One last letter: on Oakland’s Museum of Capitalism and the emergent gaze
Capital, or money, is at such a level of insanity that psychiatry has but one clinical equivalent: the terminal stage.
–Gilles Deleuze, “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium”
When I was a kid my father always worried that I “swallowed” books, the way I would read for hours and not look up.
Yoohoo, are you in there? he’d call to me as I read, waving his hand in front of my face, as if in fear that I’d die or disappear if I stayed inside of the book long enough. As if his waving hand could maintain the appropriate distance between me and the book.
In Heroines, her meditation on the [ignored] wives of famous writer men, Kate Zambreno writes,
(God, the experience of reading her life. So abject and gooshy. It makes me cringe. I experience an absolute intimacy coupled with a desire to protect myself by distancing. Like a toxic girlfriend. I lose a sense of equilibrium reading these books — I get too inside.)
My father would say I got too inside when I swallowed books, that I disappeared. I emerged from books stun-eyed, and it would take me a while to function again in this world.
(So maybe it was the books that swallowed me? But I was the reader / the eater.)
(And: do I only think they swallowed me because I’m used to being the object of gaze, not the gaze itself?)
Of her television version of Chris Kraus’ novel I Love Dick, Jill Salloway says, “I don’t necessarily know what the female gaze is, but I’m in the process of excavating it…” The show has been lauded for turning on its head what it means to obsess about – and address – a traditionally-empowered male figure. In the final episode of the first season of the show, this turning occurs as Kevin Bacon’s Dick and Kathyn Hahn’s Chris seem about to consummate this tension / obsession.
“You’re so wet right now,” Dick crows to Chris, and smiles triumphantly, “that’s me that’s making you wet.” And then, as he slowly withdraws his hand from her, we see Dick’s hand covered in menstrual blood.
When Dick leaves the room to wash the blood from his hands, Chris reflects for a moment. And then, un-rushed, she dresses herself in Dick’s clothes, glances around the room, and leaves his house. Closes the scene.
While the sex act in a traditional, penetrative, heteronormative manner is not “complete,” Chris is finished. Limbs easy and loose as she opens the door and tromps off down the road, sun rising in front of her, menstrual blood smearing down her thigh.
She’s complete – has had enough – and does not need to continue the conversation or process it with Dick. (As she has a few moments earlier, when she blurts that she feels scared, and then takes it back and tells herself to shut up. Or, in an earlier episode’s aborted sex scene in which she asks him, “Wait, isn’t this weird? Can we talk about what’s happening? I feel so weird.”)
This time she does not need to feel weird, or to be present for Dick to reject her due to the menstrual blood, nor does she need to comfort him vis-a-vis any awkwardness he might feel. Instead she pulls on his shorts and shirt, boots and hat, and walks off down the road.
At first I resented that hat, having been a sweaty teen on whom suburban boys placed their baseball caps in conquest, but the hat becomes her (as my grandmother would say, meaning to suit her, look good on her), and she doesn’t shiver or shrink underneath it.
Rather, the hat guides her off down the road in the pink early morning light, and then becomes her, in the word’s additional meaning. She takes what she wants and walks off with it.
So too reads the gesture of the Museum of Capitalism, opened this month in Oakland. Its curators say they “apply the museological gaze” to capitalism, and seek to create an institution to “educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism.” On its website, the Museum describes itself as display of “the epic saga known as capitalism.”
“Just the idea of a retrospective Museum does a lot of work,” says Andrea Steves, an artist and curator who opened the museum with partner Timothy Furstnau. The naming itself of capitalism as an object of study making it possible to perceive–as Sylvère Lotringer says in the introduction to Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader: “What happened is that we forgot that capitalism even exists. It has become invisible because there’s nothing else to see.”
At the museum it is on view, organized for study. “The Museum is open,” Steves says, “So that must mean capitalism is over. What happens next?”
Talking with Steves on a high summer night, I feel the sense of agency coming off her in waves, the excitement, the ability to decide “what happens next.”
(Zambreno again: “Is making someone a character giving someone life, or taking it away? Perhaps making someone a character is a way of alienating them from themselves, so that their lives are read through the character.” And so the Museum allows us to read ourselves through the character of capitalism, as opposed to capitalism just charging unbidden through our daily lives, our veins. We gain agency by alienating ourselves from capitalism, by observing it in display cases, behind glass.)
Just as Chris walks off in that closing scene in I Love Dick, the red and white text indicating her letters to Dick returns, and the voiceover– Dear Dick: I am going to write you one last letter.
And so the Museum of Capitalism writes one last letter with its collection. It collects the tools, artifacts and rhetorics of capitalism (Steves notes that befuddled tourists wandering into the space have found solace in its gift shop, where they “understand what to do”) and arranges capitalism’s remnants as an archival, recollective institution. A display of wands (from wizard wands to Hitachi massagers and television remote controls) sits around the corner from a recreated Police Mindfulness Meditation Chamber. A display of colorful abandoned pens lie end to end in a glass case against the Museum’s clean glass windows facing the San Francisco Bay.
