27 January 2012

The subject, thumbing through the pages of his own effacement

Or: Post-Fordist Rubbernecking as Surrealist Slapstick

All that stone and concrete patinaed with age, the windows empty or broken or gaping, the random graffiti and intrusions of natural reclamation. The remnants, how they loom. No figures in the landscape. Ah, but if those walls could talk, what might they have to impart?

But chances are that by now you might be bored with ruins. I have been for a good while. They've kind of everywhere these days. More of the same, shruggingly navigate away. Pictures of them, anyway -- all over the web, in coffee table books, etc. And yes, I've blogged about them before; did so very recently in fact. A cultural meme/trend that's been going for several years; which isn't as ubiquitous as all the zombie bullshit and the proliferation of various eschatological scenarios in books and films that've also been quite popular for a while now. The appeal of which makes one wonder about the nature or source of that appeal; which for me has long been the main aspect of the ruins/Detroit meme that I have found intriguing. Intriguing, because there's been so little commentary or analysis accompanying it. Or I suppose there has been, but none of it amounting to anything substantial – not much aiming to get beneath the surface of the allure of so-called ruin porn.

These misgivings of mine being something I tried to address when writing about this topic a while back. The obvious point being that the current allure of ruins being something quite different from that of more Romantic times; because in the previous era that appeal came down to a sublime awe for the remnants of antiquity, whereas today it's a matter of aestheticizing the decaying foundations of the present society. And that latter aspect, I've long suspected, has a lot to do – consciously or not – with the recent proliferation of images, photog projects, magazine spreads, books, and etcetera. Yet the discourse that has accompanied all of it has been either scant or anemic, if not both. And that absence begs any number of questions.

But this is more like it. The '"this" being a piece in the winter edition of the Glasgow-based arts publication Variant, submitted by contributor John Cunningham, entitled "Boredom in the Charnel House: Theses on 'Post-Industrial' Ruins." Of Marchand and Meffre's photography book The Ruins of Detroit, Cunningham at one point observes:

"There’s a sense in that [the photos] reproduce the viewing subject as a consumer of dereliction, the images mediating the ruin as a theme park to be drifted through. A certain distance is necessary to enjoy the accumulation of debris since who would want to live in a ruin? Images of the contemporary ruinscape present the aestheticisation of the destruction of the world in much the same way that 20th century avant gardes such as the Futurists enjoyed the bluster of warfare. Except what is lacking in these images of our dereliction is the passion and joy that animated the parodic virility of the Futurists. Aestheticised might be better read as anaesthetised affect since The Ruins of Detroit for all the wide screen flourish and detail of the images gives me the sense that all of this has simply been curated for the sake of distraction and gazing – or perhaps grazing – upon the ruins. The lack of affect present in such acts of curation is even more accentuated in the repetition of the curating impulse on the web."

As the title proposes, Cunningham offers six possible theses for framing "ruin porn" in various discursive contexts, six possible means of unpacking the pop-cult fixation at hand. He perhaps gets closest to my original thoughts on the matter with his third thesis, "Ruined Passivity"...

"This process of the subjectification of a passive, neutralised subject might seem too much to read from the diffusion of images of dereliction but the theme park or art space is also immanent to the contemporary ruin. For instance, photographer and ruin auteur Camilo José Vergara proposed with a kind of blank irony that the ruinscape of Detroit be preserved as a museum of US capitalism. It’s worth noting that in Germany the industrial detritus of the Rurhr valley and the mining areas of the ex-Stalinist Eastern part of the country have already been transformed into such a museum of Fordism. In an essay upon this, Kirstin Barndt goes so far to write of a 'transformation of the subject' from worker to leisured (or unemployed) consumer and a 'new landscape of affect' produced through the aestheticisation of dereliction and its preservation as a post-industrial playpen with walkways, art galleries and perfectly preserved ruins. [...] And what might be termed affective subjects are partially produced through such spaces. As Ganser, the project director of one of the 'post' industrial theme parks in Germany comments: 'People feel better, even though objectively the economic situation remains unchanged'. This can also be shaped as configuring nostalgia in the shape of mourning for the past, a past where the local population was not quite as surplus to the requirements of capital. 'People feel better' is as good a motto as any for the disciplinary apparatuses of contemporary capitalism."

I'd recommend the .pdf version, as it's better formatted and includes the illustrations that Cunningham refers to at various points in the essay (whereas the poorly-set 'text' version doesn't).

