May/June Blog – Living the Dream : a Letter from Paris

Forty five years after the May ‘evenements’ in Paris I took my grandchildren to Euro-Disney for their half term holiday break. To bracket  the most determined assault on the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ with the most extravagant expression of its triumph might seem wilfully perverse, at best a rueful acknowledgement that capitalism has succeeded, beyond our wildest nightmares, in appropriating and merchandising the spirit of carnival, rendering it into an entirely alien, kitsch idiom; at worst  an exercise in political masochism, rubbing  one’s nose in the fact that the revolutionary Left has  failed to produce a culture of popular pleasure  other than rioting. But in the event a more complicated set of  considerations imposed themselves.

The Cabinet of Curiosities

When we got to Paris, our first port of call was the Quai Branly, the  new home of the  ethnographic collection of the  Musee de’L’Homme,  which  also houses artefacts from the old Musee des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, must be the largest and most exotic   cabinet of curiosities  ever put together and it is the building, rather than the collections, which has become the main attraction. The architecture combines state of the art  construction technology  with   a breathtakingly ecological  mise en scene:  the whole façade is clothed in lush vegetation  which looks as if it has been transported  root and  branch  from the Amazonian rain forest. The hot house atmosphere is maintained inside, where  the exhibits, chosen for their visual appeal, are dramatically displayed   and lit, set within a  darkened interior, with ramps running the whole length of the building taking you on a  journey across  three continents.

The Quai has quickly   established itself as a major  destination for both cultural tourists and Parisians and is a monument to the French flair with ‘grand projects’. But the overall effect on the visitor, while overwhelming, is for that very reason problematic. The   interpretation offered is thin, or if you prefer a trendy word, minimalist. There is little or no connecting grand narrative, or what used to be called ‘context’ before  Derrida  made these terms into  a dirty word.    Instead the statues, masks, and other  ritual objects stand there mutely commanding our silent respect and awe  as if we should know what they are about without having to be told,  and daring us to  misunderstand them.   In this way we are recruited as participant observers of  a new kind of  ethnographic spectacle; for now  the Other is allowed to celebrate its alterity  on its own terms albeit expressly   for our edification or entertainment.  The post colonial moment has been  collapsed in on itself   to magically re-affirm the hegemonic dream of western  multiculturalism: to   provide the order which makes it  possible to celebrate variety  as a  re- enchantment of a  world which globalisation  has made all too monotonous. Nevertheless, there is a melancholic aspect to this treasure trove of objects collected by ethnologists over  the past century and a half. The statues, trapped  in their glass cages,  stare out at us into the darkness as if blinded by the spotlight  that has been shone on them by curatorial science ; they look and are isolated,  specimens of  cultures which in reality escape our carefully contrived  gaze, and longing to return from their imposed exile to where  they truly belong. But once the law of return is applied to this diaspora,and there has already been a public furore around the demand to repatriate some of the Latin American exhibits, the whole  project of anthropology-as – spectacle collapses.