Meaning through Absence

No1 "Think Nonument! Together" Open Call Essay

Thomas Mouton

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Ernest Hemingway: Death in the Afternoon


Historical Parallax

The Battle of Liberty Place Obelisk, located in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, is a monument to the white supremacist uprising in 1874. Erected in 1891, the obelisk commemorates the Crescent City White League’s temporarily successful attempt to overthrow the local government of New Orleans, Louisiana, put in place during the re-constructionist era.  After taking control of the city of New Orleans, federal troops were sent in by President Grant and the elected government was restored[1].  While typically any attempted overthrow of existing government would be viewed as outright treasonous, the perpetrators of this event went relatively unpunished and were rewarded with a monument placed near the end of Canal Street. Canal Street was and still is a major thoroughfare in the city that dies at the banks of the Mississippi river.  The placement of this monument established its significance. It was not until the 1980s, well after the civil rights movement and a little over 100 years after its dedication, that its location became an issue.  For an additional thirty plus years the monument sat at its new location in a less prominent and more secluded site (still within the historic French Quarter). Due to the mounting pressure in the aftermath of the mass shooting that targeted African American churchgoers in 2015, it was finally removed completely in 2017.

The life of the Battle of Liberty Place Obelisk is a small example of America’s still unhealed wounds. This monument’s path from its original placement to its ultimate removal shows the typical dysfunction and coping methods often used by Americans when confronting their jaded past.  The first reaction to the wrongful celebration and honoring of a treasonous event and its “heroes” was to merely remove it from its prominent location to a more secluded location in what may be viewed as an act of shame.  In 2017 the eventual removal of the monument finally prevented the further honoring of this event. The journey of this obelisk is symbolic and typical for many similar shameful attempts at covering up one’s problematic past, culminating with an eventual yet reluctant final gesture that removes it completely.  However pleasing any negation of this ideology is, the question remains; is it enough to simply remove a monument?


Bestimmite Negation (Determinant Negation)

The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit


In Hegel’s Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: part 1, he presents his dialectic method in three parts as an answer to his critique of Plato’s Socratic method in Phenomenology of Spirit, as it relied on the idea that when the premises of an argument lead to a contradiction, the conclusion would be that the premises are false[3].  This method often yields no premise or nothing as a result with the idea that until a new premise or position has arrived, all that remained was negation. It is at this point that Hegel forms a concept of determinant negation which presents this moment as not one of pure nothingness but a moment of defined nothingness. Framed in the context of Hegel’s dialectic, the complete removal of the Liberty place obelisk represents the contradiction of the two premises: one being the celebration of this attempted coup and the second being the objection to its existence.  The paradox of the justified removal is the negation, for the nothingness of its removal does little to confront the 100 plus years of its existence and the culture that first: embraced it and second: tried to hide it.  In this singular case the negation may be the only logical way forward as the obelisk and any evidence of its previous existence has been removed denying any opportunity to achieve determinant negation as a Nonument.

Since the removal of the Liberty Place Obelisk, three additional confederate monuments have been removed in New Orleans during the spring of 2017 by official local legislation. Of the three removed monuments, the General Beauregard monument at the intersection of Carrollton Avenue and Esplanade Avenue and the Robert E. Lee monument at Lee Circle on Saint Charles Avenue have slowly traversed the traditional philosophical dialectic method.  As both monuments were removed in 2017, they are currently at the stage of pure negation with both opposing premises.  The opportunity however exists for the negation to have a content or truth that transcends the arbitrary nothing as described by Hegel.

Robert E Lee Monument (Lee Circle), 1890-1901 (Detroit Publishing Co. / Public Domain)

Multiple discussions have been generated out of the controversy about the removal of these monuments and the question of what, if anything, should replace them. From 2017 to 2019, Paper Monuments community public art project was undertaken in partnership with local New Orleans design studio Colloquate.  The final report of the project included not only recommendations for the existing vacant monuments but also a proposal for future monuments that would better represented the city and its history of rich diversity[4].  The General Beauregard and Robert E. Lee monuments have since been removed leaving behind the statue base of both the smaller General Beauregard statue and the more prominent 20 meters high ornate marble column along with the pyramid base that the Robert E. Lee statue previously stood atop at Lee Circle. Of the two monuments, the Robert E. Lee monument stood out as the more grandiose in scale and use of architecture.  115 proposals were submitted for the Paper Monuments project for the Robert E. Lee Monument and of those 115, approximately 55 called for the formal confederate general statue to be replaced with a number of different local and national cultural figures.  The remaining fell into a more typical category of universal calls for unity, love and understanding with symbolic sculptural installations.  The unifying theme throughout all was an attempt at a sort of metamorphosis for the monument as it attempts to shed its previous identity and history.  In this way, a painful chapter is supposed to be left behind, culminating with the eventual replacement of dark histories with new associations, meaning these previous transgressions would be negated and forgotten.

