Atop the Capitol’s dome in Washington D.C. there is a statue. The Capitol is quite high and it isn’t easy to get close to the dome without losing sight of the statue due to other parts of the building getting into the way. Binoculars or a high resolution image on your smart phone may be of help.
‘Zoom’, of course, is only one of many things we act out in good faith that it will help us to understand. The semiotic practice in general heavily relies on the promising inscription on the pedestal: ‘E Pluribus Unum’. We are to believe that our efforts will lead to a conclusive narrative.
The character in sight is female, wearing some sort of ancient military helmet. The latter impression is reinforced by the sword to her right. However, she is also wearing a sort of toga and the helmet’s elaborate feathers do not carry the notion of classical antiquity. In her left hand – that could be a book. Is her right breast bare or is the garment a tight fit around her chest? If I had been convinced at the time that she was bare-breasted, things would have been much easier for me, semiotically. I did not arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
What did I see? I assumed that the elaborate Metaphor up high in the sky was intended to tell me about a virtue. Safety, vigilance, resilience, … . She must be a guardian of some kind, or rather ready to defend herself, others. I could not make the connection between sword, helmet, garment and the invisible. She seemed ridiculous to me, like an early predecessor of 80s Heavy Metal Album covers, showing women sparsely dressed in latex, fighting for or against some devilish creature. According to a PBS-survey, many people have no idea what this statue is supposed to mean. A fact that was already acknowledged in the early 90s. Money was raised to furnish a ‘life-size’ copy from plaster and have it exhibited in the basement of the capitol where people can actually see it from nearby.
Zoom and re-duplication unveil the fact that this ensemble of objects is at odds with traditional iconography. But there are written accounts claiming a specific meaning of the whole to be true: we are dealing with a depiction of ‘freedom’.
How can this be freedom?
Usually whenever I look for freedom, my mind will not think of an allegory but it will go to places: Landscapes, remembered, imagined, emptied of human presence and therefore sublime will come to my mind. That’s my approximation of freedom, and as you watch me in front of these notions and images, this might become your proper romantic allegory for freedom, or the desire of freedom, the lack of it, etc.
Freedom isn’t easy, as knew Jefferson Finis Davis, who in his time as Secretary of War oversaw the creation of Congress’ freedom. The artist’s first entry for the competition included the traditional cap given to freed slaves in the Roman Empire. Since the French Revolution had (re-) established this iconic value, Jefferson Davis, the later President of the Confederacy anticipated possible ideological ramifications. Freedom was nothing to be achieved in the US, it was a rather exclusive birth-right.
Nowadays, we come to realize that his notion of freedom has not died out – it flies.
Davis suggested the helmet, turning freedom into an armed liberty. She bears little resemblance to my landscapes or Delacroix’s. But how telling is it? How telling is it that the information about Americans misidentifying the statue is only mentioned on the German Wikipedia and that the link to the PBS-Survey is broken. Fake News? How telling are constellations of facts? Are other judgments possible? What do I think about Jefferson Davis? Was he just an innocent lover of Roman helmets? How do I feel today? Is it cold? What color is the sky?
There is present text and context. They also fight with content and form of their predecessors: the authority of tradition. This core – or shell, if you will – of entities and actions is the material for events and structures and that are to be incorporated into the variety of future narratives. For example, it is impossible to claim there was no Jefferson Davis, or no civil war or that there were no slaves. However, they will mean entirely different things in 20 – 80 – 135 years. They might get new names, new roles, old names, old roles.
If material disappears altogether that disappearance becomes visible. Decisions are taken. They have to be justified.
Somebody might claim that they found an entry in my notebook from the same day I visited the statue, that talks about me being angry at my mother or that I had a headache due to an overindulgence of alcohol. What would that philological discovery mean? What would it mean today, right now, as I am writing these lines about my experience with ‘freedom’ almost six years after the actual encounter? Do I have a headache today? My mother died two decades ago. Am I a reliable source of anything? What color is the sky?
Congress’ ‘freedom’ lacks the liberty cap. Should I care?
I don’t want to think about freedom.
I want to feel free.
That’s the ultimate freedom.
Yet, if we insist on making sense, or just on talking to each other, we cannot get rid of the questions: When do you feel free and why? What does your feeling look like? If my freedom has no tradition, can I express myself? Will others respect what they cannot see?
Also, I am telling you, the sky is red. Sometimes it’s blue, Sometimes it’s green.