‘Questioning Theories of History’ at the IHR (Autumn 2015)

A themed series of ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars organized by Kalle Pihlainen (Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of History and Political History, University of Turku, Finland and Seminar Co-convenor).

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A briefly sketched collective review of and personal reflections on the term’s papers.

(Peter P Icke)

Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen (Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oulu, Finland) launched the seminar series on 15th October with his interesting PowerPoint presentation titled ‘Do We Need an Analytic Philosophy of History’. And it became clear during his exposition that while Kuukkanen recognises the contribution that “narrativism” has made to history theory since, let’s say, the late 1960’s, he nevertheless feels that in terms of what he calls ‘historiographical evaluation’ the field has been left somewhat in limbo. In short, he wishes to go beyond narrativism into a mode of cognitive evaluation which focuses on what he sees as the ‘rational and argumentative virtues’ that histories possess. A sort of “analytic”, argumentative style of validation effected through the attention to those virtues, rational and otherwise, which are taken by him to deliver the most compelling accounts of past events, situations, etc. Accordingly, in his view we are indeed in need of an Analytic Philosophy of History. For me, however, there remains a huge, central problem with the analytic approach to history theory which fatally disrupts this view and which, I think it’s fair to add, figured prominently in the post-paper debate.

The problem is this. People, broadly speaking, read histories for explanation and meaning. That is, they seek through history the explanations for past events and the meanings of those events, thence to move on to lessons that might be learnt from them. But “historical” explanations and meanings are simply “effects” generated within history texts and they are (as Alun Munslow would put it) contingent upon historians’ arbitrary epistemic choices of, for instance and not least, modes of emplotment, tropology and argument worked up on the back of this or that historian’s ideological positioning. These and other choices cannot be shown to be informed by the historian’s object of enquiry, the past, since the past itself is mute and its surviving traces, also being mute, cannot determine or fix any particular reading of themselves. Histories, at the central and crucial level of explanation and meaning, are constituted by what we – or rather historians – put into them and there is thus nothing new to emanate from them or to be learnt from them. But the analytic approach to history theory is, by Kuukkanen own admission, sketchy on the this very pivotal matter of explanation and blind to the equally pivotal matter of meaning production. It seems to me that one has to turn to continental theory and literary theory to find adequate instruments and arguments for the purpose of grasping something of the nature of history and, I would add as an afterthought, something of history’s hopelessness vis-à-vis its central goal which is to conclusively appropriate, as if that were even possible, the actuality of the past at the level of the past’s own intrinsic explanations and meanings. So, for me the Analytic Philosophy of History, interesting though it might be in its parts, retains right at its centre a scarcely observed yet massively compromising blind spot which renders it inadequate to its task.

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On the 29th October Anton Froeyman (Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, University of Ghent) delivered the second paper of the series, ‘The Excluded Middle: Levinasian Ethics as a Middle Ground between Historical Representation and Historical Experience’. Briefly put, this paper first explored the oft-cited opposition between ‘language’ and ‘experience’ in history theory and then suggested how that conflict – between what must surely be two very different “poles” of discourse – might be overcome through the establishment of a synthesised Levinasian inspired middle ground of argumentation. And having supposedly validated this ingenious and I must say robustly argued mid-point discursive platform, Froeyman moved on to his associated assertion that, using language to its full extent, one could then actually ‘create the experience of a genuine encounter between people from the past and those in the present’.[1]

Now, I’m profoundly sceptical of the unquestionably oxymoronic construction ‘historical experience’, however defined (for there is much confusion here), and all the currently circulating claims concerning its agency or facility regarding ‘encounters’ with the people from the past, its transmission potential, its authenticity, etc., etc. However, I shall let these controversial matters rest there for the moment and turn to the paper’s central problematical premise; that it is indeed possible to find a middle ground between what are in this case two distinctly different ontologies. Let me explain the distinction in this way. History itself is a concept and any instantiation of that concept, any particular ‘historical representation’, being the contingent product of its writer’s imaginative choices worked up in the absence of any discernible referent, lacks stability. But ‘historical experience’, the alleged receipt by certain “gifted” people of unmediated (partly mediated in Froeyman’s theory, apparently) sensations and feelings directly from the actuality of the past, is of an existential and definitely not of a historical kind. So, how is one to locate a middle ground between an ‘unstable entity’ on one side and an ‘existential sensation’ on the other? My answer is that no such location exists and thus – Levinas or no Levinas, it hardly matters now –  I rather fear that Froeyman’s undeniably engaging argument is undone, for it rests at bottom on a false premise.

