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The Truth is Scary: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, J...

The Truth is Scary: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jacques Derrida’s Hauntology, and Museum Theory in the Battle between “Real” and “Fake”

I am certainly no stranger to the perhaps truthful exaggerations offered by Romantic poetry and prose. Maybe if we all had our minds full of opium, caressed by the velvet clad hands of our darling lovers dripping over an oil painting of ripe peaches in a crystal vase; the tip of the Swiss Alps’ highest mountain, Mont Blanc, might too appear to us in the form of “The everlasting universe of things/ [Flowing] through the mind / and [Rolling] its rapid waves, / Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— / Now lending splendor” (Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc”).

However, on the other hand, I am also no stranger to the lies of modern media consumers, who lent me the idea that the story of another Romantic narrative, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was a “fun” one—a kitschy spooky one in the likes of the X-Files’s “Post-Modern Prometheus.”

Yet, lastly, and most importantly, I am also no stranger to the emotional catharsis that reading said novel can provide. I’ll never forget its discussions (and in turn, one of my first looks into) certain philosophical truths surrounding the potential fallacies of a reliance on objective perception that is offered to us by our flesh prisons alone. The scene of the “cottage dwellers,” within which the monster has arguably one of his most important encounters with human beings, stands as one of these moments. Near the middle of the novel, the monster spots a rural cottage occupied by a small family in the midst of the mountainous crags and valley of snow he calls home. He observes them for weeks, mastering their modes of communication–both verbal and that of affect—until he begins to realize his own truth about the human experience; that it’s really just a web of intricacies, lies, memories, and pain.

It is in moments like this that perhaps Frankenstein most lends itself to confused modern readers longing for dark secrets, as the cottage dwellers and their sad stories begin to appear as ghosts in the monster’s dreams (spooky, maybe, but more in the Derridian sense of the term). In other words, the humans of Shelley’s Frankenstein begin to elicit the grand philosophical lesson that presence does not die with physicality, but rather, exists to us as various mental and/or emotional specters (a non-presence but certainly not a no presence). In turn, Frankenstein was the first to teach me that once presence or the embodied knowledge of affect has been felt, it is always felt. (This lesson would come back to haunt me big time in my later trials and tribulations in love and heartbreak).

In any case, philosopher Jacques Derrida, with his concept of hauntology, would most likely agree with the monster of Frankenstein. For Derrida, specters (of text, author ideology, feeling, etc.) are constant, even when we are not perceiving them. He notes that we cannot control when or where a ghost manifests itself just as the monster cannot control his dreams. For instance, Derrida argues that “the ghost exists although we often do not see it”.  1 In other words, the ghost is uncontrollable and ever-present. It has no concepts of space and time, but rather, appears whenever and wherever it may. In this sense, it is surely not dead, but rather, undead, immortal even. But what exactly are these ghosts, and why do they scare us so?

Derrida talking about ghosts (Source, 1983 film Ghost Dance by Ken McMullen)

UQAM professor Josette Feral attempts to tackle these questions in her discussions on the modern museum. She argues that the modern museum is a “dead space” in which the “real” narratives of history can be found lurking in and around its exhibitions like ghosts. In other words, she implies that ghosts come in the form of false narratives, and that they can surely be found haunting the halls of our favorite museums. However, through the use of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy, we can see that this space is not merely “dead,” but “undead;” coming to fruition through the ghosts that meld their way into the cleavage between fiction and non-fiction – truth and not truth – in museums in terms of linear time and historical narrative. As such museums’ “texts” of fiction and/or non-fiction are the coterminous narratives of time and space within which the actual history of the displayed objects are embedded into what Feral calls the “distinct, virtual space belonging to the other” as opposed to the narratives given to them by the museum, i.e. the “real world”. 2 For instance, a museum placard next to a painting or the biography of a historical person next to their possessions are most likely often taken as completely valid historical narratives by many museum goers, regardless of what ghosts may actually lurk behind them. This is humorously depicted in photographers’ like Elliot Erwitt’s work in which some museum-goers are more eager to photograph the art placards than the art itself. Scholar Susan Bennett would agree. She argues that museums “place curatorial interpretations on works, establishing relationships that could not have existed in the minds of the makers of these objects”. 3 However, it is exactly these forced significations that render the museum a space of competition between the real and the fake; certainly a lively act that can serve to oppose Feral’s conceptions of the museum as “dead.”

Erwitt, Elliot. Museum Watching Series. © Right Phaidon Publishing (left) Victoria and Albert Museum, London [1996] (right) Hamburge Bahnhof Berlin [1998]


With this competition comes again, a fascinating application of Derrida and his concept of hauntology as a way to see the pieces in a museum as “actors,” or players between the space of the real and the false. The idea of a competition between “virtual” and “real” narratives that render the museum a cleavage of fiction and non-fiction is a concept that even the MoMA recognized in the late 90’s. In doing so, they created an exhibition titled “The Museum as Muse,” (1999) in which renowned artists, curators, and art theorists attempted to understand the real purpose and exercise of museums—in other words what exactly the relationship between museum and truth may be. Much later in 2015, Conveyor Magazine (an independent magazine devoted to turning the gaze inwards on art) published their “Time Travel” issue even as a partial ode to said 1999 MoMA exhibit. For instance, one photographer featured in the publication, Lori Nix, plays with these ideas directly by creating photographic scenes that question the role of reality in natural history museums. Stare at that one for a bit.

