From Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell — longitudinal study, through season after season — is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break. Getting a spot wired — truly understanding it — can take years. At very complex breaks, it’s a lifetime’s work, never completed. This is probably not what most people see, glancing seaward, noting surfers in the water, but it’s the first-order problem that we’re out there trying to solve: what are these waves doing, exactly, and what are they likely to do next? Before we can ride them, we have to read them, or at least make a credible start on the job.

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment were frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and water color; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. These last factors are like the ones the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.


For the past week I’ve been re-grounding myself in the climate change project that went back-burner last August. This has entailed getting my head around a bunch of frustratingly difficult articles for a second time. To prevent a third rereading, I want to synthesize some of the key ideas here.

1. The conversation begins with the shift from a classical notion of the museum to a postmodern one. It’s unclear at times whether this is already happened — that museums are already postmodern — or if it’s a manifesto of sorts about the future of museums. It’s a bit of both, to be sure, but the line is never clear, and this is frustrating. Are institutions this way already or must they become this way? Have they responded or must they respond? The emphasis on postmodern social theory describes how social forms exist today. The museum, as a social form, is thereby described within this framework. If the theories are true, then it can’t stand outside or separate from, can it? Still, the museum is not yet postmodern, and this is where the disconnect lies.

2. The classical museum is characterized by certain knowledge, the absence of controversy, passive visitors, and centralized authority. The Foucauldian reading exemplified by Bennett captures the disciplining power of the classical museum: classical museums are institutions of social control and moral development.

3. The postmodern museum has the potential to be different (or, if the theories are correct) are in some ways already different. The features of this institution can be summed up briefly: the postmodern museum embraces uncertainty, presents controversy, offers multiple perspectives, serves as a site for peer review, functions as a node within larger digital, cultural and transnational networks, transparently expresses ideologically and politically commitments, and promotes individual’s self-understanding. In short, the postmodern museum does not discipline populations, it presents information in such a way to allow them to actively construct themselves and their beliefs and actions. Also, visitors aren’t conceived of simply as rational citizens. Instead, “audiences are conceived as assemblages, as unique, historical and historically contingent, rather than as a one-dimensional citizen and as an object of discipline” (126).

4. The argument for the postmodern museum doesn’t just have a theoretical foundation, however. It’s also grounded in audience surveys. This is a powerful appeal, and it strikes me as right on. In fact, the audience surveys capture exactly my sense of things, which gives me some motivation to develop these ideas more forcefully. What Cameron found in her surveys with audiences is a completely different set of expectations for the museum. While visitors still want to learn something, they’re much more likely to demand that the museum treat them seriously as… I want to say citizens here, but apparently that’s too “one-dimensional”. Instead, I think we have to say engaged human beings. Visitors want to be treated as intelligent individuals who can make sense of information on their own. As such, visitors request things like more points of view, less certainty and more information (though I suppose they want that information to be certain), more voices…essentially, everything from that previous paragraph. Accordingly, the museum must move past its classic heritage. The visitors say so.

5. One key aspect of the postmodern museum is as a node in transnational information flows. This is a taxing, ugly phrase, mostly because ‘flows’ is an awkward noun. All this means is that museums don’t stand alone. The information and content they present and represent is picked from other places and is in turn picked up by other places. Why? Because the internet. FLOWS! EVERYWHERE! YOU’RE IN THEM NOW! But this has ramifications for how the museum already exists and what it can do. In short, it can’t ignore these flows as if they aren’t happening. The museum must respond. It must be rethought.

6. As a node within these transnational flows, the museum becomes a site for taking in and sharing information more, well, fluidly. As I look at my exhibits — particularly Atmosphere and Ocean — something fascinating emerges, particularly in response to this statement: “Climate change risk for example has the potential to build transnational communities and networks, and to activate a cosmopolitan imaginary” (70). In both of these exhibits, these kinds of communities are gestured toward. For example, in Ocean you are asked to adopt the subject position of a developer or a scientist and to listen to information about and appeals from people in lands far from Paris where the exhibit resides. These are recordings and well-produced, multimodal displays, but they hint at what is possible, and, I think, what’s it’s like to be a visitor in that particular node at that particular moment. In other words, this experience is a simulation of what the museum could be really doing. Worth developing.

7. Risk becomes a key “optic” for this rethinking, because it points to relevant challenges and controversies, all of which are about the risks of an uncertain future. In such a context, the museum can no longer present knowledge simply. Other voices must be included. The epistemological character of information must be made explicit. Conflict must be opened up. This requires a complexity approach — more and more forces, perspectives, voices, etc.– must be folded in.