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We now arrive mid-term with ‘On Disobedient Histories’ presented on 12th November by Keith Jenkins (Emeritus Professor of Historical Theory, University of Chichester). This tightly argued and equally tightly defended paper, articulated about the crucial notion that ‘interpretive closure’ in history writing is not only logically impossible but also ethically, morally and politically undesirable, draws mainly on aspects of the works of Jacques Derrida and in particular on his idea of the aporia, the ‘un-decidability of the decision’. Reducing this Derridean notion to its bare bones in order to facilitate some brief and therefore perhaps risky explanation of it, I would say that the aporia rests on Derrida’s central premise that for a judgement to be worthy of its name it would have to respect the singularity, the uniqueness, of the situation being judged. To make that judgement or decision by drawing on some previous rule or judgement, thus failing to register the inimitability of the situation at hand, would be merely to perform an act of administration, not an act of judgement. Accordingly, to be just the decision called for has to be situated outside any existing rule or system and therefore, in its formulation, it has necessarily to pass through a state of un-decidability, a certain madness or lack of grounding which calls for a degree of invention. The decision, then, takes shape as a “performativity” which simultaneously performs while devising rules both exclusive to and necessary for its performance and which, consequently, will never be quite good enough, will always fail. Moreover, it is in a sense, and very briefly again, the ‘raising to consciousness of the aporia’ that for Jenkins enables and guarantees the perpetual openness of the postmodern and, further, it is this position with regard to the aporia along with Derrida’s notion of ‘reading towards the ethical/moral’ that, convincingly argued in this paper but largely unnoticed, disavowed or simply ignored by academic historians, affords the potential to fatally undercut their style of epistemologically assured histories. And what is finally being recommended here is a move in history writing, if indeed history is worth bothering with at all, towards new disobedient imaginaries which break with academic orthodoxies and offer endless openness in place of definitive closures and which, not least, engender a relaxed attitude towards creative failure.

So, how did all of this go down on the night? Well, broadly speaking I think that audience response fell into two distinctly different camps. On the one hand, those who went with the argument unreservedly and, on the other, those who didn’t much like it at all – no ‘middle ground’ here – and I shall conclude with a summary of just two common misapprehensions which surfaced during the post-paper debate and which do no service whatsoever to the latter of these two camps. I start with the fact/value distinction, both deeply imbedded in Derridean thinking and clearly articulated in the paper. The argument might be expressed thus: I don’t think that anyone has been able to successfully show, in any discourse, that it’s possible to logically derive entailed or definitive values from facts. This is not to say that we don’t routinely associate our preferred values with facts all the time but these associations are contingent, not entailed, and thus they miss the philosophical point. To expand somewhat, such associations are contingent on enculturation, ideological/moral/ethical positionings, religious beliefs, moods and many other factors which, of course, could be otherwise. There is no stability/decidability here from which entailments might logically follow and it therefore appears, in the face of un-decidability and lack of groundings, that we are free to draw whatever values, whatever meanings or significance we wish to draw from facts, both past and present. Facts, it seems to me, simply reflect the “baggage” carried to them by those who would seek to find value in them and until the logical entailment of fact to value can be credibly demonstrated – a most unlikely event – we all remain political, historical, moral, etc. relativists whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. Can this one be put to bed now, once and for all?

The second of the two points mentioned above concerns the inexcusable yet ubiquitous error of conflating history with the past. Let me put the matter this way; the past once happened precisely as it did but it has now vanished leaving traces of its passing, traces which are not to be mistaken for the sublime actuality of the past itself which is, most assuredly, beyond appropriation. Yet for some the past still has the appearance of a reified, discoverable entity situated somewhere out there demanding our attention, our humble respect and fidelity and sometimes it is even alleged to be reaching out to meet with us and to engage with us, “authentically” (how?). But there is no discernible referent out there or back there called the past, nor is there any agency out there bent on communicating with us, warning us or, as some claim, actually disrupting the present. Now to turn to histories which differ ontologically from the past. Histories should best be understood as various attempts (always failed attempts) – mostly effected through the figurative medium of narrative – at “fixing” the past at the level of explanation and meaning through what can never be more than just ungrounded, multifarious readings of purposeful selections from the surviving traces of the past. Or to reformulate, histories are inferences, shaped-up arguments of a tropological or aesthetic kind, resting on ideologically positioned readings of some or other favoured pickings from the remnants left behind by the past. So history and the past just are two very different things and those who run these terms together, thence to claim that the postmodern assault on representationalism and history collapses into an assault on and a denial of the past itself, reveal much about themselves but nothing about history theory.

