Joel Cahen (2012, revised 2016)
With our present day awareness, the arts as we have known them up to now appear to us in general to be fakes fitted out with a tremendous affectation. Let us take leave of these piles of counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops. They are an illusion with which, by human hand and by way of fraud, materials such as print, pieces of cloth, metals, clay or marble are loaded with false significance, so that, instead of just presenting their own material self, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.
– Jiro Yoshihara, expropriated from The Gutai Manifesto (1956)
Love the fact that we humans begin our attack with such ferocity only to be worn down 2mins later. Very un-ape like. Then with our limp limbs and unable to singlehandedly destroy we form teams to increase the damage caused. It was great to at long last depreciate our attachment to stuff and learn just how difficult it is to destroy them. Initially it felt gladiatorial but consumed by so much lack of brawn, the bashing does become emotional, sometimes I was sad for some objects, but in truth it was probably the most passion I ever gave to them – wonderful.
– Stephen (text message following Scrap Club 11Sep11)
For myself, the burning of the harpsichord didn’t so much symbolize a jettisoning of the past, as it did a release of the incessant clinging to tradition (any tradition) to the degree that it stems creativity and responsiveness in the present. To be honest, the burning of the harpsichord was perhaps the most creative (and honest) act that I could contribute with the instrument at that point in my practice.
– Bill Thompson (on his Harpiscord Burning piece, 2006)
It was orgasmic! I felt totally empowered!
– Miklos (text message following Scrap Club 11Sep11)
It is the denaturing and abstraction of the actual experience of destruction that is the triumph of the technology of that destruction. In this situation, great care must be exercised to prevent theoretical abstractions from becoming part of the suppression of actual experience that culminates in the denial of identity altogether. Such denials conspire in the destruction of bodies and are the unforgivable consequence of mistaking the map for the territory.
– Kristine Stiles Ph.D., “Selected Comments on Destruction Art,” Book for Unstable Media (1992)
The following text presents questions, possible answers, and tangential thoughts that have surfaced over the last five years (since April 2007) of staging the public Destructivist activity that is Scrap Club. Scrap Club began as an idea shared with Wajid Yaseen in response to the reenactment of an Einstürzende Neubauten performance at the ICA in which we both participated in Feb 2007.
Concerto for Voice and Machinery:
On stage we were using heavy tools such as a banyorammer, drills, angle grinders, and hammers to play a scored sonic action. The destructive element of the action was appealing in itself, in fact it was exhilarating. We resolved that everyone should experience it. A sober view of the extensive surplus of defunct objects on the streets proved that there was no lack of stuff to smash.
Over the next five years we set up fifteen public Scrap Club events, in warehouses, open spaces, clubs, galleries, festivals and on the street, in London, Amsterdam and Newcastle.
The response has been impressive in the way it has touched participants across age, gender, and character. There was more to it than mindless aggressive expression. Participants found a core value in their expression of focused and intentional destruction. This intentional destruction, hereafter referred to as Destructivist, is such a powerful dynamic in society, yet there is some debate regarding its true motive. It is associated with offensive violence, vandalism, and chaos, but also with constructive and creative processes. It is how the destructive forces in nature express themselves through human action. By framing the direct experience of destruction in such an explicit manner and without any pretense other than its physical expression, can the human destructive dynamic be interrogated before it accumulates any prescribed meaning? Will this process give us more insight into the motivations for destructive actions across culture and society?
Scrap Club is an ephemeral public Destructivist act. Its initial inspiration was not to offer a response to society’s constant reflection towards order and creativity, nor to act as a metaphor for the destructive powers which counteract it. The core drive behind Scrap Club emphasizes the unrefined individual, before the sensitive and intricate machinery, the cabling and coding, the demanded dexterous and cautious handling; before the polite gestural codes of table mannerism. Here lives the human nature that finds expression through aggressive confrontation and ego driven hostility. This nature is largely masked by social and cultural etiquette, and appears only in the guise of tribal valor directed towards violent and harmful confrontation.
