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Deconstituting Museums: Opening the inquiry in a different register

Page history last edited by Helen Graham 2 months, 3 weeks ago

There are many ways of writing about working in and with museums – the living of it can be accounted for in different registers. It can be told as a report. Or as a news item or PR document. It can be written in constitutional form. It can also be a cautionary tale. Or a redemption narrative. Here it works in registers which are cautionary, redemptive and neither, lifted out of the modes of writing that requires the naming of specific people and places and into something more mythic and hopefully more resonant.

 

Traditionally cautionary tales have a certain structure. There is a prohibition. Rules are issued. There is a breach. There is a punishment. Following which order – of the rules that governed the initial prohibition – is restored.

 

In redemption narratives there is also a wrongdoing, though more related to personal integrity than simple a breach of externally-imposed rules. There is suffering. Then perhaps struggle. Amends are made. The protagonist is redeemed.

 

Rules and their legitimation.

Taking responsibility, seeking redemption.

 

Museums are poised between these narrative forms. They issue prohibitions and reserve the right to punish as they exhale and hope for their own redemption, to re-establish their integrity and to overcome themselves as they inhale. Anyone who works for a museum is caught in this dynamic, falling foul of it and railing against it as well as animating it and nourishing it. To work in or with museums is to be in the flux of institutional breath, caught between narratives. It is to be invited in, needed, part of the hope for redemption, to see the work as your own redemption. And it is to discipline and be disciplined, to be called back into line. It is a live contradiction. The challenge seems to be to make the experience instructive. To occupy the looped, insatiable,[1] mutually regulatory narrative forms and to see if repetition makes difference.[2] Or whether hope can be found in the limit-attitude.[3] Or whether it is in something else entirely.

 

Museums to be museums need to welcome challenge and contain it.

 

To keep objects safe for future generations. To make objects accessible to everyone. To represent everyone. The grandness of these three interlinked claims do, and invite, so many demands. Taking the power of representation in both senses, epistemically and politically. Claiming it is done on behalf of. These political ideas secure power through endlessly inviting critique.

 

We are, therefore, all culpable. Any demand for museums to be more representative or more accessible is part of this. The challenge is factored in, feeding the dynamic. Nourishing museums’ political ontology. All the while it is becoming harder to ignore that this is a political ontology that is defuturing and unsustainable.

 

We are culpable through being a class of people of good heart. Trying to take responsibility for our place in the world. Determined by birth and salaried to play our part in the addictive theatre that responsibilises and, through this, uses personal commitment precisely to channel and therefore foreclose personal commitment.

 

This is the Enlightenment work of the latest moderns. To still animate the dialectic. To expect to cyclically breach rules and to caution and be cautioned, without end or resolution. To be in love with the deferral of synthesis and of narrative closure. To not need the finality either of order being definitively restored or of definitive freedom. Trained to find most compelling the complex, the morally grey, the unfished story. The radical ambiguity that has lately become part of enabling continuity.

 

Yet there has been something deep, something conceptually structural, underway for some time. The breach-redemption-caution-order dynamic is only made stronger by claims to greater representation and access. It gains momentum by the force of these demands. In contrast other politics, from other traditions, with different ambitions and logics of legitimacy have arrived. Participation. Decolonisation. Climate and Ecological Crisis. Attempts to transform these forces into demands – and into access and representation – not only fail but more than that; the very attempt to metabolize in the traditional way seems now to have been defiguring the constitution of the museum body.  

 

And – partly linked to these three forces and partly not – right now in every museum other things are also happening.[4] Different ontologies are happening. Objects are also being things. Conservators know ‘the future’ for a specific material is only 30 years. People are being with other people in a thousand different ways. Feelings are flowing. Atmospheres are shifting. Small moments arise where possibilities are glimpsed.

 

To work well in and with museums is to seek to note carefully what is happening and starting to happen. To attune to what undoings and doings are underway. To tease out the fraying of the constitutional knot as well as following the line of a new slant of light. And if a new rhythm is heard then to sense out its possibilities by joining in.[5]

 

In the fertile everyday already lies alternatives. If we are careful with these nascent forms it might be these alternatives can bubble up into ideas and then designs for living together. But this bubbling liveliness indicates that it is not a question of reconstituting museums but of something more like their deconstitution. Of looking for something other than the inexorable demands which call for change as part of sustaining order. I write this – and start this project – not knowing if I can find a way to want to be free of the dual narrative forms in their endlessly self-correction. To no longer nourish the dynamic, to maintain it, to need it for my sense of self, for my personal redemption. To no longer continue to play the part I assigned myself 15 years ago in my first museum job.