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Martin Davies (Emeritus Reader in the History of the European Enlightenment, University of Leicester) presented the penultimate paper of the season on 26th November under the title ‘Enlightenment or Modernity: The Question of Historical Continuity’; an important paper yet a particularly difficult one to summarise in the space of two or three short paragraphs. Nonetheless, here is my stab at it and I start with the paper’s central premise which is that the idea of continuity, sequential chains of events/situations leading to consequences, was taken to be central to the concept of the “Enlightenment” (though it travels under other names) by its eighteenth-century advocates. And, further, that for today’s historians and advocates of the Enlightenment, and indeed the modern world subsequently created by and proceeding from it, that same premise is also taken to be both necessary and central. Moreover, this notion of continuity reaches beyond ‘temporal sequence’ to the linked concept of ‘process’, in this instance troped in the shape of a trajectory towards consequences indispensable to the notion of modernity and its historicized “self-image”, its self-completion. Thus one can discern here something of an internal, self-affirmatory, autonomous circularity of argument. That is to say that the practice of history, through its internal process of meaning making, performativity generates the idea of the contribution of the Enlightenment’s mode of thought to modernity’s own self-understanding – its raison d’être –  which, in a circulatory manner, “effects” the affirmation of the practice of history per se as its only instrument of dissemination. Succinctly put, history sees its own instrumental self-validation reflected in its historicisation of the Enlightenment.

Just to reformulate the foregoing overall position – and, if I have actually grasped the point, to further capture something of its underlying tow – I would just say that the couching of argumentation in the Enlightenment’s modernist framework of thought simply re-enforces or legitimises that very framework and thus inevitably leads to a discursive, internal circularity of argument; that is, it leads to the tautological or to a state of emptiness and meaninglessness.

But, and to further destabilise the matter, the notion of continuity in modernity (albeit of a historical or historicised and therefore imaginary kind) embodies its own contradictory problems. For instance, modernity first presents itself as rupture, rupture from a previous tradition, and the logical conclusion must therefore be that it cannot itself be immune from rupture. It cannot logically cling to the notion that it is ruled by unchanging laws or conditions but, rather, it must take account of inevitable changes in its ongoing ‘conditions of change’ which would lead to successive and thus inconclusive sequences of change. Accordingly, it would appear that the project of modernity, historicised thus, endlessly postpones its self-completion. Now, as I’ve already intimated, the various arguments which constitute this paper are both complex and fascinating and, due limitations of space, I have only stressed here a couple of primary considerations emerging from it. However, taken in the whole and by way of some sort of conclusion (perhaps, for some, an unwelcome conclusion judging by the decibels exchanged during the evenings post-paper debate), I would say that this paper, through its problematization of an Enlightenment “known” only through its historicisations, not only exposes the fictive or illusory nature of the notion of “historical” continuity with the past but it also draws attention to a certain (fatal) defect in the social process of identity creation. That is, it exposes the deep-seated limitations of a culture which, by default, is incapable of comprehending itself except through that same always self-referencing and hence problematic discourse of “history”.

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Now to the very last of this semester’s papers, a thought provoking presentation titled ‘History between Story and Argument: Reviving Narratological Analysis of Professional Historical Writing’, delivered on 10th December by Wulf Kansteiner (Associate Professor of Memory Studies and Historical Theory at Aarhus University, Denmark and Associate Professor of European History at Binghamton University, USA).