As we have seen in Scrap club, destruction brings a sense of satisfaction to the participant. It is a satisfaction drawn directly from the Destructivist act and its afterglow. The passion invested in the transformative act becomes itself invested with devotion. It confers a sense of true victory. That a glow of satisfaction follows the creative act suggests that this satisfaction is itself a goal and a justifiable purpose, one unconcerned with its creative or destructive catalysts. The desired neuro-biological state is attained as a result of physical effort to process change in an object regardless of its destruction or creation.
In a time where experience is mediated and filtered by digital, and increasingly uniformed, codices, Scrap Club offers its participants the feel of a real experience that relieves pent up aggression and frustration, an experience expressed in choreographic actions intended to inflict the maximum damage on those very objects that impose those codices.
BBC news item:
Released from their sacrosanct, social, aesthetic, semiotic, emotional, and mnemonic charge with each blow of the hammer and shatter of chassis, the objects produce supportive shouts from the viewing public.
The participants become gladiators in the arena reclaiming the human creative essence that has been planted in these machines; reclaiming the passion invested in centuries of technology that led up to these current manifestations; retaliating against the movement restrictions imposed on them by these machines and furniture items and against the technological bind imposed by urban society. Retaliation against the constraints these, often necessary, objects impose on us: physical constraints, movement constraints, and financial constraints.
Scrap Club adds another link in the chain of human/object relationships. Before the inanimate machinations enter the recycling chain, after being designed, created and thoroughly used, humanity has a go at smashing it up, asserting their role as creators and destroyers. Participants have remarked that there is a clear feeling of a “sending off,” of a funeral rite, despite there not being anything particularly ritualistic about the framework of Scrap Club. As the epigraphs from Stephen and Bill Thompson suggest, the destruction of the object becomes the peak of their relationship with it.
There are a variety of other practices that share the destructive elements in Scrap Club, and while entire publications could be dedicated to each of these small sections, they are only briefly recounted here. They are presented with the aim of inspiring the reader to further investigation.
The Destruction in Art
Behind matter, within matter, the creative spirit is hidden.
– Wassily Kandinski.
The Destructivist is one who becomes an excavator and executioner of the creative essence, an essence hitherto held in the confines of the utilitarian and consumerist package being smashed, crushed in its last moment of service before joining the recycling basin. The resulting debris, when examined, is made to testify to the origins of the object, reverting its branded casing to the schemas and creative spirit that had first brought it to life.
In one case, a Coca Cola vending machine was found and brought to Scrap Club. It was placed in the arena and was subjected to the hammers of the anonymous participants over several rounds of destruction. The item was then displayed on a spot lit plinth for several Scrap Club events. Now a sculpture/debris in its own right, the remains were left outside the venue for lack of space to store it. It was found by a scout for a famous artist who signed and sold it to an art collector.
It is in Scrap Club that participants become artists, passionately inflicting change on a particular material using a tool. The object, which was “whole” yet defunct, undergoes a process of sculpting, changing its shape, utility, structure, and aesthetic. It is then displayed on plinths in its new aesthetic, before it either emerges into the art market, or is submerged into the metal recycling bin. The reckless disposability of the item is inherent in the association with its lack of utility and its reason for being reforged in the arena. The intention behind its emergence as an aesthetic object is not a conscious artistic practice in the traditional sense, on behalf of the anonymous hammers that strike it, but the by-product of pure Destructivist action, the essential motivation for which is not an aesthetic one.
This disposability touches on an ambiguous core value of an item as an artwork. Is it the artistic intention of the artist that makes the item an artwork? Is it the artists’ brand name? Or is it the framework, the gallery or market, in which it is displayed?