8. Furthermore, the museum can’t ignore the uncertain reality of visitors. This is why at the core of Cameron’s project is a different sense of the self. That self demands things from the museum because it’s the context in which they live. Hence all the social theory. This is also why her audience surveys are so important.

9. Cameron also adapts the framework of Liquid Museums or Liquid Governmentalities from Bauman. This idea is much harder to pin down. Again Cameron is critical of the outmoded Foucauldian analyses of governmentality because the museum no longer functions this way. Hers is then an effort to provide a new way of thinking about (and indeed analyzing) what museums do. What this means is that museums become “dynamic evolving processes and not “stable bounded entities” (125). What does this look like? Here it gets hairy. Pardon the writing — indeed, skip these next _two sentences_ for your own sanity:

“That is, as an enclosed space, as a solid fixed entity, analysed as an apparatus in the service of a particular political rationality, and accorded a habitualised ordering of the social (i.e., knowledge/power, discipline and disciplinary effects, sign and interpretation, subject and subjectification, and as a striated relationship as a technology of domination against technologies of self). Rather here we consider museums also as a process, as a heterogeneous, fluid open system always on the move, in the process of becoming and made up of components of material (buildings, people, computers, exhibitions, collections, geographical location, funding) and expressive forms (expressions of legitimacy, trust, authority, networks, dispositions, aspirations, contracts, brand) and as mixtures exhibiting different capacities, linked to other assemblages as part of populations of other organisations, for example, climate change science” (124-5).

10. What is all this saying? To be honest, it’s all a big conceptual mess made much harder by her opaque, poor writing style. She gets specific here: “For example, how can institutions work with non-government organisations and other political entities in mobilising grass-roots movements, considering that they are viewed erroneously as apolitical: what are the opportunities and limits?” 125. Not that helpful, in fact.

11. Essentially the point is that museums are and should be active in larger networks. They shouldn’t act alone or see themselves as alone. This means that they are part of larger corporate, economic, geographic, political, and popular contexts. They are already assemblages of all these contexts and thus we can’t view the museum as a singular thing that stands apart from these other contexts. And we must recognize that these contexts pop up in different ways inside the museum, sometimes by choice, sometimes by protest, sometimes by force. These contexts shape what the institution is, what it says, how it acts, and where it exists. Essentially, the museum is always changing, always responding, always fluid in its meanings as an institution. Pinning it down with a disciplinary Foucauldian reading, then, falsely freezes the museum’s authority in one place, a place it may not have been and may never be again.

12. The goal of this framework is to, again, re-situate the visitor as a subject able to act creatively and not just as a rational citizen. If we take the standard Foucauldian view, then what the museum presents is what is possible for the visitor. The visitor is not positioned passively. The liquid governmentalities concept frees up a frozen reading of museum authority and opens the museum to creative action that might come from anywhere. In other words, we can’t simply see the museum as disciplining the visitor in one single way or from one particular angle. And it can’t even be seen as disciplining them in multiple ways or from multipl angles. The fact that the museum is (or can become) a liquid institution means that discourses come from anywhere. It means, essentially, that the museum gives up control in order to become a more valuable public space. As Cameron sates: “Engaging the idea of liquid governmentalities allows us to look beyond the established ideologies and relations between state, science, the market and environmental politics to which museums form a part, construct and legitimise, to consider, to offer some new alternatives and to see how others might be incorporated into the mix” (126).

13. This conversation challenges my too easy reading of my exhibits. If I want to talk through my three case studies, then I have to see them in light of Cameron’s work. For now I’m still finding my way to do that.

When Julie and I describe recent paleotrends like barefoot running, paleodiets, standup desks, co-sleeping, etc. as paleomyths, we have to be clear about how we mean myth. This move also clarifies our contribution. So, how do we mean myth? This is a starting point.

We don’t mean that evolutionary science itself is mythical. It’s important to mention this, because defining something related to evolution as a myth seems to undercut its scientific status. But what’s at stake here isn’t an epistemological question. It’s a question of persuasiveness — what makes these arguments so compelling? And while the ethos of evolutionary science certainly is at play, that to us doesn’t seem sufficient, primarily because, as Marlene Zuk shows, the arguments often get the science wrong.

We also don’t simply mean myth in the grand narrative form that Davi Johnson finds in Richard Dawkins’s _Ancestor’s Tale_. In this version of myth, popularizers of evolution’s long story employ religious language that in effect grants evolution the spiritual power to situate our place in the cosmos. This view of myth doesn’t apply because paleomyths freeze and foreshorten evolution: the span is 1 million to 10 thousand years ago. Still, the grand narrative is relevant because it lies behind the narrower myth that shows up in paleotrends. They take it for granted.