Wulf Kansteiner’s project, clearly articulated in his paper, is driven by a central motivational premise; the need to now reach beyond that cluster of earlier narrativist arguments – arguments which together are generally understood to constitute ‘the linguistic turn’ of the 1970’s/80’s – and to focus more attention on the analysis of the actual production (and, indeed, consumption) of historians’ texts, paying particular attention to the manner in which their modes of argumentation and narrativization are both framed and interwoven. And I should add right away that Kansteiner takes on board those earlier narrativist arguments, including the problematic of “reference”, but insists that such theories and considerations are not part of his exposition. Rather – and for his purposes here he used extracts from Saul Friedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination – Kansteiner demonstrated how close textual readings, undertaken with specific regard to the texts’ underlying styles of narration and argumentation, reveal certain embedded authorial unreliabilities, discontinuities, uncertainties, etc., which have the effect of destabilizing their respective segments of text. And it was argued that these authorial destabilizations, running parallel with or perhaps in a sense even mimicking the Holocaust’s Jewish victims’ own dreadfully destabilized circumstances, subsequently govern the general vein and nature of the text’s reception by its readers. Its reader’s receipt of “knowledge” of the event. Kansteiner further argued, as I recall it, for a possible prioritisation of argumentation over narrativization, a theoretical move which would, in effect, obscure the narrative component of his two-part argument and thus appear to allow forms of access to aspects of the past through argumentation alone.

But it seems to me – and I hope that I’m not misrepresenting Kansteiner’s intentions here – that this particular writing strategy, as briefly outlined above, is broadly speaking directed towards a heightening of the narrative’s reality-effects and, accordingly, a heightening of its readers’ involvement with and grasp of the events as narrated. Surely such strategies constitute deliberate and arguably arbitrary impositions projected onto their respective texts. And while it’s no doubt the case that “readers’ experiences” coloured by these impositions might be vivid and might provide insights into (in this case, for instance) darker aspects of human nature, I still remain in something of a difficulty vis-à-vis the precise positioning and originality of Kansteiner’s overall argument in relation to history theory. As noted above, Kansteiner indicated at the beginning of his paper that he wished to move beyond ‘the linguistic turn’, beyond Hayden White, into a new sphere of unbroken-ground, as it were, distanced from and uncontaminated by that earlier discursive position. But has he? Is it not the case that he remains immersed in the tropological, the poetic and the imaginative? That is to say, the figurative, aesthetic sphere of narration and argumentation which, in short, entangles him with that which he had hoped to escape. However, and notwithstanding my own probably idiosyncratic doubts in this instance, I would add in conclusion that the engrossing and comparatively lengthy post-paper debate, at times challenging and at times supportive, brought to a very satisfactory conclusion what for me has been one of the most varied and rewarding series to date of the IHR’s ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars.

Peter P Icke

 

[1] This claim is also expressed in Froeyman’s conclusion to: ‘Never The Twain Shall Meet? How Narrativism and Experience Can Be Reconciled by Dialogical Ethics’, History and Theory, 54(May2015), p177.

Seminar Paper by Alun Munslow on Wednesday 11th November

800px-E8_graph.svgThe next Futures of History seminar will happen on Wednesday 11th November 2015 at 1.30 in the Senior Common Room, St Mary’s University. Alun Munslow will be giving a paper entitled “Historical Explanation and Experimental History in 3,003 Words” in which he will revisit/re-vitalise the notion of experimentalism and argue that experimental historying confronts and up fronts the ontological distinction between the past and history.

Everyone is welcome and there will as usual be a selection of homemade cakes and cookies. For more details email claire.norton@stmarys.ac.uk or mark.donnelly@stmarys.ac.uk

Image is “E8 graph” by Claudio Rocchini – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:E8_graph.svg#/media/File:E8_graph.svg

History and Heritage Institutions: a mini-symposium

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The next ‘Futures of History’ research seminar takes place at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London on Wednesday 20 May 2015.  It will be held at 2.00 pm in the Senior Common Room (finishing around 4.30 pm)

There will be two papers:

  • Helen Bendon (Middlesex University) will talk on ‘Multiple Perspectives in Museum Settings’

Working in lens-based and locative media, Helen’s practice is anchored around the position and telling of marginal stories. She has worked recently with the RAF Museum on the Raising of the Dornier 17 project (http://rafmuseum.mdx.ac.uk/dornier17/) and is about to launch an App for Alexandra Palace Trust entitled Time Stands Still, a locative audio app exploring the little known narratives around Ally Pally’s use as a prison camp during WWI.

  • Andy Pearce (UCL, Institute of Education) will talk on ‘The Holocaust in Britain’s historical culture’

Andy has worked for the Holocaust Educational Trust, authored the Wiener Library’s travelling exhibition Never Again? Thinking about the Holocaust, and assisted the Imperial War Museum in the curation of its Moscati Collection. His monograph Holocaust  Consciousness in Contemporary Britain (2014) is published by Routledge.
The papers will be followed by an informal discussion and home-made cake.