Empty Lee Circle Monument (Charles Mims / CC BY )

Even with the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, the architectural elements still stand boldly, demanding more than the standard passerby’s attention in a city full of architectural wonder.  The fact is that its bold stature is only matched by its empty pedestal as it implies so much through its absence.


Controlled Narrative

This simple negation would represent a sort of half-truth: it would undo the celebration of the figure that has come to represent racism, but at the same time it would not speak of the more than 100 years of its past existence, nor of the culture that facilitated it. Simply put, removing or replacing the monument would mean telling a half-truth, as the cultural landscape after the Civil War celebrated this confederate figure for 133 years – this is now as much a part of the history of this monument as is the Confederacy and the war it waged.  This is why the complete removal or replacement may mean more of an absolution from the city’s history as those 133 years will ultimately become a distant memory. Any approach that denies the previous histories’ existence risks arriving at the same place that most unflattering history ends up, misrepresented and/or forgotten.  The issue becomes one of memory versus glorification of past events.

The monument of Robert E. Lee was officially dedicated in 1884 and stood for 133 years until it was removed in 2017.  What most of the potential proposals produced by the Paper Monuments project failed to capture was the period of time, the generations that walked in its shadow and were forced to contemplate what it stood for each time they passed it.  It is impossible to comprehend the true impact of these monuments’ tenure for each individual; if anything, the effect of its removal would have to be measured against the passing of time. The 133 years of the explicit celebration of a confederate symbol should be equally matched with at least 133 years of absence. Within the absence of the monument, there is a possible conversation, and the potential for understanding of history as well.  The ensuing conversation and discovery facilitate the correct history of both the wrongful embrace of failed ideologies and the eventual confrontation. Therefore, through the purposeful embrace of the negation can meaning be derived from the nothing.

Robert E Lee Monument foundation drawings (Case No. 56. Lee Monument. “ Some Data in regard to foundation in New Orleans and vicinity. Collected and compiled by the Soil and foundation survey as requested by Louisiana engineering society (A project of the Works Progress Administration of Louisiana. New Orleans: 1937, pp. 170-171. /Public Domain)

In 2017, the national movement to rebuke the open celebration of the confederacy marked a long due confrontation and negation of still present ideologies of hate and discrimination. Each proposal to reactivate or reclaim the Lee Circle monument will inadvertently deny the potential for Hegel’s determinant negation as it will unintentionally fracture the architectural element from its current representation of negation. Negation of a once prominent ideology, negation of any attempt to forget and rewrite history. Similar to Hemingway’s iceberg theory; the absence or omission of the statue tells the story implicitly of an ideological shift through the compelled confrontation with one’s history. When applying both, a minimalist approach to story along with Hegel’s dialectic method, the embrace of the moment of removal reinforces its place as a Nonument to society’s past ideologies. At the moment, the mere act of removal is to be celebrated.  Through thoughtful embrace of this negation, a moment of the collective consciousness is preserved, allowing for contextual reflection of where “we” have come from and where “we” may go.

Ghost of Robert E Lee: Proposal that reflects the act of negation by using the negative space as driver of a new narrative (Thomas Mouton)

Text by Thomas Mouton

Thomas Mouton is an Architectural Job Captain at WDG – Architects & Engineers located in New Orleans, Louisiana and is currently working towards licensure. He is interested in the exploration of methods for intrinsic evaluation of architectural elements gained through tactile experience. Thomas has been awarded for his work with the design/build of the Lafayette Strong Pavilion  as part of an international research project and published the afterword of Thinking While Doing: Explorations in Educational Design/Build. He has also published with the Plat Journal.

In response to the Nonument Open Call, Thomas wrote that he has always been interested in architectural elements as they persist through time, maintaining their place while transitioning in context, meaning and perceived value.  The term Nonument is particularly interesting for him as its meaning is seemingly derived not from what it is but more from what it is not – which calls for a more thorough investigation of the element itself.


[1]Nystrom, Justin A. “The Battle of Liberty Place.” 64 Parishes, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities,

[3]The Encyclopedia Logic: Part 1 of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences [Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I], translated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991

[4]Design, Colloqate, and Colloqate. “Paper Monuments Final Report.” Issuu, 17 Oct. 2017,