Artist Herbert Distel’s “Museum of Drawers” piece for the 1999 MoMA exhibition mentioned above (Source MoMA)

Another more politically charged “real life” example of this discussion on embedded signs of intentionality as a way to create a space of alterity is performance artist Andrea Fraser’s work in “The Museum as Muse” and “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk.” Andrea Fraser’s work, recently highlighted by both The Art Institute of Chicago as well as McGill Professor Ara Osterweil’s publication “Fuck You: A [Real] Feminist Guide to Surviving the Art World,” attempts to understand art galleries and museums as sets of relations rather than autonomous institutions (a deconstructivist pathway in the likes of Derrida). Fraser argues that museums are spaces of inauthentic othering in which the dominant bourgeois culture attempts to select what is “art,” and in turn, appropriate work to suit their own narratives, erasing the ability for said pieces to “speak” for themselves. 4 Her ideas are in line with Feral’s, in that Fraser also points out that “signs and objects [when] displaced from their habitual context [i.e. their “life” outside the museum], signify differently” (Feral “Foreword” 11). Andrea’s performance pieces directly poke fun at highbrow art culture and its colonialist gaze, impersonating docents and museum professionals. In turn, she illustrates the potentials for liveliness and debate in the museum space. In doing so, Fraser lays claim to the idea that museums are not only alive, but alive with the battle between artists, their work, and occasionally, museums’ intentionality of creating virtual spaces of false narratives that erase the “real” to suit their needs. As a result, maybe we can view her as a sort of lawyer for all of the Derridian ghosts hiding behind museum narratives. Even acclaimed philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has something to say of Fraser’s work;

“Being convinced that, “like symptoms,” museums “cover over conflicts with displaced representations,” she is able, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, to trigger a social mechanism, a sort of machine infernale whose operation causes the hidden truth of social reality to reveal itself, exposing or calling up underlying power relationships and confronting human agents with an unblinking view of what they are doing” (Bourdieu “Foreword” xiv).

As Bourdieu notes, Fraser illustrates that museums rely on their preassigned narratives to aid the social realities that have created even the institutions’ own objects of art and history. In other words, in Fraser’s art, museums truly exist as cleavages of play between fictional and non-fictional narratives. The museum has its own intentionality of conserving the status quo, while artists like Andrea Fraser, act as actors in materializing its ghosts.

Similar to Fraser, Herbert Distel’s work in MoMA’s 1999 “The Museum as Muse” also sees the museum as a space that grapples with displays of authenticity. In the exhibition catalogue he writes,

“museums, especially museums of fine art, are places where we become conscious of time. Like a preserving jar, they all have the task of conserving and presenting a subject curdled with time—the artwork. But through and behind these works the artists appear, falling out of the screen of time, as it were, and become immortal”. 5

Distel’s work thus quite a pair to that of Fraser’s in that both are about a meeting of reality and fiction, revealing the inner workings of the outside world through interior museum installations and pieces. It is thus quite apropos of Distel to label museums as “preserving jars,” lending them the intentionality of the impossible task of preserving what will eventually fade within the outside world, whether it be time for Distel or the social hierarchy of the bourgeoisie for Fraser. Preserving food in jars doesn’t make it last forever, and sometimes, it really hints at its disguise when you can see the mold growing inside. Yum!

Artist Herbert Distel’s “Museum of Drawers” piece for the 1999 MoMA exhibition mentioned above (Source MoMA)

In any case, taking hints from all that intellectual masturbation I just spatted above, we can see that the museum is an incredibly complex space, and that conclusions must be drawn as to the important –and often political– relationship between museum goer, museum, and museum object. As is evident in both the work of Fraser and Distel, the museum has been shown to show the harsh realities of what is both visible and invisible in everyday narratives within and without the museum. However, my last question remains; what the hell is it that embeds these practices and significations to give them so much power to museum goers as to get them coming back again and again and again?

I look to scholar Susan Bennett, who writes “perhaps [the museum] is an archive of things that have been permanently lost. On the one hand, this might seem to produce the melancholic viewer, offered nothing more than a Proustian taste of what once was; on the other, it may well be more valuable –trusting to the same viewer for the active production of memory and meaning”. 6 In other words, Bennett sees the museum as a repository of memory. Through its discussion on the nature of truth and fiction, a museum can get one thinking about time and loss. The museum offers a chance for the museum goer to finally feel in control of memory, nostalgia, and time (something we rarely feel) and perhaps this is why we keep coming back. Memory, meaning, fiction, affect—everything—has a root in something missing. When the inner workings of their functionalities are exposed, it is almost a sort of mirror effect to the like of Frankenstein in which the first moment the monster sees his own reflection he is simultaneously disgusted and entranced….and definitely…frickin sad. We see both secrets and truths exposed to wander around like ghosts – and hopefully (in an ode to the etymology of the word museum) one day act as our own muse for future artistic endeavours and human experiences.

Notes:

  1. Benjamin D. Powell and Tracy Stephenson Shaffer, “On the Haunting of Performance Studies,”Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5.1 (April 2009): 13.
  2. Josette Feral, “Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language,” SubStance 31.2/3 (2002):97.
  3. Susan Bennet, Theatre & Museums (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013): 11.
  4. Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 162.
  5. McShine, The Museum as Muse, 76.
  6. Bennett, Theatre & Museums, 38.

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