There will also be a  virtual Dornier 17 on the St Mary’s Campus on the 20th that will be viewable via I-Pad/phone see here for more details

All are welcome. No need to register. But please do let Mark Donnelly or Claire Norton know if you intend to come so that we can organise sufficient catering.

Image taken from http://rafmuseum.mdx.ac.uk/dornier17/ (last accessed 11/05/15)

Copyright © 2013 RAF Museum and redLoop: the Middlesex University Design and Innovation Centre. All Rights Reserved.

Futures of History Seminar Series

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Liz Oakley-Brown (Lancaster University) will give a paper entitled “Reanimating the Author?: Early Modern Literary Biographies and Biographical Criticism Now” as part of the St Mary’s University Centre for the Philosophy of History’s Future of History seminar series. The talk will take place on Thursday 23rd April at 2pm in the Senior Common Room at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Toward the end of the introduction to their edited collection of essays Writing Lives: Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation in Early Modern England (Oxford 2008), Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker ask ‘How…might we conceive and write early modern lives in a time after postmodernity?’ (p.25). With this question in mind, Liz’s paper reviews some conceptual frameworks of recent early-modern literary biographies and looks toward a possible model for future research. 

Tea/coffee and home-made cake will be available. Everyone is welcome.

Berlin’s Invisible Omelettes: Human Nature and the Before Now

depositphotos_54006485-Walking-Carefully-Through-Broken-Egg-ShellsNext Thursday (12th March) at 2pm the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University will host a paper by Stephen Rainey in our Future of History Seminar Series. 

The title of Stephen Rainey’s paper is “Berlin’s Invisible Omelettes: Human Nature and the Before Now”

Abstract: Isaiah Berlin champions a sort of humanism inspired by Tolstoy to replace a C17th view of human nature. This comes through in his analysis of Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried von Herder. This analysis presents us with a way of looking at history in an unsettled, value-laden and contestable way. Whilst Berlin might be right about this view of history, it isn’t clear that his argument supports his conclusion. Specifically, it looks like Berlin remakes the mistakes of C17th thinkers like Descartes and posits a sort of human nature to underwrite his interpretive, postmodern history.

Dr. Stephen Rainey is a Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, having previously worked in European research projects in Belgium. He obtained his PhD in 2008 from Queen’s University, Belfast. Dr. Rainey has published articles on topics related to the philosophy of language, artificial intelligence, ethics, governance and rationality. He continues research in these areas and others. He also acts as an ethics expert for the ethics sector of the European Commission.

Everyone is welcome to the seminar. It will be held in the Senior Common Room at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and will start at 2pm. There will be a discussion and home made cake afterwards.

To see a list of our future seminars please click here

For details of past papers click here

For further details please contact Claire.norton@smuc.ac.uk or Mark.Donnelly@smuc.ac.uk

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Disobedient Objects and Counterpower at the V&A Museum

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Are museums, the sites where objects ‘come to die’, capable of helping us to think critically about our current politics? If Martin Davies is right they cannot. He reads them as part of a network of public institutions that use historicization to stop us thinking for ourselves while they get on with the business of replicating and reproducing the political and social status quo. ‘Museums’, argued Davies in Imprisoned by History, ‘ultimately infantilize public attitudes…They invite everyone to subordinate themselves to their historicized conception of reality…museums are just another coercive public agency which “does our thinking for us”’. London’s V&A museum is a prime example of Davies’s argument about how history-focused institutions bind political and economic values together. From its opening in the 1850s the museum fused the activities of design, manufacturing and British imperialism. Now advertising itself as ‘the world’s greatest museum of art and design’, the V&A has dealt almost exclusively with objects of elite production and commodification. Its politics of knowledge usually acquiesce in the reproduction of a common sense that suits dominant interests, including one would imagine those of its own corporate sponsors. As the custodian of a public space that is integral to Britain’s tourism, heritage work and education, the V&A is a very ‘obedient’ institution.

