Heads Won’t Roll

The following is a response to Stuart Robert’s guest opinion letter, “Napoleon Gallery Name Should Get the Guillotine” which was published on The St.Claire on January 28th, 2016. 


Stuart Roberts’ letter is welcomed in that it sheds light on an under-discussed socio-political problem that runs through, in a restricted context, the American “art world” and, in a much larger context, the whole of social life in the United States: the structural and systemic disenfranchisement, dispossession, alienation and consistent brutalization of minorities.

Roberts does well to pose, at its most open and general level, the issue of division along racial lines in some (arguably most dominant) artistic communities of Philadelphia. Less convincing, however, is the demand for the “guillotining” of the name “Napoleon” in the eponymously titled gallery that currently resides in 319 N. 11th Street building.

There are a number of reasons I find his position unconvincing. I cannot go into all of them so I will try to stay within the purview of what I take to be my most immediately experienced ones.

The first one that came to my mind when I read his opinion letter was that of the problem of appellation, that is, of naming. As Roberts correctly points out, the issue of naming is becoming an increasingly visible political concern in the US: think of Army bases named after confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee (Fort Lee – and not to mention Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Fort Pickett, etc.); think also of the controversy surrounding the renaming of the Washington Redskins football franchise. Naming is a part of the American political psyche that, more recently, has been brought into the light of everyday life.

However, if Americans are serious about confronting names that carry with them the recollection of turbulent histories – confrontations that lead to boycotting, protest, rallies, etc. that is, to political maneuvers – then the net must be cast much, much wider. Some examples are useful.

The city of Philadelphia is ideologically seen as the “cradle” from whence the US was “born.” The so-called “founding fathers” (the quasi-patronymic character of this universally accepted name should not go undetected if we are on the subject of appellation) are found in every nook and cranny of this city: schools, hospitals, bridges, train stations, boulevards, parks and even ice-cream parlors are adorned with names such as “Franklin,” “Jefferson” and “Washington.” It is no great secret that the so-called “founding fathers” were associated with one of the most heinous and barbarous of social realities: slavery.

Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most beloved of Philadelphians, owned (and thus openly traded in) slaves throughout his life, as did most of his associates. It is only later in life that he adopts an abolitionist standpoint (and the reasons for this are up for debate). Indeed, almost every “founding father” owned slaves. That is to say, almost every “founding father” lived off the brutal and systematic exploitation of people dispossessed of everything in such a way that they became sub-human objects to be freely traded. This whole nation is built on exploitation and slavery.

The point in question, for us, here and now, is the extent to which we should organize our daily lives in relation to the above. For example, to what extent should we drive our cars, or ride our bikes, down Benjamin Franklin Parkway or the Benjamin Franklin Bridge? Should we fight to change the newly renamed Jefferson Station? If protest means direct, political action in the very fabric of everyday life, living in Philadelphia ought to consist of nothing less than an endless battle.

The issue of naming brings me to the second issue: the problem of historical distance. When are we sufficiently “distant” from the horrors of the past in such a manner that the components that compose it can be rearranged and reassembled in ways that appear to flout the suffering once experienced? For Roberts, to tag the name “Napoleon” to a gallery is to openly mock the agonies (physical and psychological) and material hardships of those subjugated to European colonialist expansionism.

Do we still exist in the shadow of the early colonization of the world in such a way that we cannot employ a social idiom that has come to mock the very historical personage that seems to shock (at least, to shock Roberts) our ethical sensibilities? In some sense, we do, and emphatically so. The history of colonialism, however, cannot be reduced to the actions of “psychotic” individuals. Rather, it needs to be grasped, more seriously, in terms of its historical unfolding – that is, the material forces, the social relations, the economic and technological transformations that constitute specific historical junctures.

The name “Napoleon” does not necessarily recall these histories and complex sets of relations if it is invoked in its current idiomatic use. I take the members of the Napoleon gallery to refer to the social idiom “having a Napoleon complex” – a physically short man who must compensate for the lack of his stature with means of constant self-aggrandizing (if anything, the gallery turns on itself and openly ironizes both its physical scale and the more abstract and ideological notion of “stature”).

The complex refers, at bottom, to a pseudo-psychological state. Thus, Roberts’ remark that “there are, believe it or not, other small white people they could have named their gallery after who were not racist dictators” is slightly off the mark since the name does not refer merely to size, but to the psychological effects of size in a more abstract sense.

The fact that an expression enters idiom does not, of course, legitimate its use (for example, expressions such as “thieving Arab” – a phrase that emerged from British colonial exploits in the Middle East – are still in circulation in parts of the UK). The significant point to be made about the idiom “Napoleon complex” is that it refers to a specific historical individual and does not reduce a whole social collective to a single vulgar proposition. The reduction of a whole collective to a single association is, of course, precisely how Nazi Germany portrayed “non-Aryans” (Jewish Germans, especially).

I think that Roberts’ invocation of the link between French colonialist expansionism and Nazi Germany’s ideological anti-Semitism is grossly inaccurate and disingenuous. First, it seems to suggest that racism is a human pathology that is the same at all moments in history, which is to say, that it is simply an immutable essence of “man’s nature.” Second, it implies that nothing differentiates Napoleon and Hitler even though over two hundred years of dynamic socio-historical transformation separates them (was France in the immediate aftermath of the revolution the same as an economically crippled Germany in the 1920s?).

Such a mindless reduction of history into a kind of unchanging continuum of linear transition suggests the complete disavowal of any serious consideration of precisely how something like modern racism emerges, and by extension, how it continues to manifest itself in contemporary life. I think it is brutally reductive to equate colonialist expansionism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the ethno-orientated fascism of the mid-twentieth century (accumulation of “wealth” by dispossession is an internal part of European expansionism – what were the material underpinnings of the extermination of millions of Jews, homosexuals and disabled people? Dispossession, surely; but is it of the same kind? A material reason does not “excuse” anything, it simply sets up important dimensions into play in any understanding of a phenomenon such as racism).

The sense of historical differentiation reflects on the notion of “historical distance.” The only way I can make sense of this is by posing a rhetorical question: why, within the context of idiom, do we not speak of an “Adolf,” “Joseph,” “Benito,” “Ante,” “Idi,” “Mao,” “Pol,” “Augusto,” or “Saddam” complex? Why do we not speak of an “American (foreign policy) complex”? A great many people in the world live in clear memory of atrocities that occurred relatively recently. Some continue to suffer as a direct cause of the social upheavals of the mid-late twentieth century.

This means, above all, that political and cultural protests need to take aim where unresolved, active problems are sustained. It does not strike me that the name of the Napoleon gallery, and the members who represent it, adequately locates the very real problems of racial – not to mention, economic, gender, sexual orientation and (most importantly, I would argue) class – divisions that puncture the artistic make-up of the city of Philadelphia.

Changing the gallery name is most certainly not an “important step” as Roberts proclaims. To change the name would be, at best, an inert gesture that gives the impression of “progressivism” since it would do nothing to the divisions that it supposedly symbolically reflects. That said, I believe that we do need to heed Roberts’ exigent call for more attention to the social imbalances and asymmetries that structure this city since they are such an integral part of life in the United States.

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