“The tradition of all the dead generations
weighs like a nightmare”
The message of the death°s head also calls for a historical examination of the subject-object dialectic: the dead are not yet ready to receive you. Those who have died, the dead generations preceding you, do not want you yet. Through a death’s head, the dead declare they have no room for the subject and have nothing to say to the living except that the past is off-limits to them. The object is the effigy (the skull) of a totemic ancestor who rejects his descendants: the newcomer is not wanted. What lies behind the subject-object dialectic in the collection (and particularly in an antique shop where all objects are an appearance of the past) is a historical divide between the subject and the past.
Certainly the vision of “the entire known world” and of “the philosophical dunghill from which nothing was missing” is sure to induce a modicum of historical weariness in the subject. One does not stare at an overwhelmingly comprehensive “panorama of the past” without feeling the dead collectively weighing down on one’s puny presence at the end of history: “He felt smothered under the debris of fifty vanished centuries, sick with this surfeit of human thought, crushed under the weight of luxury and art, oppressed by these constantly recurring shapes which, like monsters springing up under his feet, engendered by some wicked genie, engaged him in endless combat”. This is not the utopian vision of a place where the whole of history stands at attention, but rather the awesome image of riotous legions of historical objects trampling over the living. In the museum, history condenses into a crushing authority. There the historical subject suffers the epigone`s fate. The historical stock is replete from the start (“nothing was missing”); I am left with no option but to wither away in the shadow of a fulfilled past.
Raphael groans under the weight of history. Nothing is left of the amicable handing-over of the past to the present once carried out under the aegis of tradition. The past, as it crystallizes in the museum, is an edict passed against the rights of the living: its motto, for Balzac, is that of epigonic modernity: “All is already said and we have come too late, for the last two thousand years of mankind.” The museum is a treasure trove under the authority of the dead, not the living. The latter must fight dearly for whatever breathing space they can wrest from history. In fact the past appears to be the actual place of the living (“constantly recurring forms”) pushing aside an ailing present (“sick”). The story of the Ass’s Skin squeezing life out of the hero is already implicit in the museums overpowering historical authority. The object crushes the latecomer with the weight of history:
The visitor… came to a fourth gallery, where his tired eyes were greeted by, in turn, a number of paintings by Poussin, a sublime statue by Michelangelo, several enchanting landscapes by Claude Lorrain, a Gerard Dow canvas which resembled a page of Sterne, Rembrandts…; then ancient bas-reliefs, goblets in agate, wonderful pieces of onyx! In short, works that would discourage anyone from working, so many masterpieces brought together as to wear down enthusiasm and make one hate the arts.
Clearly the museified work of art is not the comforting gift of the past handed down by avuncular tradition. The past is no longer a fount of wisdom and a repository of example. It is a poisoned well: everything shrivels in its shadow. In the museum, the subject is scrutinized by the evil eye of history and slowly wilts away. In that Sense, Balzac’s museum echoes the distant report of the historical clash of modern consciousness with the past- clash that, to some extent is handmaiden to modern consciousness. The Balzacian gallery is an image of how uprooted things must have been for Marx’s verdict, terrible in its implications, to be true. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain Of the living.” Marx’s sentiment shows how far modern consciousness has drifted from the tradition based world where ancestors were an auspicious, benign presence. The past now hangs over the present like a censorial threat. For such a conflict to arise, a wedge must have driven itself between past and present. A walk through the museum does not bring one closer to the ancestors; instead it so estranges one from them that they appear hostile to one’s existence. Here, Balzac’s museum reads like the historically alienated consciousness of modernity itself.
In the museum, the subject encounters objects that serve as historical lessons. In being abstracted from its original background, the museified work of art in fact becomes more historical. On the one hand, the statue taken out of the temple may lose its symbiotic relation with its historical home. On the other, it acquires a mythical veneer of pastness once it is relocated to the historiographic sphere of the museum. It takes on an aura of absolute historicity. ln the same way that one’s nationality is highlighted when one is abroad, but is also reified into an abstraction, the object°s historicity comes to the fore in the museum but only as a precipitate of abstract pastness. Qnce removed from its historical context, the work`s historicity becomes a given. Indeed history becomes aura, something almost mythic Which takes on an absolute, overbearing character. The past is no longer something that grows old among the living, handed down by tradition; rather it is something remote and aloof, untouchable and hostile an angry father, Saturn devouring his children.
Balzac’s museum lays out the place of conflict between the domineering dead and the beleaguered living. Conflict is conceivable only in the two parties stand in mutual alienation. In order for the past to be inimical to the present, as it is to Raphael, it cannot appear to be integrated with the the present. Historical consciousness must have gone from an integrated, homogenous sense of historical continuity to a splintered state of separation. What used to flow into the present like a generative stream of age-tested wisdom (and likened historical knowledge to soothsaying) is now dammed up as something alien and threatening. The museum piece is a bit of historical consciousness that has cut itself off from its source in traditional time. It embodies the rootlessness of modern consciousness behind Raphael’s fight to the death with the collectibles-a fight that comes to a head in the Skin-stands alienated history. History is ready to become a science because it has become an object standing over against consciousness. The development of historiographic science in the nineteenth century can be conceived only in an age which, because it experiences itself in severance from tradition, can turn an objective eye on the past: to it the past is a thing, at once removed and alien. The museums philosophical paradox is the alienation of history in its very preservation: indeed that history is nothing but the product of estrangement, that is, of our inability to penetrate time.
The video ‘For Teda’ was created by Neon Dance for A Moment of Eternal Noise with an original soundtrack by Ólafur Arnalds. The video is made from a combination of found and new footage. Neon Dance took “a piece of incomplete archive footage of a dancer, the author lost to time, and deconstructed/re-imagined 55 seconds of new content into an artistic statement that has not only been informed by the past but responds to a digital future.”