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Posts Tagged ‘agonistics’

At work, we are getting ready for a major redevelopment of our local history museum. It is a good opportunity to think more about what an agonistic approach to interpretive planning might entail. Most of it is not revolutionary; in one way or another much of this has been or is being discussed if not in textbooks, then at least at current conferences. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to collate some important points, and highlight a few challenges along the way.

 

Check Your Ego At the Door

Local history museums often rank low in the museum hierarchy. I think there may be a trace of professional snobbism in this: anything that is local is considered small and less important; local collections are thought mostly repetitive and undistinguished; people are believed to be just so precious about their own little corner of the world… I think this (unconscious) ranking should make us cautious, and maybe even wary of our own attitudes. In fact, in agonistic interpretive planning, I believe it is vital to constantly – and critically – check our attitudes to the heritage and people in question. These attitudes will colour what we notice as potential content in the interpretive planning process, what we ultimately choose to represent, and how we will do so. In other words, our attitudes are a major factor in the interpretive planning process, and we need to be aware of them in order to work with them responsibly. I am not suggesting that we can shed them altogether, nor do I think that necessary. However, I do believe that we must check them as carefully as we would any source of information. We will have to decide on a case by case basis  what role they play; different scenarios are possible. We just can’t allow them to play that role in hiding, in an approximation of a natural law, and in exclusion of other views.

 

Capturing a Sense of Place

Local history museums are nothing if not about the local sense of place. But herein lies the first trap: is there really only one sense of place? Doing interpretive planning agonistically around sense of place would start with the premise that while there may indeed be a dominant sense of place, upheld by a dominant group of people, there are other versions too. These are equally important and relevant. As agonistic interpretive planners it is our task to uncover all these ‘senses’ of place and create an environment where people feel that their sense of place is valued and appreciated. Of course this must be followed up by representing these different ‘senses’ of place in the museum, and that may be the toughest task yet. It is far easier to present a closed narrative of what makes a place special – in the case of our city, we might think of the architecture, or a certain lifestyle shaped by its (former) majority population of civil servants. These two narratives are actually two sides of the same coin, but things will likely look very different once we start talking to the refugees that have come to town, or the students, or anyone else that doesn’t care about architecture or an upper middle class lifestyle. To bring these senses of place together under one roof, while still making them understandable for visitors – that’s the agonistic challenge of the task.

 

Brace for Impact

A hegemony of view is a hegemony for a reason. The majority of people support it, and therefore, insisting that other perspectives are represented in (agonistic) interpretation means to potentially swim against the tide. This is an obvious point, but it has further consequences that are less often considered than perhaps they should be. It is here that I suggest agonistic interpretation must leave the well-trodden path of community-majority democracy, and insist on representation for all. This also means that agonistic interpreters drop all pretense of neutrality. They decidedly fight a corner – inclusive representation – and they do so on the grounds of a very clear ethical-moral value – to give everyone a voice. In this standpoint is also encapsulated a whole series of beliefs about what a museum is, and what role it plays in society. Again, agonistic interpretation is far removed here from the serene image of the knowledge-expert, hovering in objective distance above the mess society makes. Agonistic interpretation is clear that it takes part, that it promotes inclusivity even where this is not universally welcomed. This can be messy: I am sure in our city, too, there will be some stories and perspectives that many, if not a majority would rather leave untold. Still, if museums are to be more than frozen temples to a hegemonic view, then we must enter the fray.

 

Honour the Heritage Story

As agonistic interpretive planners search out different perspectives, it is important to still keep in mind one important aspect: heritage is heritage because (some) people make it so. A fine line is drawn through this statement, and another difficult task hides behind it. We must recognise what is a relevant heritage perspective, and what is a mere historical fact [1]. I am always reminded here of the lesson I learnt as a frontline interpreter at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland: yes, historically speaking, the Jacobite defeat at Culloden began a still unbroken period of (Royal) stability for the United Kingdom. However, if supporters of the union and what is now the House of Windsor came to Culloden at all, they certainly never identified themselves as such to me. This suggests that any Unionist/Royalist attitude wasn’t a motivating factor in visiting Culloden, and that the site held no or little place in the respective heritage. I did meet many that came because they simply were battle enthusiasts. And I met many more who came to Culloden on a pilgrimage, because the battle to them marked the beginning of a personal story of Diaspora and cultural loss. This means that planning agonistically does not mean to gather and represent every utterance about a site. It means weighing up what is heritage, and what is history.

 

 

Notes

[1] As a reminder: heritage need not necessarily be built on historical accuracy. A historical fact therefore cannot be automatically equated with heritage.