Thomas Lessl’s work in _Rhetorical Darwinism_ provides a closer model for how we’re imagining paleomyths, but his focus is primarily scientific. Lessl argues that scientific evolution becomes evolutionism — the former’s mythic counterpart. By evolutionism he means the ways in which evolution “evokes a cluster of more intangible meanings at once emotive, ideological, perhaps even religious, that move in orbit around the notion of progress” (xi). Evolutionism is science’s way of deploying evolution to prop up science itself so that science represents what humans (or at least human culture) evolved to do. In this way, evolutionism becomes mythical — it no longer represents evolutionary science proper but instead becomes metaphorical. Evolutionism is how value and purpose get reinscribed onto a scientific theory that is intended to be merely descriptive. In short, Lessl is less interested in how evolution becomes the story of humanity’s ascent (or even its origin) and more interested in how evolution becomes “the story of science’s ascent” (xiv).

One of the ways we might imagine our contribution via paleomyths is to examine the more popular side of Lessl’s evolutionism. Not how it is put to work to prop up science but how the myth is put to work to move people to action. Lessl hints at this. For example:

It is only when evolution transmutes into evolutionism [… that] scientific knowledge about the origins and development of life will have transformed into a narrative about life’s meaning, value, and purpose, thus transforming the scientific role as well. 16

Later he relies on Mircea Eliade’s definition of myth: a living narrative that “supplies models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life” (212).

In these places Lessl points at (but doesn’t develop) something different from the idea that evolutionism (evolution’s mythical counterpart) serves disciplinary ends. By looking closely at paleomythology, we can expand Lessl’s theory by examining how evolutionism is deployed rhetorically to shape human behavior.

One striking difference between these two arenas is their relationship to science. In Lessl’s evolutionism, science is scientized, and so evolution becomes a tool for propping up the hegemony of science as a way of knowing. In our case, something else happens. Indeed, one of the key features of paleomythology is this ambivalent relationship with science. What we find is a deep commitment and faith in promoting evolution via the naturalistic fallacy: “You evolved this way, therefore you should behave this way”. But at the same time, they often resist new scientific information that contradicts their simple narrative. This is not scientism through and through. It is a selective scientism that becomes mythology — an evolutionary story that is deployed to manage scientific ongoing uncertainty. In this way paleomyths highlight evolutionism’s rhetorical versatility.

So, why stasis theory?

Stasis theory grounds inventional thinking in rhetoric — it sort of always has. It’s hinted at in Aristotle but is fully developed in Hermagoras. Cicero’s De Inventione essentially begins with it and Quintillion spends pages and pages developing it in such boring detail that it’s amazing anyone ever stayed awake long enough to learn anything. The challenge — and perhaps why it has fallen away — is that it’s developed primarily for legal contexts. As a result, it’s initially not very useful for the composition classroom or for more deliberative cases. Still, it applies to these contexts, too, we just have to tweak it a bit. The basic notion is that in contested situations, we are arguing either about facts, about definitions, about values, or about whether or not we even have the right to be making a judgment at all. Or we might be arguing about all four. Indeed, if you want to argue about values, you first have to settle questions of fact and definition. Fahnestock and Secor spend a lot of time in the 80s and 90s tweaking stasis theory, adapting it to other contexts (like literary analysis and scientific communication), adding in a causal question (e.g., what caused X?) because that’s the stopping point in scientific discourse, and demonstrating its usefulness as an analytic tool.

So why stasis theory and museums? Here’s where I’m probably overreaching a bit, and I think I might need to skip this argument because it’s too bold without enough support. Basically, museums in their most rudimentary form (cases of butterflies, labeled rocks, walls of skeletons) were concerned with establishing questions of fact. They did this first for other amateur scientists and then, under the guise of science literacy, they did it for the public, too. These kinds of display also established definitions and cause. These three questions constitute what theorists refer to as the “lower stases,” and they apply really well to scientific arguments. Thus, I want to argue that when science museums first became concerned with the public (post-Sputnik), they thought in terms of the lower stases: if visitors understood facts, definitions, and causes they would act, think, and decide differently and democratic society would be saved, or at least bettered. These institutions are “modernist museums,” they focused on knowledge, believed knowledge would enlighten, and thus left out questions of value and policy. Those questions were not in their purview because they were, well, not scientific. They were all fuzzy humany questions that couldn’t be tacked on walls or labeled with binomial nomenclature. So for the modernist museum curator, invention involved only questions of fact, definiton, and cause, and exhibits displayed what staff selected from that (social) inventional process with the lower stases.

