The Object of Corruption

Objects are ascribed meanings according to the cultural agenda of the museum and the preferred knowledge of the larger culture that the museum represents. The UK Museum of Ordure is consistent with this, and in keeping with the destructive tendencies of capitalist relations of production, its collection is subject to an unmanageable process of corruption that slowly deforms and disables its data. This is not simply a question of a politics of the representation of ordure but also a process of ordure in itself that slowly ‘corrupts’ all in its collection. The broader suggestion is that if capitalism is by definition a system of corruption, how might we conceive of its negation.

A critique of the institution of the museum is nothing new. In ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’ (1990), Douglas Crimp argued that museums strive to represent art coherently and provide a prescribed meaning to the object through an imposed order. In a similar way, Susan Stewart (in Clifford, 2000: 61) described how the museum creates the illusion of adequate representation of a world by ‘first taking objects out of their specific context of production and then making them stand for abstract wholes’. The museum, and the other institutions that present objects to us, permeates itself into every cell of the object – every fragment and pixel. This is analogous to what Mannheim called ‘total ideology – the despotism of a fragment imposing itself as the pseudo-knowledge of a frozen whole, as a totalitarian worldview.’ (in Debord, 1995: 150-1) In other words, the concept of the museum is a strange perversity, sustained by a series of systematic fictions. Eugenio Donato describes this as the: ‘uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that is to say, the spatial juxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world. Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but “bric-a-brac”, a heap of meaningless and valueless fragments of objects.’ (1990: 49)

The Museum of Ordure takes this idea at face value in collecting ordure (rubbish, shit, waste), aiming to draw attention to what and how the culture assigns value. In the Museum of Ordure, the value and status of its objects are left in question. Operating in the spirit of artist’s dealing with the material of shit and producing shit (eg. Manzoni), the Museum of Ordure aims to question the relationship of what we produce and its relative value in the wider culture and economy. Inadequate toilet training has contributed to a particular form of political organisation, wherein capital and surplus-value are produced and reproduced in limitless transformation. The museum perhaps poses the question whether the best kind of ordure resists commodification?

At the other end of the cultural stratification lies the traditional museum, holding vast and predominantly dusty collections of ‘bric-a-brac’ with an equally dubious hold over preferred value and meaning. The curators at the Museum of Ordure would no doubt be as interested in what a conventional museum like this – Ulster Museum – chooses not to display, or indeed what it chooses to label use-less, worth-less, value-less. As a result, UKMO refuses to fix the object in such a way that it might be ascribed meaning and value in the conservative (conservatorial) sense. Moreover, the curatorial intention is to destabilise meanings and value, in recognition of the process of their construction and their ‘immaterial’ form.

By the use of the term ‘immaterial’, the aim is to situate the museum in terms of the contemporary mode of production. The mode of production has undergone dramatic transformations, characterised by flexibility, decentralisation and networking. The increasingly immaterial form of social relations, communications networks, information systems, has also been extended to the new type of production of ‘immaterial goods’ and the ‘immaterial labour’ invested in these commodities (after Maurizio Lazzarato’s definition, 1996). This can partly be recognised in relation to the computer, in the way it has redefined labour as well as social practices and relations. Thus, the site of production remains crucial to an understanding of culture at large. In this way, any museum worth its salt might be described in the following terms: ‘[its] institutional structure is like a software program that carries a virus along with it, so that it is continually modulating and corrupting the institutional forms around it.’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 197-8)

Under these ‘immaterial’ conditions of production the conventional museum, indeed archives, seem a sadly fixed and passive repository for objects that lack any sense of their dynamic relation to the process of production. Correspondingly, the Museum of Ordure articulates the dialectical operations of corruption and generation. For Hardt and Negri, corruption is a good term to describe the violent, destructive and virus-like procedures self-evident in the capitalist relations of production. Capitalism is by definition a system of corruption and violence, and the task is to investigate ‘how corruption can be forced to cede its control to generation’ (2000: 392). Herein lies a crucial part of dialectical thinking – as it is as a result of the recognition of the exploitative relations of production that change is made possible. The violence of corruption is self-evident in the capitalist relations of production as exploitation. Here the world of actual human labour, of dirty production, of dirty surplus value appears in the form of material things. Dialectical thinking would suggest this is reversible, that corruption might be superseded by generation.

It might be argued that culture and politics need to articulate themselves in terms of generative processes in lieu of the regenerative and degenerative mechanisms built into contemporary capitalism. For Hardt and Negri, the dominant power structure is: ‘characterised by a fluidity of form – an ebb and flow of formation and deformation, generation and degeneration’ (2000: 202). The networked computer can be seen to be not merely a part of these processes but also a metaphor for them. As systems theory suggests, within systems or sub-systems, positive feedback loops might generate the further development of a process to the point of causing a fundamental and unforeseeable change of the existing system. This is important as it emphasises the constructive positive role that disorder might play in creating new order. This demonstrates the dialectical play between two interconnected states of order and disorder, between generation and corruption, suggesting the potential for change built into any system. Systems, even social systems, are not closed but can be seen to be also sensitive to small changes – human intervention for instance. Contradictions manifest themselves in all aspects of capitalism’s workings, however latent they may appear. These contradictory tendencies unfold in every detail of the system, ‘every one of its basic “cells”, the commodities’ (Mandel, 1990: 13) – every one of its pixels.

The advocated approach of the Museum of Ordure is thus tactical, to take account of things that rather convincingly appear to be out of control, or beyond our control, as emergent or generative systems. According to Capital, the decline of capitalism’s mode of production is inevitable, even its latest phase, as it is simply a product of history that also produced it in the first place. To the historical materialist, data cannot be seen to be fixed but is always able to be transformed – like Benjamin’s angel of history who wants to gather up the wreckage of terrible events, wasted lives and worthless objects. The angel wants to make things better, but cannot do this because of the dominant forces at work. Esther Leslie cites a statement by Adorno (in a radio lecture, 1962) who insists the angel is not only the angel of history but the angel of the machine. This would suggest that the renewal of the idea of progress is through the better use of history and technology. The Museum of Ordure sets out its stall accordingly.

Geoff Cox, treasurer UKMO

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