Rethinking Tomorrow's Relics

Modern society is constantly restructuring the relationship individuals maintain with their surrounding world. Consumerism has trained our minds to see objects and institutions as volatile and ephemeral realities that are external and independent from us. This shift is increasingly challenging our society’s capacity for creating relics since one is no longer active in the creation process but is a passive recipient of an alien power of production. However, although one might believe that nothing could possibly survive from our time for future generations, many counter-currents are flourishing which stress the importance of creating in the moment, while keeping in mind a broader and more durable outlook.  

The very being of a relic involves both the process of construction and creation, and the continuing relationships that individuals entertain with it. On the one hand, if something is created to endure through the ages, this reveals a purposeful bestowment of a wider meaning and symbolism. Indeed, some monuments, objects or institutions are created with the intention of seeing them become landmarks transcending the barriers of time and space. Although everything around them is changing, relics remain stable reflecting mirrors of a lost past. For instance, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was built to last centuries as a shining beacon for Christianity. Indeed, when the Bishop of Paris Maurice de Sully ordered the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1163, it was mainly as a response to the changing face and atmosphere of Paris at that time. In a context of economic dynamism and important population growth, Paris was becoming an international political capital, economic centre and a place of high intellectual wealth. In response to this turbulent period, Maurice de Sully offered a theological and spiritual approach, infused with the Christianity of that time. On the other hand, some relics have attained their status in retrospect due to the meaning individuals attach to them. For instance, antique books are becoming increasingly valuable as individuals come to see them as something more enduring and timeless in opposition to e-books or cheaper editions. Books are becoming relics not because they were created in order to be symbolic, but through the meaning and importance that individuals attach to them. 

Such core characteristics which define relics are increasingly being challenged by capitalism and the consumerist system it creates. Objects, institutions, and concepts are endlessly being created and destroyed by this thirst to consume. Our production system is no longer answering and fulfilling desires but creating them through its addiction to profit. Through this endless creation of desires, our minds are trained to see objects, monuments, and events as fleeting entities, as ephemeral realities. New creations are constantly turning older ones into obsolete carcasses.  

This phenomenon is not limited to how our society is termed a “throw-away” society or to consumerism; it concerns individuals themselves and their relationship to reality. People’s paradigm of reality is unconsciously changing; we are no longer active in the creation of our surroundings but passive recipients of a never-ending movement of creation and destruction. Our surroundings appear out of control, inhabited by an alien power. We have come to see the outside world as a fatality, as an external force moving according to its own will. Our bodies are acting more and more as boundaries between the mind and the exterior, crystallising the lethargic detachment one feels towards the material world.  

Faced with this important change, one might wonder if our society is still, in fact, capable of creating relics worthy of respect and care, and whether anything from our era will endure. Counter-currents in many fields of traditional capitalist production are already taking place. For instance, several fashion houses are trying to step away from prêt-à-porter, a symbol of the instant satisfaction of the human desire. Chanel have developed their Métiers d’Art fashion shows which are centred around one savoir-faire used in their collections, such as the Paris-Rome show of 2015 which celebrated the handcrafted feathers, lace, leather pieces and tweed. By doing so, Chanel is stressing the importance of enduring tradition, with at its core the desire to create pieces that will go beyond our time. 

Although people’s relationship with the physical and metaphysical is evolving, those counter-currents are glimpses of how some people still care about meaning and symbolism. Contemporary relics are changing form and, more generally, changing meaning, but that does not mean the end of their creation. Here, the crucial role of the individuals is brought to the forefront: a change in the individual’s paradigm leads to an internal restructuring of the core definition of the relic. The Berlin Wall, for instance, became a timeless symbol through its destruction. Its disappearance, rather than its continued existence, is what makes it an emblem of its time. Although it is undoubtedly anachronous, it has survived through historical material and in our minds. Despite being built for certain symbolic purposes, the wall was mainly a physical barrier. It is the destruction of this physicality which truly made it a symbol.   

Today, the pervading vision is focused on the past, looking more at what was, rather than what could be in the future. Arguably, this greatly impedes our capacity for focusing on, and creating meaning in, the present. Indeed, creative energy and progress are fuelled by what the future can offer. Creation is an act of moving forward, not moving back and if one’s mindset is not oriented towards the future, nothing can be created in the present. At this moment, people are chaining themselves to a dead past and a sterile present. Take for instance the emphasis today on the use of relics as warnings and as reminders of past horrors perpetrated by human beings.  

However, examples of people willing to return to the present and to the essential, both physical and metaphysical, are multiplying. Documentaries such as The Salt of the Earth by Wim Wenders on the work of Sebastiao Salgado or Bells from the Deep by Werner Herzog are attempts to capture images of the world our own society is too quick to forget and destroy. In Bells from the Deep, Herzog reports on faith and superstition in Siberia. He truly believes in the value and importance of the people he follows and interviews. His work is not intrusive or curious but a simple capturing of the present, of the richness of human interaction with the world. By immortalising beliefs and faiths, Herzog is creating something that will serve the present and future generations. It is as if Herzog knows that modern society will always overlook and discard those singular practices and that the act of capturing them on film will make them survive through time, protected from the uncertainties of modern society. His work is striving towards a capture of the moment which both acknowledges the richness and importance of the present and its capacity to become heritage in the future.  

Although of small impact, each and every one of those efforts to display a will of creating something durable, above the limits of materiality is a silent restructuring of the way people perceive reality. In fact, one can already point out a resurgence of personal attachment to noble materials, homemade and handcrafted objects. The more people acknowledge the importance of quality and durability, the more our society will have a positive importance for future generations. Since human beings have the capacity to view their own finite condition in contrast with the presumably infinite condition of the universe, creation has always been a way to survive through the ages, to leave a bit of oneself in the Universe. Although different ages lead to different creation processes, the destruction and creation of relics will always take place as a symptom of man’s finitude.  


Anna Chevalier is a Franco-Scot, born and educated in France with Scottish roots and an insatiable interest in cultures world-wide. She is a second-year HSPS student at Trinity Hall, specialising in Social and Biological Anthropology and taking particular interest in symbolic and interpretive anthropology.