process of rendering potentially ‘difficult heritage’ (of the industrial-scale of war dead as experienced in the First World War) into something slightly banal, which the ‘nation’ can take pride in is occurring with certain elements of poppy remembrance. Once upon a time, it was peoples’ national duty to go and fight and die for their country: now it is our national duty to bow our heads in reverence to a sometimes undifferentiated militarism of ‘heroes-in-uniform’. Lots of potentially difficult articulations of the past can be made safe; made harmless – often through their ritualised predictability.