The Museum itself is the one last letter. In witnessing the Museum’s presence in Oakland we also witness its construction in process.
“We put this together as quickly as possible,” Steves notes, “in part because of the insane real estate market in Oakland. We were so afraid that the spaces we looked at to have the Museum would be gone before we could make it into them.” The sense of speed and rapid construction pumps through the Museum’s space, just as it pumps through Oakland.
“We basically had six weeks from when we got into this space until our opening,” Steves says, “And once we got a sense of our timeline, we realized the impossibility of finishing all of these walls before opening, so we begin to think about how to integrate that into the project. Tim spent a lot of time matching paint colors to the mud of the dry walls, and the construction itself became part of the design of the space.”
Steves describes a piece in the Museum by Oakland-based Futurefarmers that references Robert Oppenheimer memoranda on the making of the first atomic bomb. “That piece has mud halos on the wall behind it,” Steves says, “so the wall itself can become a part of the piece.” She laughs, and gestures toward a ladder propped in the nearby window, “We like to say that showing the seams is part of the process of dismantling capitalism.”
As late capitalism declines, various alternatives and systems come to place (have been coming into place for generations, as Oakland’s history of anti-capitalism organizing can testify) and remain emergent, seams still on view. The Museum allows us to turn back to look at capitalism as if it were complete, but also allows us into the tenuousness of creating something else, something “new in the shell of the old,” and precarious.
“We like to give the impression of a longstanding institution,” Furstnau says, “even though we won’t be here after August. We’re not intentionally trying to confuse people, but we’re interested in the institutionalized temporary.”
The Museum holds power as an easily recognizable museum (well-branded design, display cases, etc), but also confuses. “Because organization of power—that is, the manner in which libido invests the economic, haunts the economic,” writes Gilles Deleuze, “and nourishes political forms of repression.” The ways in which the Museum of Capitalism is slightly less organized – in the confusion about its temporary/long-term status, a gift shop where one can’t quite tell whether it’s a joke or no, ongoing construction in the space– in these ways the Museum has the potential to turn away from nourishing repression.
Just as Dick’s desire to make Chris wet is frustrated by the menstrual blood, so too capitalism’s desire to determine our value entirely is frustrated / confused by the stance of the museum. Yes, capitalism moves through the space, through the monitors used to display the work and the gift shop and the beautiful fluttering flags that face the port outside. But in turning to generate its own emergent gaze – and walking away after just a few months, potentially blue-balling the viewer expecting a Museum to stay – the Museum, in its way, both frustrates and confuses the capitalist stance.
When I ask about how they will respond to visitors who review the Museum on Lonely Planet and Yelp and may consider it a static, established space, Steves and Furstnau shrug. “It’s not that strange, when you think about it,” Steves says. “Pop-ups are normal these days. And museums close all the time.”
Steves notes that the Museum of Capitalism uses materials in its construction that were salvaged from the closing of exhibits in other Bay Area art institutions.
“We’re interested in museums as infrastructure,” says Furstnau. “What can be repurposed and can’t – what is worth saving?”
(It’s a question that seems ever-relevant as the Senate slashes through our health care policy, as Berkeley police beat protesters at a City Council meeting where protesters gather to show their disapproval for militarized police. What is worth saving about our existing institutions, and what do we gain by gazing back at them at their peak?)
Every year, at the height of summer, people from all over the Bay Area congregate on Piedmont Ave in Oakland for the Garden of Memory, a summer solstice celebration of simultaneous performances by Bay Area composers and musicians throughout the Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland’s columbarium and mausoleum with its grand and gorgeous gardens, twisty halls, nooks, jars and shelves of ashes. It is always hot and full, and the peak of summer hammers the claustrophobia in, makes the setting of experimental music next to memorial plaques even more strange.
As the sun set this year, we marched dutifully to the central hall and began ringing the tiny bells that had been passed throughout the crowds of hundreds by Brenda Hutchinson. We’d been instructed to ring our bells from 8:34-8:50 to mark the latest sunset on this solstice day. The space filled quickly with tinny ringing, people toning and humming, people without bells jangling their keys or playing bell sounds on their phones.
By the central patio a few people stood with their arms outstretched and eyes closed, just listening as the sound rose and peaked and dropped and rose again. So many people smiling, ringing, watching, just looking around at the hundreds of faces orienting towards a center of sound.
One man stared into my face. What is happening here? he asked, but it was soft, genuine, open. I shrugged, and looked away from him out at the crowd, because there was no other answer.
It was so moving to stand there sweating with everyone, I said to Deb later, so sweet to recognize together that this day is over.
Not just the day (sunset) but the summer, its peak – the longest day over, the light heading now towards its decline and the darker days. Not knowing what they’ll bring, but the peak marked by this strange and specific communal making, by the ringing of so many tiny bells.