Destructive processes have been infused with artistic processes and have resulted in new artistic frameworks so quickly and often that it is difficult to distinguish the purely destructive element within it. Works like Rauschenberg’s minimalist abstractions and Pollock’s drips destroyed previous ideas of form, and are just a couple of examples of how what begins as a destruction of previous structures can develop into a robust genre that is then assimilated into the system. It is unclear whether the artists’ motivations for their change of style started as a pure Destructivist act and only later formed into a thoughtful constructive method. Punk music in the mid 70s, for example, certainly seems to suggest such an intentional process. Here the initial motivation was destructive—to destroy the musicality and “harmonic” ideals of previous styles due to the musicians display of an inability to match the technical skills required to produce them.
In this sense what has been termed as Destructive Art in the 60s is the least destructive of these processes. It created a framework by its very definition of Destructive Art, similar to how the apocalyptic paintings of John Martin described a destructive image in a refined and framed painting.
The aesthetic of destroyed and decayed things is the subject of Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese art of decay. It also forms the aesthetic background of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. There is an appreciation for the how the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes of decay imbue each object with a unique and unexpected aesthetic.
In a similar sense, and in opposition to the conveyer belt clones of mass production, after their time at Scrap Club, no two items are left alike. They have become material to be sculpted at the hands of an anonymous force, anonymous because of the shared effort of the arena and because of the lack of intention shared in creating an objet d’art in its process. At the core of the action, there is no cerebral “deconstruction.” There is no destruction intended as a social or as an artistic statement.
As a consequence, the item becomes sanctified only as it bears the purgative force of its assailants. The value of the item (whether kept or discarded), in the eyes of its assailants, increases only as it becomes the bearer of their wrath. If that reverence is transferred between people, only then the item can be glorified and made valuable for others.
A thing is sacred if it cannot be bought or sold; a thing is sacred if it cannot be subject to (further) deconstruction. Flaws, cracks, obsolescence of all and any kind: these are the marks of the sacred, the “symbols of the divine.” We must learn from the objects themselves, in their wisdom of age and their dereliction. Intrinsic in human waste is the memory, the aura, of meaning.
– Jesse Darling, of Waste (2010)
Alongside the fetishistic attraction to the item post-scrapclub, one can find an almost spiritual attraction to the aura of these emotional actions and the transcendent value of that action in itself.
In their time at scrap club, some items get completely smashed to bits. A surviving shard of circuit board may be all that’s left. Still, the same sort of meaning can become attached to it, as it bears the memory of the action that extracted it from its dull utilitarian context. It carries passion that asserted the action and the emotional and mental context from which that passion first originated. This meaning and the process involved in imbuing it with these emotional and qualities are sufficient for the object to now be regarded as an objet d’art.
Ritual in Destruction
The rituals directed at remotely directing harm or help to a person or a thing often involve incantations, movements, particular materials or objects, and often a sacrifice or offering from the one’s belongings or body. Rituals in indigenous cultures often invoke this sacrifice alongside a fetishization of the body, objectifying it and calling to a separation of the spirit. Enduring pain symbolizes the triumph of spirit over body, uniting participants in the exclusion of the uninitiated. There are countless examples of self-harm in these tribal rituals, from lashing and scarring to group piss ups at the pub. In some parts of India coconuts are smashed on devotees’ heads. The destructive energy is often directed outwards towards objects. In Greece, breaking plates is a traditional folk custom at weddings and other occasions. It may have symbolized the wealth of the family hosting the event. Fireworks bring noise and suggest danger in the spirit of celebration. At Jewish weddings, a glass is smashed underfoot as a symbol for the irreversibility of marriage, and as remembrance of the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The happiness gained in the festivities are balanced with the mourning of loss. Warriors who go out to battle with a destructive aim must confront the knowledge that they may not return. Many have a protocol they follow that often involves superstitious charms or rituals that are intended to fuse their personal intention with their martial one.
