In Le Musée Décapité I pursue my work on written objects, i.e. objects that I consider as always and already written and which constantly summon their literary and historical other, while exposing themselves through the dual motif of severance and accumulation, since the language strata that form them inevitably fall back into muteness, a regime of separation and misunderstanding which is also that of the intertext and interpretation. Thus the exhibition is primarily the place of their exclusion.
Le Musée Décapité summons two bachelor machines, whose destinies are both historically parallel and literarily undissociable: the museum and the guillotine.
Besides this text – a scriptural prosthesis which only consists of notes towards its future writing -, Le Musée Décapité is a literary exhibition without language, or where language only persists through its very effacement: therefore, an exhibition of written objects.
These notes are couched here in the fake and deceptive form of a rough draft. This draft presents itself as an illusion, the illusion of allowing access to or of laying bare its project, although this gesture of laying bare does not mean a return to some lost origin or veiled pantheon, but rather an unclothing of the theater of the outside. A work stemming from illusion, the only way of “making truth out of error”.
1792-1793: “The first museum in the modern sense (that is to say, the first public collection) … was established … in France by the Convention. Therefore the origins of the modern museum would be linked to the development of the guillotine.” The era of Terror.
1977: The whole ceremonial comes to an end with the last guillotine execution in France and the opening of Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Two bachelor machines now dissolve into a single one: the invention of the Postmodern Museum. The museum takes charge of the function of the guillotine. The era of reconciliation and recapitulation.
Each bachelor machine is an iconic structure made of two antagonistic models – one desiring and one mechanical – that produce intensive quantities of autoerotic pleasure, and carries within its own gleaming mechanisms the death of things recorded. (Here mechanical could be replaced by semantic.)
With the guillotine (nicknamed “The Widow”), executions become more democratic and the headsman or torturer becomes an executioner. No longer will people of noble extraction be decapitated with a sword (or an axe), robbers hanged, heretics burned, highwaymen tortured on the wheel, regicides quartered, or countefeiters scalded. Death is now heading towards democratisation (a process which, in the twentieth century, will find its climax with the invention of the monument to the unknown soldier).
The guillotine also gives rise to a new pictural genre: the portrait of guillotined people. First in engravings: the exhibition’s invitation card shows a detail of Custine’s bloody severed neck, as his head is held up to the crowd by the executioner who, like an anonymous Perseus presenting Polydectes with the head of Medusa, stupefies the crowd gathered around the guillotine and deludes himself that he is making this crowd a people. Then in photographs: in French, to be photographed was slang for to be guillotined. The assistant executioner whose duty was to make sure the head fell into the basket was called the Photographer. The guillotine is a photographic shutter or a “colossal easel1” that executes the portrait of condemned men and women (by the same token it invents anthropometrics or the figure of the traitor to social order).
And what about the museum that is now beheaded? “Do this machine and the objects it contains solely function on a literary level, i.e. in a play with the other that reads and carries them within itself? They are merely there, petrified in the perpetual present of national heritage, since they only exist as the condition of their textual “other”. In this landscape, the museum is a space without exits, an impasse: there is nothing but the text […] The ultimate moment of the execution is lacking, frozen in a suspension which conjures up all the words that were pronounced, all the dead and their specters, in a language that is supported (but no longer sustained) by the infinite present of mineralization […] A fable: without power.