Fahnestock and Secor’s analytic point is that the stases rhetors deploy tells us something about how they think about audiences. It’s pretty simple: if you engage museum visitors with questions of fact, definition, and cause, you position them largely as pedagogical objects. This is true, I argue, even if that positioning ultimately reflects a hope that they’ll use that knowledge for civic ends once they leave the museum. Instead, if you engage them on questions of value or policy, you (surprise, surprise) consider them in a bit more human way. Following Foucault, the modernist museum of fact, definition and cause became this horrible place that fashioned docile bodies. Foucault shows us that the lower stases are thoroughly political — knowledge/power, etc., etc. So, to give visitors a bit more agency, to respect them as political beings, and to acknowledge that scientific knowledge is already embedded in systems of control, the museum began to ask questions of value and policy. They also, under the guise of the Public Understanding of Research, complicated those lower stases by displaying “unfinished science”. Catalhoyuk is the pinnacle of this approach in exhibit form. It also shows up in the “Scientists in the Museum” installations recently popular. In short, in light of Foucault, the modernist museum gets replaced by a museum that views its visitors as more than just pedagogic objects. The result? Museums become more interactive, more sensitive to complexity and uncertainty, and more willing to respect and explicitly engage visitors’ civic identity. Thus, reframing visitor agency in this way required that the museum staff themselves consider and incorporate questions of value and policy into their displays.

All of this, of course, doesn’t theorize invention in meaningful ways. It’s simply identifying a trend that, to me at least, seems to describe the relationship between the kinds of questions museums ask and the kinds of visitors they constitute. If I can tell that story (and I’m not entirely sure I can), then the point is that the museum evolves on visitor agency by embracing the full range of stasis questions. So, if a museum is criticized for failing to move beyond questions of fact and definition, then the easy solution is to incorporate value and policy questions.

And indeed, this evolution does position visitors in new ways, or at least it positions them as more than _just_ pedagogical objects. The problem, however, is that this approach doesn’t escape Foucauldian criticism. Questions of value and policy still tend to position visitors in unsatisfactory ways. In short, because the museum is still in charge, the Foucaulidan critique still applies. For example, in cases like climate change, the museum is susceptible to the charge of green governmentality: in displaying questions of value and policy about climate change, the museum narrowly frames the problem in terms of visitor action. Climate change is exists (fact, definition, cause), and it’s bad (value), so what’s needed is for you to recycle more (policy). Here’s where this notion of “responsibilization” shows up. Museums that take up value and policy questions for visitors often end up “responsibilizing” (ugh) their visitors. But obviously my recycling habits will only go so far. The Foucauldian reading remains viable.

The problem in my view is that we’ve been considering invention only from the point of view of the museum. Fixing the problem with visitor agency seemed to require expanding the kinds of questions museums examined and displayed. Thus, reshaping visitor agency in positive ways was simply a matter of expanding _which_ stases showed up in the museum (which stases the museum staff invented around and displayed). The problem with this seems in a way too obvious: the museum remains in control as the inventional authority. Indeed, the museum’s authority, which was supposed to have been radically reinvented post-Foucault, remains as powerful as ever. Thus, my argument is that repositioning visitors’ agency isn’t simply about expanding which stases questions show up. The museum needs to rethink _how_ those questions show up. In so doing, the exhibit must shift the inventional burden from the museum to the visitor. This radically recasts museum authority. It is no longer the museum’s job to play with quesitons of fact, definition, cause, value, and policy and then construct an exhibit for visitor out of the best resources it discovers. Instead, the museum must construct an exhibit where visitors themselves can explore these stasis questions, where visitors are the ones inventing. And what they’re inventing is largely themselves. Hence the realization that I’m trying to imagine an exhibit that redeploys stasis questions to facilitate self-invention.