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A couple of weeks ago, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language) declared ‘post-factual’ as word of the year 2016. As we enter into 2017, the post-factual approach to reality and politics appears set to continue. So I want to consider what this might mean for heritage interpretation.

 

Accepted interpretive philosophy tells us that information is not interpretation [1]. Interpretation is more than a ‘statement of facts’ [2]: it is revelation [3]. These were corner stones of Tilden’s philosophy, and of course what he responded to in 1957 was a visitor environment dominated by subject specialists. So one can vividly imagine Tilden, the exasperated journalist, telling a detail-obsessed specialist that it isn’t enough to simply tell visitors facts. They need more.

 

However, I think interpretation has taken this principle, that information is not interpretation, and the associated denigration of a ‘statement of facts’ a step too far. In current interpretation philosophy, it is not information which is most important, but the purposeful selection of information to succesfully deliver a message. Information has been demoted to a mere ingredient in the realisation of interpretive aims.

 

Putting aside the fact that selection is also manipulation, and that evidence suggests that people do want more or less pure information, albeit skillfully delivered: the instrumentalisation and thus marginalisation of information in contemporary interpretive practice is particularly problematic when faced with the reality and threats of a post-factual world. While mis-information is blatantly used to make a point, the selection of information to make another point neither seems appropriate nor sufficient. We need more.

 

Of course, post-factual attitudes won’t be changed by simply giving more information. Post-factual doesn’t just mean ‘ignoring’ or ‘falsifying’ facts. It also means being motivated by feelings: feelings of helplessness, unrational fears, a hope that may have no other foundation than the sense that it simply can’t be worse than this. It is not enough to scorn people with post-factual tendencies. Like it or not, we need to take them seriously in order to have any hope of collectively working through these feelings and leaving them behind in favour of more factual and rational decision-making [4].

 

Many political commentators have observed how very close mainstream democratic parties have moved towards one another in their policies. But rather than enfold everyone in society, this has created a vacuum around its edges. People no longer feel that their views are represented, and they are turning to parties and organisations who do not share a commitment to pluralist, democratic debate. It’s not just that these ‘populists’ ignore or falsify facts. It’s that they encourage people to no longer engage with anything but their own (post-factual) views, a situation that endangers democracy at its very core. From populist echochambers all critical thinking is purged, and what you get is a post-factual world that takes over whole nations (like the UK, like the US).

 

So what should interpretation do?

 

With the framing of this post so far, I realise that I’m edging toward suggesting that interpretation become political. It’s not a term I’ve used before in relation to interpretation. And if I do use it now, it is in a complex, maybe even contradictory way. Because on one hand, when I say ‘political’ I mean it as a responsibility and response which we must openly acknowledge in light of the developments in the world around us. When I complained about the failure of British museums and the British Museums Association to respond to the vilification of (im)migrants especially during the Brexit campaign, I was really saying that they should make a political statement. To say that ‘this is not okay’ is a political statement. And if that statement comes from a museum, that still carries weight with a lot of people. It matters.

 

But on the other hand, when I say that interpretation should become political I mean it should play a role in our political systems of democracy. Democracy is characterised by a debate on views and opinions, with respect for others. If, in a post-factual world, people no longer engage with the views of others and/or attack them, then interpretation must step up. I come back to agonistic interpretation here: in a post-factual world we must do our best to make visible what people do not see: The differing views. Their validity. The humanity of the ‘other’. And I’m not just talking about making visible the ‘good’ views, the liberal, pluralist, democratic views. I mean a real engagement in all directions, taking seriously also those people that feel ‘the establishment’ has left them behind. Not to educate and change anyone. But to make the whole of this democratic world visible to each participant.

 

This is fundamentally about information. It is about actual facts, and information about how people feel. Not every place will be suited to this. But where we can, we must make a push for it. Because I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing this future looks really scary. We can’t rely on others to fix it while we gaze into the past. Right now is what counts.

 

 

Notes
[1] This is of course first expressed in Tilden’s second principle of interpretation (Tilden, F., 1957(1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. 3rd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.

[2] Tilden, p. 8.

[3] This is also part of Tilden’s second principle.

[4] I write ‘factual’ and ‘rational’ with some misgivings, and only in contrast to ‘post-factual’. Although I do firmly believe in the importance of basing decisions on facts, I also know that half the time facts do not lead you to near self-evident decisions, as if the world were black and white. Mostly what is required is a judgment call, and that is based on a tangled mix of values, beliefs and yes, emotions.

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Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].

 

Antagonism

Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).

 

Agonism

Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).

 

Hegemony

Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).

 

The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.

 

Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).

 

Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.

 

Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.

 

But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.

 

 

Notes

[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.

 

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