The Failson Cosplayers of the Southern Epyllion

Statues built not as monuments, but in revisionist hindsight, fail the test for inclusion in the canon of historiography of the Civil War

There’s a lot of powerful, compelling testimony for why Confederate statues can and should be removed, but the bad faith defense that almost all parties seem preoccupied upon is whether or not they preserve, or meaningfully represent historical events or context. They do not, and the reasoning, in this case, is very straight forward that there’s no reason, conceptually, intellectually, to let them remain if the concern is protecting the historical legacy of the South.

Post-Civil War, Southern and Northern academic historiographers mutually agreed to divide the creation of secondary source material, with southern historians taking on the lion’s share of Reconstruction, something which goes a long way in explaining how, for example, Confederate heroes in an ineffectual, and ultimately, failing endeavor like the Civil War became deified in bronze and stone decades after the war (not even immediately— the first case of this being a nonsequitor in the discussion of historical context).

I mention this because, when you consider the assertion that the statues are part of the history, this is false; one can make the claim that media like Birth of Nation is similarly rhetorical and similarly ahistorical of the events and heroes of the war, and without additional context for the racist implications and ideation involved, it fails as historical documentation as well.

However, consider that this film, for example, was a direct cause of the resurrection of the KKK— this makes it a primary source document in the study of this particular historical event. The statues are quite the opposite; they’re an attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War; they are the historiography claiming to document the event itself, not the media as context for the events to come, but of those that supposedly already happened (that it was moralistic and heroic, not cowardly and traitorous, and purely in the interests of the slaveholding economic superstructure in the United States at the time).

The purpose of revisionism in historiography is less to propose an alternative timeline of events, but usually to cast doubt or obscure the facts of a previously held prevailing interpretation; usually this is followed by a period of more re-evaluation, but no so with the former Confederacy. This revision came wholly-packed, and in the time since, we’ve seen the Confederate vision persist despite this failed state no longer existing; we’ve seen a century and a half since bring constant struggles for racial equality, the same oppressive structures reformed into ones that satisfy the liberal mindset, and only in 2020 are we seeing the mainstreaming of ideas like police defunding and prison abolition (ideas as old as the institutions themselves, but only recently in the mainstream). The point being that this demonstrably false framing of events gains legitimacy through an oppositional group failing to meaningfully uphold their own values in allowing a false record to be written.

With this in mind, is it not a valid statement to say that preserving the statues as-is is not only not really appropriate, but that one possible appropriate path if you concede the absolute falsehood of the premise under which they were constructed, and in which case, shouldn’t the communities they reside in, then, bear the responsibility of removing them and placing them in the appropriate context? In this case, what do we do with any other piece of debunked historiography? They get archived, removed from circulation, and marked as discredited. The case for preserving them as public art (under the guise of it being historical) is, then, dismissible.

As a fiction, this version of events leaves the impression that southern monument makers sought to tell this story as an epic, but as they call it in classical studies, these statues usually come attached with a mythology that, discrete from the context it’s taken from, is at best epyllion mythmaking, and even at this, it fails, miserably; a morsel of a story, it implies much more epic a narrative, yet, taken as intended, fails to do so when trying to square it with the known facts about many of these events, figures, the time they were occurring, and the fact that, well, even the premise from which defenders of the statues operate (that the war was not about slavery alone, but the rights of the states—to own slaves-) does not follow given this information. It’s not compelling as fiction, fails as historiography, and it’s not hard to see how the public, intuitively, comes away with the impression these need to come down.

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Pygmalion; a sculptor who falls in love with his creation, a woman carved in ivory. Much like Pygmalion, the defenders of this demonstrably false version of history that upholds their projected morality’s iconography (statues, media, etc.), and reinforces the inferiority of those who would tear these false icons down, are in love with their own creation more than the reality they (insincerely) claim to want to preserve; this is a class prerogative on its last legs, to say the very least about why this particular fight doesn’t seem to be ending until protestors had taken it into their own hands while the states debate this. It’s a bad faith fight, and intellectually, holds no water, so the decision of the various establishment, from schools, to municipalities, to the media, to treat this opposition as legitimate or based in some kind of nuanced reasoning is complicity in what these icons represent and what they uphold by doing so.

Consider the story attempting to be told by reenactors, by the ahistorical narrative advanced by the “history” these statues represent, it’s all a very lazily constructed LARP, and one our institutions have legitimized, despite the obvious flaws and failings and the overdue nature of the discourse around them.

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