Destruction can be a very emotional and even spiritual experience. Even as part of a group, aggressive expression creates a deep impact. It is this expression of group aggression that, on one hand, Scrap Club fragments by providing a personalized experience, and on the other hand, frames within a contained gladiatorial arena.
The procedure at Scrap Club is uniform for participants. They are picked at random, don personal protection equipment (PPE), receive a briefing, enter the arena, and lash out at the objects in front of them. While these actions are not, themselves, ritualistic, they provide a certain rhythm and standardization that frames the Destructivist action in Scrap Club. The arena is repeatedly emptied and filled with fresh scrap. These are all the mundane actions that assist in carrying out the work of destruction safely and conveniently.
Scrap Club events have sometimes included background music: noise (destroyed melody and musical narrative) and percussion played on found materials. But this has intentionally lacked any literal cultural association, or emphasized any particular genre of music, so as not to infuse the personal act of destruction with a particular and contrived ideology. Playing Black Metal during the activity, for example, might inform a particular cultural context different than would Classical Music. In later Scrap Clubs, music was excluded altogether from the arena. The lack of ritual and the somewhat dry presentation of the space helps to intensify the personal motivations for destruction without relying any one cultural pretext for the event. The common reference of genre or rhythm might serve to mask something that comes from the participants themselves, the expression of their inner space. It would become a stylized social engagement that might inhibit any emotions that failed to conform to the prescribed social form. The ritual common to most destruction, the swarm activity of it, is indifferent to the psychological and ethical stance of the participants’ Destructivist intention. It serves to exploit this innate energy for other purposes.
One does not escape meaning by dissociation, disconnection or deterritorialization. One escapes meaning by replacing it with a more radical simulacrum, a still more conventional order – like the alphabetical order for Barthes, or the rules of a game, or the innumerable rituals of everyday life which frustrate both the (political, historical or social) order of meaning and the disorder (chance) which one would impose on them. Indeterminacy, dissociation or proliferation in the form of a star or rhizome only generalize meaning’s sphere of influence to the entire sphere of non-‐sense. That is, they merely generalize meaning’s pure form, an abstract finality with neither a determinate end nor contents. Only rituals abolish meaning.
– Jean Baudrillard, excerpt from Seduction (1979)
All of the places in the individual’s psyche are expressed, in some shape or form, in public spaces. Introspection finds its public place in the temple. Dream life and social and aesthetic critique finds its public space in the art gallery. The personal space of storing knowledge and memory finds a public space in the libraries and Internet. The personal space of dealing with fear, anger, aggression and traumatic body sensations finds its public space in the self-destructive arenas of war, inter-personal violence, or vandalism.
Scrap Club provides a space for aggression to breathe, for its participants to vent and deal with their personal issues and aggression. But these expressions are not violent, in the sense that violence refers to aggression directed at people or to acts of intentional vandalism. These acts are contained and controlled, directed towards inanimate items. The arena becomes a stage where, donned with goggles and helmet, the participant is expected to perform the release of fury onto the machine. The aggression is controlled, focused, and transformed into a craft of bodily movement and precision. It is harnessed and directed in a purely Destructivist action devoid of harm.
The church contains the concentrated spiritual attention of the community. Members are more likely to exercise spiritual introspection in that space than outside it. Similarly, a place set for Destructivist activities helps focus and contain personal expressions of destruction. The demarcation of the area for destruction provides spectator controlled behavior, where the audience functions as a social monitoring unit that itself motivates self-monitoring. As opposed to the gladiator arena, the entertainment is for the participant, not the audience. The self-monitoring is not infected by audience expectation for action but instead allows personal intentions for destruction to surface. These intentions, and their inhibitors, are invariably related to a personal morality and particular ethical value.
The Strength of Ethical and Moral Convictions in Destruction
We were presented with an unused, un-tuned, 150-year-old piano. It was a relatively cheaply made piano and sounded bad; an old status symbol found in many households throughout the 19th century. It was decorative and aesthetically pleasing in the living room of the family where we picked it up. The piano had a sentimental value to the family, but they gave it away. It could have been used as a sound source, but lack of space to store it led it into the Scrap Club arena to be smashed to bits by the participating public.