Now, after looking over these books on invention a couple of things become clearer. On the one hand, it is true that I have been working with an under-theorized notion of invention. Indeed, at times I’ve simply embraced Lefevre’s Platonic view, particularly as with regard to the museum. But that’s also not quite right. So, on the other hand, my reliance on Fiona Cameron’s radical reinvention of the science museum’s agency complicates things. Her case is based upon empirical research with museum audiences that convincingly demonstrates that the science museum, whether it knows it or not, faces a new rhetorical situation. Essentially, audiences expect the museum to do much more than be the authority on knowledge or to encourage them to do things like recycle; they want the museum to function like a repository of arguments. They don’t want to be told what to think, they want the complexity, uncertainty, and controversy laid out. Cameron complements this research with social theory from Latour, Beck, Urry, Baumann, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. Together these two strands (the audience research and the social theory) capture the visitor as a postmodern subject (perhaps we’re done announcing this, but it seems the museum community isn’t entirely done thinking about it). So she’s ultimately accurate: the postmodern subject is a self-inventing subject. And her empirical evidence simply reflects those social theorists who argue that under the conditions of late modernity we must all self-invent. And my point is that the museum can facilitate this self-invention by shifting the inventional burden, at least in part, onto the visitor. And stasis theory, because it is so useful in clarifying why the museum has continued to fail at reimagining visitor agency, can be the vehicle for that rethinking.

Thus under-theorized, it seems like I’m imagining the museum’s inventional process in Platonic ways — but that’s not necessary. I can just as easily be more sophisticated. But I’m not _really_ interested in how the museum invents exhibits; that’s another project altogether. The exhibit’s structure points to stasis (as does stasis theory’s place within the invention process more generally), and so I’m really curious how the results of that inventional process positions visitors. At the same time, I have to be careful not to imagine visitors in overly simplistic ways, though I think Cameron keeps me from doing this. So while I am relying on this ancient framework that might at times privilege a Platonic view of invention, Cameron’s framework complicates things.

In short, I want to show that Cameron and her colleague’s proposal for a postmodern museum really requires shifting the burden of invention. And I want to lean on rhetorical invention — and stasis theory in particular — for two reasons. First, if my read of exhibit structure is accurate, then museums are already implicitly comfortable with stasis questions: they employ a version of stasis theory as they build exhibits and the final version often reflects stasis theory’s hierarchical ordering. Consequently, shifting their focus from which questions show up to _how_ those questions show up works with what they know. Secondly, rhetorical invention — and stasis theory in particular — is so useful, practical, and pragmatic, that the shift from which to _how_ offers a way forward. Unlike a purely theoretical argument, rethinking where stasis theory’s inventional burden falls offers some concrete steps for redesign. Consequently, when I turn to my three climate change exhibits, I demonstrate how museums might reconsitute visitor agency by rethinking the way their culminating experiences might present stasis questions to a self-inventing public. Thus, stasis theory helps us redescribe Cameron’s project in a way that clarifies the problem with modern exhibits and also provides a framework for revision. And I think this approach is particularly useful because it reworks the museum’s deployment of stasis theory, which they are already comfortable with.

Last year I got caught up wondering about why these arguments from evolution had become so popular and effective. At the time I sought a way of characterizing the argument, and so I imagined it was just a common argument form. But this weekend, poking around on some forums, I realized that what I was thinking about was the naturalistic fallacy. I hadn’t considered it — or it hadn’t popped up — because I don’t think of these arguments as necessarily fallacious. I saw them as effective. Problematic, sure. Potentially troubling, maybe. But not necessarily false reasoning in a fundamental sense. Nevertheless, the naturalistic fallacy is what sits underneath my interest in paleolithic arguments.

There are a couple of things that are sort of fascinating about rediscovering the naturalistic fallacy. The first is kinda personal. While technically formulated by G. E. Moore, the naturalistic fallacy has its origin in David Hume’s _Treatise of Human Nature_, which I spent my last two years of high school feeling superior in my complete lack of understanding. From Hume we get the is/ought divide: describing how the world is does not mean we can prescribe how it should be. In short, you can’t derive an ought from an is. The naturalistic fallacy generalizes and formalizes this way of thinking. Somehow I imagine my reading of Hume stuck this idea somewhere beyond grasp.

But the naturalistic fallacy largely seems to apply to ethical guidelines, and things like barefoot running and a grain-free diet aren’t, at least to me, ethical guidelines. They’re normative to be sure. They guide practice. But they are about how we treat ourselves, not how we treat other people. Do they fall prey to the fallacy? Is this an important distinction? If I held onto it, then I suppose on the far end we’d have to consider suicide: killing is wrong when applied to others, but does it have the same moral taint when applied to ourselves? Does the morality of the killing act matter if it’s personal or social? I’m not sure it’s in the same category is running or eating “properly,” though feeding or coaching properly would have similar ethical dimensions.

The second thing that’s striking is still the naturalistic fallacy is wildly, rhetorically effective. But if it’s a fallacy, why is it so successful? Of course rhetorical effectiveness has little to do with logical soundness, at least formally considered. So what might be dismissed as a fallacy within a philosophical dispute carries heaps of weight in a rhetorical context. Douglas Walton should be helpful here, but where does he deal with this?

