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On politics, aesthetics and materiality

Posted Oct 22 2011 6:00am

I started writing some comments on Thomas’ stimulating and interesting post on why museums are so apolitical , but it turned into something lengthier so I thought I would post it separately.

There is a deep and interesting fissure in how some of the questions in the post are articulated. The division that is mapped out between politics and materiality is, I think, a flawed premise. I would even go as far as to call it slightly problematic if it is meant to articulate an underlying ontology. The very notion that one could discuss a biopolitic of any kind without thinking about materiality seems untenable – of what importance is a discourse on politics that does not proceed from actual, material stuff being rearranged and redistributed? And any discourse on politics that does not proceed from a deep understanding of aesthetics (understood as the sensual engagement with the world, not as something dealing with what is pretty), seems slightly  un-tethered in how human interaction functions. The world (including the world for us) is made up from stuff being moved around, of people’s sensations and affects being rearranged. The love for things of different varieties (including things of the past) is at the heart of any ‘civilisational force’. We build things (including societies, ideas and politics) because of the ways in which the material world impacts us. I think this is an important point to emphasize, because museums, I think, have a special possibility and even responsibility of showing this object-embedded nature of the world.

Now, I will readily agree that this does not necessarily translate to an explicitly political stance in the more straightforward meaning of the term, and I certainly agree that museums of medical history could (and should) do much more in this matter. But to articulate the objects and an interest in aesthetics as something that hinders political engagement seems to me to be the wrong way about things. Our biomedical present and the politics that is involved in it, is made up of a network of material interactions, and we can show a glimmer of this network through our collections and the way we exhibit them.

To end with a quote from Lenin, someone who lived through and caused a lot of politics:

You imbeciles, braggarts, idiots, you think that history is made in drawing-rooms where upstart democrats fraternize with titled liberals. . . . Imbeciles, braggarts, idiots! History is made in the trenches where the soldier, possessed by the nightmare of war madness, plunges his bayonet into the officer’s stomach and then, clinging like grim death to the buffers of a train carriage, escapes to his native village there to set on fire his landlord’s manor.

I like the quote, not because I want to call anyone imbeciles or idiots (far from it), but because it points to history as a set of material infrastructures, through which people, trains, affects, bombs, death and hope moves around. Extending this metaphor out of the revolutionary realm, one might say that we, as a medical museum, can show the history of biomedicine ‘in the trenches’, because of our unique collections, and not despite of them.

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