During the last five years of Scrap Club activity, ethical questions regarding the boundaries of vandalism inevitably arose. Even if it was not regarded as vandalism per se, participants experienced a hesitant feeling that pre-empting the smashing up of an object. What follows are some attributes of objects that seemed to raise these moral dilemmas.
Emotional sentiment – Anthropomorphically associating an object with the memory of a person, a relationship, or with a meaningful event brings about a personal moralism. It becomes a profound personal statement to destroy something that has strong personal sentiment, even if it lacks utility, aesthetic value, or external meaning. But destroying it can release the emotional attachment to the source of the meaning that had been given to it. A participant at Scrap Club once ceremoniously destroyed a guitar given to him by his abusive father at the start of the event. This, by his own admission, helped him to deal with the strong emotions his father held for him.
Symbolic value – Smashing a logo or sign that is specifically linked with a certain ideology, product, or identity could be construed as a political act, one that can produce ambivalence as to the purpose of smashing it. In the eyes of the participant the object might be no more than discarded scrap or it might be that, by destroying it, the participant exercises revenge or constructs a commentary on the actions or the ideal of the brand behind the logo. For example, we found a plastic BP logo in a skip. Although it was collected, it was not presented to be smashed at Scrap Club in case that destruction might be viewed by participants as a commentary on BP’s policies. This expresses our aversion for the imposition of a political, social, or ideological meaning onto the Destructivist process.
Beauty – Personal aesthetic judgement can be a powerful deterrent when considering smashing an object. There is a shared sentiment among people of all cultures that beauty must be preserved, although they might differ over what counts as beautiful. Yet even with beauty there can be an overpowering sense in its destruction, a malevolent impulse that affirms that beauty can be transitory and that the self prevails.
Heritage – For the sake of historical preservation it is considered vandalism to destroy relics of ancient cultures. Is it because they are old, rare, or valuable? This is a trait that changes with society. Archaeology is a science that is ingrained in Western thought, yet the West had participated in the destruction of other artifacts of cultural heritage centuries earlier when Christianity supplanted pagan religions. Poverty can influence priorities where the present and future become more important than the past, and societies may choose to divert attention from particular histories for the sake of incitement and indoctrination. The preservation and destruction of historical artefacts become a question of social ethics acquired through particular educational regimes and patterns of cultural awareness.
Utility – Scrap Club happens at a time where machines are miniaturizing in favour of tiny electronic devices. Prior technologies of mediation are disappearing; telecommunication and entertainment have shrunk to fit in a small palm. The most common machines brought to the Scrap Club arena are large screen televisions, computer monitors, desktops, and household equipment. There might come a time when there is less and less to smash. Will that be when we are totally bound to the items that surround us–all miniaturized to fit on our clothing or our person? The exoskeleton would fit too snugly to be removed.
If an object works, then it’s “alive.” Destroying it urges us to apply the same logic that makes killing immoral, a logic that makes destroying a perfectly working object immoral. However, in an age of affluence and mass manufacture, production is cheap and objects easily replaceable. There is less lament for their destruction. At Scrap Club we present items that have been discarded, excluded from the utility and value economy. They are either dumped on the roadside, found in skips, or donated by their unwanting owners. Destroying a fully functional item in a public space is an act driven by a socially conscious agenda. It is an act of violence attacking someone else’s property. Such an attack is regarded as vandalism, although this too is largely a socio-economic concept that changes with context.
It could be argued that plenty of surplus functional products and food products are destroyed regularly. If the owner destroys such products, which could be useful to other members of society, are they vandals in a broader social sense? As providers of necessary products, do they have a social obligation that they are failing?