The third thing that strikes me is that Zuk, the author of Paleofantasies, doesn’t mention this fallacy at all. With it in hand, she might have easily dismissed those that try to draw out lifestyle rules from our evolutionary past. It’s a nifty shorthand that she doesn’t use.  After all, criticizing an argument for employing the naturalistic fallacy undermines the argument’s warrant, its logical and rhetorical heart. Attacking the warrant means any future appeal to scientific data is irrelevant — it doesn’t matter what the science says, we can’t derive an ought from an is.  So why doesn’t she use it? The reason seems to be that she thinks there is a non-problematic route from our evolutionary past to present lifestyle choices, but that route is only available if the science is true. Thus, my surprise at her willingness to embrace the barefoot running/walking argument is explained: accurate science gets us from ought to is, and all these paleolithic folks just get the science wrong….at least for now. In other words, for Zuk, this isn’t fallacious reasoning, it’s an evidence problem. It’s bad science, which is completely different. What does this say about this mode of reasoning? One thing it says is that the argument from fallacy doesn’t matter: we’re going to feel justified (perhaps even obliged) drinking red wine because the science says we’re healthier for it. Ought from is, no?

I have this nice, tidy climate change project. It consists of exhibits from Boston, Paris, and London. One focuses on the Planet, one on Ocean, and one on Atmosphere. All three follow a basic stasis framework, moving visitors from knowledge to action, but they each end up in different places. One positions visitors as voters, one as future deliberators, and one as cosmopolitical citizens. It’s a very satisfying set of cases, and yet I’m not sure what to do with it. The sense that there’s something worth saying, remains strong. Still, I can’t locate it, particularly as I’ve immersed myself in the recent museum/climate change literature which seems to frustrate any attempt to positively evaluate these exhibits.

But I like them together, so they’re sort of wagging the project along. Thus: The Gap.

On one side of the gap sits my argument that stasis theory illuminates recent conversations in museum studies. Specifically, stasis theory provides a framework for understanding the common knowledge/action form, the problems with that form, and how Cameron’s “liquid museums” addresses those problems. On the other side sit my three cases. Between them a yawning chasm, a black vacuum absent of transitions, linkages, or bridges.

The gap’s origin lies in the fact that none of my exhibits exemplify the kind of liquid institutions that Cameron advocates. This is not surprising, since Cameron is really drafting a manifesto of sorts for what museums _should_ be doing. But they aren’t yet, and my exhibits demonstrate this. Essentially, my exhibits fail for the same reason that all exhibits fail: they don’t live up to Cameron’s expectations. So what makes these special? What makes any one of them special? If they don’t capture what Cameron seeks, then why should they show up in this paper? What role do they play?

To fill the gap, I need my exhibits — either singly or together — to offer something that Cameron is missing, something that stasis theory allows me to introduce.

That’s what this Fiona Cameron research is all about: it establishes the character of the postmodern context in which museums now function. Their failure to respond with exhibits that reconfigure the visitor/exhibit relationship is at bottom a rhetorical problem. In Kuhnian fashion, she faces an entrenched institution that myopically produces exhibits in the normal mode, refining and refining their overly simplistic stasis framework into some kind of end form. Consequently, Cameron must argue this new rhetorical situation into place in order to give momentum to a paradigm shift. She’s trying to make it visible.

Simple. Because they were supposed to be easy. During my first semester of graduate school I enrolled in a rhetorical methods class and a class on the rhetoric of science. About two weeks into that first term, the two courses converged on the theme of science as a social construction, and I found myself dumbfounded. Not only was social construction new to me (one wonders how I found myself in a rhetoric program in the first place), but its application to science made me feel naive. How had I never been introduced to these ideas before? How had my understanding of and trust in science never been challenged? But the more I read, I realized it wasn’t that these ideas threw everything I knew out of order. They threatened but didn’t fundamentally undermine science, not as an institution and not as a body of knowledge. Nor were these ideas completely new. I simply had never had a clear sense of their intellectual origins. No, what seemed relevant was that grasping science in this more sophisticated way made me rethink my (indeed, our) relationship to science.

