Friday, 2 January 2015

MUSEOLOGY AND CULTURAL THEORY: ‘THE NEOLIBERAL MUSEUM’

THESIS COLUMN: SPECIAL ISSUE

BY: NICOLE RITCHIE

(Images are texts that have highly influenced this paper)


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For the colloquium, I will present a select portion of my reading course paper in which I outline and critique the neoliberal rhetoric and subsequent affects that I argue to be permeating arts and cultural space. It provides the theoretical premise for ‘the museum’ within my argument, constructing its historical foundations and contemporary ideological context, which I argue influences its subsequent implication of rhetorics and affiliated affects. Through this, I will argue that arts and cultural space - that is, museums and galleries, more broadly, representative of a large ‘whole’, such as nations - are very much influenced by the rhetoric and values maintained by our neoliberal, postmodern, cultural-capitalist states of the ‘West’, broadly defined here as including the USA, Canada, and Britain.

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I first provide a description of neoliberalism and postmodernism, highlighting core concepts that are relevant to my argument. Following this, I describe the emergence of ‘the disciplinary museum’ in order to tie such rhetorics into the foundation of the museum, ultimately stemming into discussion about the persistent power and discipline of museum spaces. The final section elucidates what I see as two simultaneous layers - ‘the whole’ and ‘the selves’ - of ‘the neoliberal museum’ in our contemporary moment, a museum that strategically puts to play disciplinary power in dialogue with neoliberal, postmodern rhetorics. In particular, these sections analyze the persistent practice of ‘nationing’ whilst also harnessing identitarian politics into the neoliberal fold of inclusivity and diversity, such as within the representation of queers and human rights museums.

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The language of rhetorics and subsequent affects is persistently utilized because I will argue, at a later point in my project, that such narratives and affects can be placed in dialogue with queer theory. Thus, this paper is the first step in working towards my argument that such neoliberal rhetorics that incorporate ‘queers’ into neoliberal, postmodern rhetorics have been playing into neoliberal affects, such as the promise of happiness (Ahmed), cruel optimism (Berlant), and the valorization of normal (Warner). And, even further, I will be analyzing the use of these rhetorics and subsequent affects within the context of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), looking more closely at the representation of queers within a human rights rhetoric in the context of a Canadian national, cultural institution. At this time, though, I strategically construct and argue for the foundation and context in which I see my core object of study - the museum of our contemporary time, ‘the neoliberal museum’ - embedded historically on a disciplinary structure and folded into neoliberal, postmodern rhetorics within a cultural-capitalist state, working towards, here, the creation of space for interrogation and potentiality.

While only a select portion of this paper will be presented at our Museology & Cultural Theory Colloquium on January 7th at noon (location TBA), broader questions and conversations can be had in relation to my presentation and research in general!

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Print
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge: 
Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

And now for some questions from Robin and Katie:

Robin: You use the term ‘nationing’ - what specifically do you mean by it?

I focus on the neoliberal rhetorics and incentive for ‘nationing’ - that is, the disciplinary perpetuation of a ‘whole’ in which the identitarian ‘selves’ of neoliberalism are immersed. For my purposes, I call this ‘nationing’ - that is, the creation of cohesion, oneness, homogeneity, a community, an identity across a nation. Nationing practices are positioned here as a furthering of this disciplinary power, forming a cohesive and shared value system across time and space, constructing cultural subjects. It is this construction, and its presumption of citizen participation and unity in shared histories and subsequent moral rhetorics for everyday life, that presents a normalizing function of who is recognized as a citizen and what the correct pathway for citizenry is. By participating in national cultures, one is rendered a citizen and subsuming those identities, values, and thus belonging, which is an important mode of discipline and regulation that ultimately educates the public according to normative narratives and systems of culture. As will become key in my larger argument, it is those who do not fit within this normative narrative and/or the negotiation of this barrier of the normal that present the intrinsic problem with these normative narratives for queers. Thus, nationing is a critical aspect of the disciplinary nature of cultural narratives (and the affiliated affects) and the formation of selves within a whole, creating and disciplining that whole according to what one strives to reach or maintain. I discuss this practice of nationing in relation to three core concepts - temporality, affect, and spatiality.

Katie: Do you think the development of the disciplinary museum and the interest in creating a cohesive identity through collections and displays has made it difficult for other histories or identities to permeate these narratives?

This question, Katie, relates a lot to my answer to Robin’s question above. I do believe that the contemporary museum is inescapably tied to its disciplinary, foundational structure and purpose, and its practices and disciplinary technologies emerge in our contemporary moment through neoliberal, postmodern rhetorics and affects. It is in the ‘nationing’ space, I argue, that the museum puts to play the neoliberal notions of individual freedom and responsibility, and identity politics and alternatives, as well as the endless pathway for the incomplete, postmodern self. In short, I do think that the dominant ‘whole’ that attempts to form belonging and normativity through a cohesive identity has made it difficult for other identities to permeate these spaces. However, more so, my argument believes that the move in the late 20th century in museum practice towards a community participation and multi-perspective practice ties directly into the ‘culture wars’ and the birth of ‘identity politics’ in the 1980s and 1990s. I believe that this shift in museological practice further entrenches neoliberal rhetorics, strategically turning to identitarian selves at this time. There is a persistent neoliberal disciplining of these rhetorics as only encompassing a normalized - that is, limited - version of inclusivity and diversity. I believe that these practices have a tendency to implicate the self into an endless path of neoliberal rhetoric and affiliated affects, becoming a tool of these overarching ideologies and disciplines.

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