 

Yet it is hard to actually slacken off. Even as I write this it is possible that I am still playing my part. Still along with many others stretching the elastic band of the museum, the tension digging into our flesh. Believing it would snap back if we let go and stop putting in that effort and too scared to pull so hard it snaps, is finished and the tension gone. Because maybe, who are we then?

 

I try. I can almost feel what it might be like to follow out other paths, other rhythms. Things we have set in motion without being able to anticipate their consequences. I am straining. I will seek to write my way. But I still can’t deny that right now it somehow still remains easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of museums.[6]

 

References:

 

Matthew Beaumont (2014) 'Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion'. In: Flisfeder M., Willis LP. (eds) Žižek and Media Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

 

Gilles Deleuze (1968 [2001]) Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. London: Continuum

 

Michel Foucault (1984) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Paul Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 32-50.

 

Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions

 

Fredric Jameson (2003) ‘Future City’, New Left Review, n.p. Available at: https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city


[1]  A term used by Tony Bennet and explored in greater detail in ‘Museums Thought Constitutionally: Opening the Inquiry’, see: http://liquidbooks.pbworks.com/w/page/144130866/Museums%20Thought%20Constitutionally%3A%20Opening%20the%20Inquiry

[2] This is a reference to Gilles Deleuze and his concept of repetition in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze writes ‘If repetition can be found, even in nature, it is in the name of a power which affirms itself against the law, which works underneath laws, perhaps superior to laws. If repetition exists, it expresses at once a singularity opposed to the general, a universality opposed to the particular, a distinctive opposed to the ordinary, an instantaneity opposed to variation and an eternity opposed to permanence. In every respect, repetition is a transgression. It puts law into question it denounces its nominal or general character in favour of a more profound and more artistic reality’ (1968 [2001] pp. 2-3). A question for my project is whether the living of the dynamic of the museum demands, of caution and order and challenge for redemption, does and can generate singularities and distinctiveness that can be noticed and cultivate for the purposes of deconstitution and ultimately of democratic design.

[3] Michel Foucault identifies the potential of a limit-attitude in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Foucault argues for a ‘philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection [of the Enlightenment]. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers’. He extends the concept of the frontiers in terms of defining ‘work done at the limits of ourselves’ which ‘must, on the one hand, open up a realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put itself to the test of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take’. The consequences of this injunction for framing politics is that ‘the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions’. A thought Foucault’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ prompts for me is how thin the lines he sets up are. When does the limit-attitude just become part of maintaining things as they are precisely through enabling the sense of challenge and change? When is the kind of reflexivity Foucault calls us towards actually a constitutive part of renewing the dialectics of challenge plus incorporation in ways that suffocate these more emergent possibilities (that are perhaps not connected to ‘limits’ but to some other spatial-temporal reality)?

 

[4] That political work and the making of alternatives is always underway is articulated by Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten as ‘study’: ‘When I think about the way we use the term ‘study,’ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal – being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory – there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present. These activities aren’t ennobled by the fact that we now say, “oh, if you did these things in a certain way, you could be said to be have been studying.” To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice. What’s important is to recognize that that has been the case – because that recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought’ (2013, p, 110). My interest in this alternative making that is always underway is important to seeking to do parallel work in constitutional and affective registers, the former forcing clarity that appears to erase what else might be happening, the latter attentive to emergent potentials that are not and cannot be contained in the constitutional register.

[5] This affective attunement is informed by the work of Nigel Thrift and Kathleen Stewart in particular.

[6] ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ is attributed to Fredric Jameson who himself attributed to ‘someone’ (2003, n.p.). Matthew Beaumont traces the genealogy and argues that Jameson ‘is probably misremembering some comments made by H. Bruce Franklin about J. G. Ballard’ (2014, footnote).

 

 

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