So to me, the social construction of science felt politically, socially, personally important. It suddenly illuminated how scientific knowledge grounds scientific and scientist authority. If we understand science as a monolithic discipline that has special access to objective knowledge independent of historical, cultural, economic, political, and social factors, then science stands apart and our role as citizens is to deliberate on that knowledge once it is settled. But social construction complicates that by showing us that science is shaped — truth is never fully clear, accessible, final or free of nonscientific factors. This means that our expectations of what that knowledge means and what we should do with it changes. If before I felt we needed to understand scientific ideas in order to become informed citizens, I now realized that we needed something more,  what John Durant refers to as “knowing how science really works.” Social construction is one facet of that more sophisticated picture of science.  I didn’t raise my hands much that term because the feeling of naiveté remained. Unfortunately, it was not going away any time soon.

But as a newly armed and freshly motivated graduate student (and if you’ve never been or encountered one, count yourself lucky), I was determined to make my next assignment easy: I would take these new theories and use them as a bar by which I could criticize science museums. At the time I had no deep sense of the place of museums in the public sphere, but science museums seemed like a good target, for unlike television or school books, exhibits were visited by audiences of ages. It seemed a given that science museums would never offer the kind of complexity that with my three weeks of theory could now demand they display. After all, museums communicated certain knowledge with all the authority of a fixed, solid institution. Museums were trusted institutions. They offered facts and truth. Social construction posed a deep challenge to that authority and it would surely confuse school kids. I wasn’t going to find anything remotely relevent. This was going to be easy.

Two things happened when I first visited the Science Museum of Minnesota. First, I was immediately transformed. I had arrived ready to develop important scholarly insights, but I quickly reverted to a school kid. I found it difficult to separate my personal interest in displays about the weather and circuits and dinosaurs from my research interest in how those displays represented science. I kept getting caught up wondering at objects and turning knobs. The kid in me took over and I wanted to learn and have fun, an experience that continues to plague my visits to museums and that I manage by giving that kid as much time as he wants before I settle in to more serious looking.

The second — and more important — thing that happened was that I found the opposite of what I was expecting. I distinctly remember an audible “Huh?” as I suddenly needed my unused notepad. What I was facing was a small installation titled “Mysteries of Catalhoyuk,” and what had caught my attention was the exhibit’s willingness to ask questions that it didn’t answer, to depict scientists doing the messy work of science (excavating, sifting, labeling), and, in short, to offer a meta-scientific view of what science is. Indeed, as I will discuss in greater detail in Chapter 5, “Mysteries of Catalhoyuk” offered a sophisticated image of science that embraced a cultural and postmodern view that went beyond a relatively simple social constructionist account.

Staring at the exhibit for the first time, however, I realized that my easy project had became at once more difficult and more fascinating. The assignment now required a more nuanced, sophisticated appreciation of what the museum was trying to accomplish. Clearly more was going on than I had expected, and I had questions: Why was this exhibit built? What was its purpose? What vision of science was the museum trying to promote? How did it promote this image? How was it received? Was it unique or were there more exhibits like this one? Prodded by these questions, “Mysteries of Catalhoyuk” spawned a conference paper that became a masters thesis, a chapter in a dissertation, and finally a portion of a chapter in this book. In many ways, this book is the result of more than ten years thinking about the potential I saw in “Mysteries of Catalhoyuk,” an exhibit that remains one of the best attempts by a science museum to exhibit science as a social and cultural practice.

What began, then, as a strategic attempt to navigate a busy graduate term quickly became a much more fascinating and enriching inquiry into the science museum’s potential to shape the public’s understanding of science as a social practice. In brief, this book is my attempt to understand why museums hadn’t conveyed to me a richer picture of science and how they might have begun to do so.

The new bookshelf produces another winner. For some reason I picked up Theories of the Self by Anthony Elliott. It’s an intro text for undergrads, but because I’m not a sociologist, it seemed useful. Paging through, I noticed that the key theorists cited by Fiona Cameron showed up (her of Liquid Museums fame). This was what I needed: a book I could trust (it’s in its third edition) that clarified some of these theories in simpler terms. It does this and more. In fact, I didn’t think it would be so useful.

After reading most of Elliott and returning to Cameron, I realized that she is relying on one of Elliott’s theories that I initially passed over — individualization. So without Elliott, I’m not sure I would have become attuned to this important facet of Cameron’s work. I’m equally surprised that theories of the self are so key to understanding recent conversations in museum studies. Let me take a minute to explain why.

Elliott defines individualization: “Individualization, in the sense of self-making, self-innovation, reflexivity, reflex and experimentation, theorizes various new articulations of self in an age of intensive globalization” (162). Again, this describes how we experience the self in a postmodern, globalized world. Elliott cites the self-help industry’s popularity as evidence of this new trend.