Monetary value – If it can sell then it has value. How important is the Destructivist act? Is it worth the financial loss? An arcade machine could have had sold for a couple hundred pounds on eBay, yet it was given away to Scrap Club with its owner’s blessing. A brand new industrial printer was probably worth thousands of pounds, but it was left discarded at a scrap yard.
All these issues imply that there is a Choice. What do you choose to vent your aggression on? This choice implies self-control, assessing your degree of Destructivist satisfaction in relation to the degree of moral ambivalence you face when you consider raising a hammer to a particular object. This self-control exercises the strength and validity of one’s moral convictions. There is a choice as to what to destroy, but is there a choice whether to destroy it? Is destruction a necessary process? Change involves destruction, and at Scrap Club we have seen that bringing about this change produces its own satisfaction. It is a process ingrained in human behavior. When does this become Destructivist, this desire to destroy?
As we have seen, Scrap Club focuses on the Destructivist act as an end in itself and not as a means to an end (“a purely Destructivist act”). This is a shift from the paradigm that regards actions as aiming at creation. Since all creations are integrated equally as destructions in the flux of change (the destructive/creative cycle) this shift simply regards the destructive act as an end to a creative one. This dichotomy is, obviously, a particular personal perspective. Change can be seen as an un/intentional flux in that the outcomes are neither regarded as beneficial or harmful, nor as creative or destructive, but as a casual constant situation. It can be seen in much the same way as a strong earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a storm, or any of nature’s other dynamics happen without a need or cause for classification. The definition of destruction through creation is a tautology, one that is prominent in Western thought. However, there is a clear idea of what a Destructivist act is. It is a process that causes damage to the intentional function, aesthetic, or cohesion of a thing.
The act of creation is glorified, encouraged, debated, dissected, and taught. It is a fundamental drive that refines knowledge and puts it into practice, materializing it and establishing it as a new means with which to acquire more knowledge. The reasons behind this drive to create and form are intrinsic to the survival instinct that calls on us to formulate thoughts and respond to our situation in the world. Knowledge and facts are attained by the dissection, deconstruction, and analysis of phenomena that progressively isolate them into simpler quanta, such as the reduction of matter to its tiniest components using nuclear and cosmic grade explosions at CERN’s Hadron Collider. Through fragmentation and isolation, these phenomena can be tested for particular attributes and, through observation, they can help form a larger vocabulary, a richer language, and a new understanding.
It seems obvious that many acts of destruction are performed as the means to a creative end. But this informs the set of values that gives justification to the destructive act, an act which has been known to involve a great deal of moral ambivalence. For an army general the destructive act of war and death of troops offers the means for the creative end of victory, while for the soldier who gets blown up, the destructive act offers only an end. This applies to countless other examples: political moves to create new markets by destroying existing economies, destroying rainforests to create cities and roads, or the destruction of people who have different ideas to install dogma and reduce the vocabulary of cultures.
By regarding destruction as an end in itself, it becomes possible to examine if there are other motivations for destructive acts, motivations which might be otherwise masked under the guise of creation. Such motivations may prove intrinsic and intuitive to human experience, as much a natural phenomenon as the drive to create. Our vocabulary could expand by dissecting and deconstructing Destruction.
Destruction as an End in Itself
There are known examples of Destructivist actions that have been done with no apparent or standardized creative forecast. These have largely been directed at individuals or groups rather than inanimate objects. This destructive drive, this “death drive,” has been explained by Sigmund Freud as standing in opposition to the “libido,” the urge to create.
Violence in the Streets
Fighting and violent attacks against others are more frequent occurrences than we might wish for. Drunken brawls or bashing simply for the sake of causing physical damage is not uncommon. It is possible that these acts are thought of as sport, competitive test of one’s strength and endurance. The reasons behind this kind of violence could fill countless journals. It is not within the scope of this text to go into the psychological or socio-demographic analysis of the motivations for interpersonal violence. As a whole though, it can be safely assessed through observation, by anyone who has witnessed a fight or been involved in one, that the “fun” comes from the violent action rather than by achieving any particular goal. The same goes for casual bashing of innocent passersby.