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Over the past six months, however, the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition, which closed last week, sought to turn part of the museum into a different kind of public space. In the words of its curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects was a project ‘both within and against’ the V&A. The free-to-enter exhibition showed how political and social justice activists often use low-tech, improvised and subversive design ideas as instruments of struggle against dominant power. Maybe one way in which the exhibition was ‘against’ the V&A was its staging in the museum’s Porter Gallery, which was built with the support of Dame Shirley Porter – best known in the UK as the Conservative leader of Westminster Council at the time of the ‘homes for votes’ scandal. Or perhaps this was an example of what Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance’. We might also note here that the coalition government, which has frequently encouraged a hard line against the kind of popular dissent represented in Disobedient Objects, effectively provided the insurance cover that allowed the exhibition to take place. This having been said, the exhibition was a departure from V&A’s usual choice of subjects. In contrast to the elitist aesthetics displayed throughout the rest of the museum, Disobedient Objects featured makeshift tear-gas masks, dollar bills defaced with slogans about hyper-inequality, textiles that bear witness to political murder, lock-on arm tubes used by protesters to make human blockades, and other examples of material culture’s role in the production of counterpower. The sparse design aesthetics of the exhibition space amplified its political stance, with its recycled chipboard display mounts bolted on to aluminium poles recalling the low-cost functionalism of an Occupy camp. According to Flood and Grindon the objects they chose for display were ‘disobedient’ in the sense that their original use constituted a micro-politics of everyday resistance – acts that often pre-dated the formation of a recognizably ‘activist’ subjectivity by their users. The politics of this everyday resistance were invariably directed towards the goals of leftist social movements from the late 1970s onwards: countering climate change, resisting colonialism, extending gender rights, opposing the damaging ways in which global capitalism reshapes people’s relations to work, leisure, technology and culture. In that sense the exhibition took few political risks, its content going with the grain of mainstream liberal political values. The material cultures of far-right and neo-conservative protest groups were excluded from the exhibition, ostensibly on the grounds that their campaigns tend to target minorities rather than authorities. So there was no reference to Greece’s Golden Dawn, for example, Germany’s Pegida movement or the English Defence League. And objects of Palestinian resistance were only a marginal feature of the exhibition’s representational strategy. These exclusions can be fairly criticised, but they were not necessarily fatal to the realisation of Disobedient Objects cultural-political ambitions.

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Flood and Grindon of course understand that representation is political and that the politics of representation are contested. In an attempt to democratise their own curatorial process they consulted widely and ran workshops before selecting which objects to include as representations. They ensured that social movement activists who lent them objects could display their own statements about what they had donated (written on yellow labels which appeared alongside the grey labels used for the curators’ comments). They provided wall space for groups who weren’t represented in the exhibition to display some of their campaign materials – over the next few months a sprawling collection of stickers, posters, flyers, post-it notes and graffiti filled and over-spilled onto an adjoining wall and across part of the floor. More important than the ethical working methods of its curators was the fact that the exhibition had some practical value for activists. On the day after the Hong Kong police tear gassed pro-democracy demonstrators in September 2014, for example, there was a spike in the number of downloads from the Disobedient Objects website featuring instructions on how to make a gas mask out of a plastic bottle and dust mask. And when the Public and Commercial Services Union used the exhibition as a space to put pressure on the V&A management to pay employees a living wage, those managers did at least agree to attend pay talks with the union.

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Perhaps in such small but worthwhile ways Disobedient Objects showed how, as Chantal Mouffe’s argued, museums can be ‘transformed into agonistic public spaces where …hegemony is openly contested’. Educational and cultural sites are critical to the formation of subjectivities, and this exhibition presented a public discourse about counterpower around which socio-political subjectivities might be formed and reworked. Yes, we know the arguments about how capital reclaims dissidence for itself, and how liberal spectators who visited Disobedient Objects might have seen the exhibition as something that performed their anti-capitalism for them as they enjoyed its spectacle. And yes, the commodification of dissent in the form of exhibition-related merchandising looked all too ‘obedient’. Even worse, as visitors exited the space they were met with an urgent appeal for funds. Was this money to be used to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the indignados, sweatshop workers and various other victims of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ that they had just been looking at? No, it was to help the V&A raise funds to buy the Wolsey Angels, four Renaissance statues that were intended for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb, but which had been seized by Henry VIII, sold, separated and eventually lost. Hilary Mantel described the recovery of the angels as ‘one of those miracles that historians pray for.’ Disobedient Objects was a least a reminder that there are better miracles than that for historians and everyone else to hope for.

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