I suppose I’ve been looking for an outlet by which to express some of my intellectual frustrations for a while now. There is so little useful oxygen left around Brexit, BLM, COVID, Transgender rights etc, such reduced bandwith, that a person can feel encouraged to ‘do nothing’ with the excess of energy these issues incite. More nuanced conversations can sort of ‘die in the mouth’ as you realise you don’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to achieve something more discursive. Anyway, it’s hardly the stuff of small talk. I certainly didn’t think one of Joseph Cornell’s strange and evocative boxes would be the route towards dispersing this build-up of lactic acid, but I was drawn immediately to the black ‘rift’ in Cornell’s piece. I wanted to know what it was, or what it meant, and how the ‘unknowability’ of the ultimate meaning of something is a powerful and unsettling thing. I thought about those Rorschach tests, where you’re invited to look at ink-blots and project your own associations upon them, re-configuring them as meaningful as they relate to your own lived experience. I was reminded too of the famous Nietzsche quote that goes ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’.
At the centre of this short story – at the heart of the titular rift – is a disagreement between two characters in regards to the responsibility of knowledge; for one of the characters, the responsibility of knowledge is to fix things; for the second character, the responsibility of knowledge is to unfix things. They both have their reasons.
Museums are one of the principle sites of this pause/push conflict in regards to truth-making. Objects and artefacts are contextualised for us in accordance with the sensitivities and sensibilities of those individuals given the authority to make curatorial decisions. Those decisions are being made within certain intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks, which are themselves the product of other intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks. Much of this scaffolding is often so habitual it is invisible and reproduced unwittingly, that is until some change of view or significant event makes it suddenly visible and available to scrutiny and discussion. These moments are deeply uncomfortable and are always felt personally by someone.
Knowledge gives rise to ‘facts’ – facts produce reality. Reality produces habits and habits reproduce knowledge; to unfix knowledge is to unfix habits, and the unfixing of habits is not some dry intellectual pursuit, but always an emotional confrontation between individuals. Someone is always hurt or hurting. Someone is always afraid. Someone is always angry. We are living through such a time of fear and anger. We are living with rifts.
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