Anger, frustration, indifference, vengeance are all emotions that play their part. The neuro-biological process, adrenalin, serotonin, endorphins, and hormones play their own. In aggressive behavior, when directed at a living being, this coalesces as a sense of competitiveness and danger that contribute to the chemical intoxication and fervor that accompanies violent confrontations.
Two Scrap Clubs in Amsterdam, in 2009 and 2010, were held at an outdoor festival attended by families. While the grown-ups were smashing stuff up in the main arena, the children, aged 3–12, were behind the scrap heap taking stuff and smashing it with sticks or stomping on it. The parents urged us to do a children’s round and so we did. We considered whether this was a bad example. Would they now smash everything in the house, or be more liable to vandalism? Will this “license to smash” be indiscriminate?
Geared up in the protective equipment, the children held hammers and proceeded at a ferocious smashing of stuff, to the cheering of the crowd and of their parents. The effect was similar, and the children exhibited the same elation the grown-ups had. The parents thanked us, saying that “the children really needed that.” One particularly vivid memory is of a 3 year old girl lifting a toy over her head, teetering as about to fall under its weight, before finally flinging it on the ground to the cheer and applause of her parents.
Very young children are known to be destructive almost in the same way that cats are to insects. Children seem to test the structure, durability, and character of an object by destroying it, finding out its material boundaries. Its function is not important to them, they often disregard its value as a whole object. It is possible to relate this destructive nature to malicious intent. Children of a certain age know very well that the act will draw attention from their parents. They are testing the limits of what is allowed and what isn’t. The child is empowered by taking control of an eventuality and a process, creating an effect without need for language to express themselves. It is also possible to suggest that the act is enjoyed for the satisfaction of curiosity, for the sight and feel of the destructive process and the ensuing chaos. Chaos versus order.
The only accepted social reference to destruction as an end in itself is in the idea of punishment. Religious doctrines offer the most compelling evidence. Punishment, here, is examined for its fatalist consequences, not as a correctional reformative act. This is the punishment found in acts of genocide, the punishment found in religious wars.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.”
– Hosea 4:6
In the Old Testament, the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, or of Noah and the flood, present natural destructive phenomena superimposed with Destructivist meaning according to a particular ideology—the apparent motive being to purge unbelievers from society.
And when we intended to destroy a city, We command its affluent (to obey Allaah) but they defiantly disobey therein; so the word (i.e. deserved decree) comes into effect upon it, and We destroy it with (complete) destruction.
– al-Israa (17): 16
In this case, the reason for destruction is punishment, punishment for not having the same belief system. Non-conformity warrants the punishment of annihilation as its targets are not only seen as an obstacle that weakens the collective intention, but a vehicle through which the act of punishment can solidify that intention and strengthen the group’s unity.
However, this is not the reasoning presented to the people who are doing the destruction. It is the authoritarian voice of God which they must obey. This punishment is explained as a result of people turning from the word of God. “To satisfy God” or “God’s Will” is a dead-end explanation; there is no creative justification to the ensuing destruction. The whole belief system supports the unquestionable destruction in the name of God and therefore gives justification to a Destructivist act as an end in itself; moral and ethical issues absolved. This is true for any kind of authority for which subjects’ perception place them under jurisdiction. In the subjects’ view, Destructivist, punitive, and violent actions under “blind” compliance with a social, deistic, or hierarchical authority become justified as expressions of otherwise immoral and unethical actions in so-called “emergency” situations.
This poses the question whether fatal non-reformative punishment is a result of an inherent “pure Destructivist” drive, which has lost its personal expression in these societies, or whether the need to punish is a source of the pure Destructivist dynamic in a kind of precognitive act of social cleansing.