Individualization claims that self-reinvent becomes necessary (not just possible) under conditions where tradition and custom have declined. In this context, “people come to see that the self must negotiate an ‘open future'” (162). In a globalized, flat world where tradition and the lack of job security and terrorism and climate change freak us all out, continually reinvent ourselves is a powerful, positive response . If you’ve ever said on a Monday, “Today I’m going to be different! Now is the new me!” then you know the draw of self-reinvention. I recently finished Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit and one of the soul draining features of that book was Babbit’s delusional, repetitive reinvention. It makes you feel like a fraud and a joke when you recall all those times you thought, “Now I’m going to be different!”

Just like in Babbitt, capitalism and consumer culture compound the desire to reinvent ourselves. Essentially, the point is that in today’s society, the self must be negotiated and invented, continually. Planned obsolescence, the image-world of consumer culture, and the impulse to buy our identities all encourage us to believe in and exercise this creativity. We live in an uncertain, risky world and we respond. While I tend to lament that state of affairs (for instance, shouldn’t we fight to recover craftwork tradition?), individualization is a positive response. One of my questions for sociologists: do we evaluate or simply describe the current state of social affairs? As Elliott writes, “The do-it-yourself biography generated through globalizing processes of individualization is, indeed, a substantially accurate picture of what life is like for substantial numbers of people throughout the advanced, expensive cities of the West” (170). If we offer no normative claims, then sure, individualization as self-reinvention seems positive. But aren’t we after a different world we want? Pause.

So what does this have to do with museums?

Cameron brings individualization into her museum discussion for two reasons. First, relying on Beck she is committed to the postmodern context that induces self-reinvention. From Elliott: “In a world of interconnected networks, Beck argues, people are always revising, reworking and reconstructing their personal habits and identities in the light of knowledge about the state and direction of the world” (166). In other words, like it or not, individualization captures the museum context. Second, this context requires a different approach to museum visitors who show up prepared for reinvention and self-definition. Cameron argues that we must respond by adopting new trends that respect what visitors want. Hence the importance of her visitor interviews. Their responses indicate that visitors already thrive in this “new” context and want museums to take up different roles in their lives. They don’t just want information or to be taught, they want viewpoints that they can weigh. They want debate, not certainty; controversy, not simply settled science. I can’t help but feel that a consumer model guides their wishes…

This all seems fair, as far as it goes, but it leaves me with a question that I’m sure Beck and others (but not Cameron quite yet) can answer: What’s the relationship between individualization and democracy or citizenship? On the one hand, Cameron wants to poo-poo citizenship talk as too simple. Citizenship is old; people are already politicized whether they are informed or not. But because her criticism of deliberative democracy begins from this idea of self-reinvention, the whole argument feels very — careful here — individualistic. If we cater to what visitors want, aren’t we simply situating them independently, with no sense of community at their back?

This concern reflects a deeper problem for Cameron. When she and Ferguson celebrate an exhibit on science in politics for generative deliberative democracy, they mean that the installation gave visitors a chance to vote. And they emphasize how the installation positioned and prepared individual visitors for that vote. Their evaluation completely ignores any sense of deliberation as a social process. In my three cases (or really two of them — I’m most critical of the one that ends with a vote), I argue that climate change exhibits provide a kind of rhetorical education. I’m not interested in how visitors sediment their opinions by registering them in an artificial vote. I’m interested in how exhibits prepare visitors to deliberate outside the museum and with other people. This to me seems the (perhaps idealistic) essence of deliberative democracy. Deliberation itself isn’t democratic or citizen making or citizen engagement; it becomes so when done with others. Maybe the museum can foster this kind of deliberation, and maybe it can’t. But to shortchange the idea by tying it too closely to my own personal deliberation fails to recognize a reality of productive interaction. Cameron and Ferguson seem to imply that individual deliberation constitutes effective deliberative democracy. But it doesn’t. Communication, discussion, debate, joint reflection constitute deliberative democracy’s communicative basis. Their exhibit’s enticement to vote fails because it cannot prompt that kind of communication: voting occurs after meaningful (social) deliberation; voting doesn’t initiate it.

So Cameron’s application of individualization seems too individualistic. Again, this likely isn’t a problem for Beck, who develops his ideas within the broader social and cosmopolitical framework of the risk society. But Cameron’s argument (which in other places does appeal to this broader framework) here justifies visitor atomization, inside and outside the museum. The question, then, is how exactly should museums respond to this postmodern cultural context? Must they do so by giving visitors the information necessary for reinvention? And must that process be personal only or can it be collective?

Just five words can make a term seem worth it: “Amazing class. It truly is.”