Sanitation of Destruction
An item gets disposed of when it loses its functional or aesthetic utility, or as a result of its over-production and excess. When resources are scarce, society recycles, and this enters the social and personal consciousness as a moral duty. But the process of disposal is a Destructivist one. It is done by in a site tucked away at the industrial areas of the urban landscape. The personal contact the public has with the Destructivist element is reserved to a handful of employees at scrap yards, even as consumers find themselves faced with an even larger display of brand new products.
Although there is a practical aspect for distancing the destructive process from the residential public, in terms of urban planning and toxicity, it is obvious that there is a kind of sanitation process that distances the consumers from the detritus and images left by consumed products. This emerges in the UK meat industry. Blood is done away with as a potential harbinger of disease. It is expunged from view and the consumer sees only glossy meat cuts wrapped in cellophane. In places like India and developing countries, people might have a different attitude to Destructivist activity. There, scrap is fully integrated and used visibly and openly; the object is stripped of its consumerist spangles and regarded for its material properties. It seems that one of the ancillary indications as to the degree of development of a country (usually based on its degree of technological development), is the degree of sanitization of the public domain from scrap (where sanitization is the concealment of scrap, not hygiene).
The Spectacle of Destruction
In some cultures destructive elements and detritus surface in the entertainment industry. While it is sanitized in daily life it pollutes cinema and television. Comparing the portrayal of destruction in media across cultures (in displays of gore, war, apocalypse, etc.) provides insight into different social attitudes towards destruction. It is interesting to explore the motives behind the obsession Hollywood has with disaster films and compare them to their Japanese counterparts.
One distinction is that, generally speaking, in Japanese disaster films, the disaster is not a complete wipeout. It is a wild and uncontrollable force that is confronted for the purpose of restoring order, showing the resilience of the people and the strength of technology.
In American disaster films this destruction is a form of absolution. After the total destruction, after apocalypse, there can be a new start. This perpetuating quasi-puritan New World fantasy is the primary drive behind the founding of the United States but also, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pointed out, the motivation of Capitalism:
The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions. […] And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.
– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
Online viral videos offers another insight to this attraction to the spectacle of destruction. ISIS videos, for example, show destructive performative acts such as executions or the destruction of archeological sites. They are celebrated as well as abhorred. The repeated imagery of the Twin Towers collapse is as devastating as it is fascinating. The spectacle of destruction can have this dual nature, touching on basic human emotions like fear and wonder. It is one of the reasons there is such a cathartic sensation in the destructive act.
Destruction is a seed of change, of transformation. It is an alchemical process of seeking new territory and new combinations. A common theme in the many stories and myths which have enchanted humanity for millennia is this very transformation. It has proven to be the point of attraction for these accounts.
When destroying an object there is a kind of random transfiguration. All it takes is a nudge and a destructive process begins, an apparent chaotic result that goes against all that is constructed and orderly. It introduces chance to all that is structured and man-made, the product of knowledge, order and civilization. Before a person learns to integrate within the constructs and constricts of society, and as we know, in spite of it, these processes are expressed as destruction without reason, destruction as an end in itself
In fact, destruction is fun. There is a basic enjoyment, or what Lacan terms jouissance, in engaging with the destructive process. It is through this intrusion to one’s symbolic universe that, as Slavoj Zizek puts it in The Plague of Fantasies, “…the subject encounters the density of being.” There is an assertion of one’s spirit in relation to the environment that one must constantly respond and adapt to, and the abandon of consideration for social and material constraints. The fact that societies try to conceal and hijack this apparently fruitless drive with explanations that serve its, often unethical, requirements and agendas, only serves to manipulate the perpetrators and remove the act of destruction from an initial context which is arguably ethical, personal, and subjective. An expression of a Destructivist action should remain within the realm of the personal, and remain respectful for its motives. It is important to achieve a state where destruction is exercised individually as a meaningless action within a safe framework. Only then can the destructive actions be clearly considered for their ethical grounds.