* * * *

From ruins to wreckage...

"Even with our little lapses, we generally intend the best. We reason, calculate, tabulate. We conspire. We watch our backs, and we sometimes have the backs of others. And yet we stagger forward across seas on which oil from a busted well below is burned. We build reactors, and they are upset when we barricade the railroads that carry away their waste. We make dolls that chew the scalps of little girls. We bury waste in a too-shallow grave and now you can’t eat the cheese. We throw away pairs of shoes and books, and we make more of them, and we don’t burn the ones that should be burned. We starve or are starved. We are surprised that rocks exist."

Evan Calder Williams, currently residing & researching in Napoli, momentarily breaks his blogging hiatus to offer a spiel on a certain recent event. As usual for when he lays forth in long form, it's a corker.


David W. Kasper said...

This blog's been on fine form lately - refreshing in what seems like the 'blog lull' season.

Greyhoos said...

Thanks. Nice to hear. Can understand to the lull, because I've been feeling that way myself lately. Trying to shoulder through it, keep some semblance of activity, even if (I sometimes suspect) it's at the risk of just one-noting (or perhaps two-noting) my way through the doldrums.

Lutz Eitel said...

"The obvious point being that the current allure of ruins being something quite different from that of more Romantic times; because in the previous era that appeal came down to a sublime awe for the remnants of antiquity, whereas today it's a matter of aestheticizing the decaying foundations of the present society."

Can't resist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_gandy_bank_ruins.jpg

Greyhoos said...

Heh. Nice one, Lutz.

And now that you mention it, that reminds me of this.

ralph dorey said...

This is a very good post.
The ruin porn thing has bothered me for a while and I'm happy to see someone manage to articulate what is going on within it.
Having read your thoughts Greyhoos, I think of two things in response.

Firstly, the more the world appears to be mapped, and as design has long moved beyond the point of "critical usefulness" in most consumed areas we find it harder and harder to deviate from prescribed paths of thought an action. A good example of this would be the rise of Apple, a system (as company, as individual products beginning most obviously with the IMacs and now at a profound peak with the Ipad) built around its operation as a black box. All home computers have for a long time worked through a metaphor system but with Apple the metaphor is designed to be seamless. We cannot get under the hood either through the software or through the hardware.
In contrast to this mode of living, the ruins offer a smooth space, a space where routes of operation are splintered and crumbled, crossing each other and reaching dead ends and isolated pockets which cannot (easily) be accessed. So ruins present both freedom and opportunity. Also in a heavy mapped planet, ruins are "new territory", essentially an area overlooked. As a side note, I recently attended a conference on Adventure Play and ruins satisfy the requirement of a "wild space" within which one can establish ones own paths of being as opposed to simply learning the rules of another. Though I do not think that in any way explains the coffee table tourism aspect which most dominates the encounter like your theory of the ruined pasivity. http://found0bjects.blogspot.com/2011/05/whats-computer.html
A second point would concern narcissism. At one time we would pour over books of tundras and mountainsides but in comparison to the ruins, these scenes reject us. Ruins present broken pieces of human operations whereas the wild remains complete without our presence. The ruins are waiting for someone just like us. Apparently.

But it is all tourism, it is the wild sanitised. The consuming of ruins is the Situationst "recuperation" process. Consider the cartoon "world underbelly" of Hanna or the "wikipedia top 10 non-tourist destinations" of Ben River's film Slow Action or the various reports on abandoned utopias which lazily fill gallery walls and the pages of Cabinet.
Isn't the tv show "Lost" the very epitome of this Capitalist re-coding of the de-coded?

In this final link I would say there is an example of both lazy recuperation (Kjærgaard) and rather more interesting détournement (Mattingly).

Greyhoos said...

Some very good points/thoughts, Ralph. (Thanks for chiming in. As usual it'll give me some things to mull over.)

There's a lot I'm tempted to say about the first one; tho' that might only degenerate into my griping about Apple, and their longstanding tendency of privileging design over other things (like pragmatic engineering, say). But I'll skip to your second point intrigues me the most. This I think has something to do with the matter of the supposed "sublime" that I wrote about in a previous post, as well as Cunningham's comments about the lack of human figures in ruin porn photography. Also, I your ideas about "wild space" seems to very much square with the Urban Exploration attitude towards ruins, towards the disused or discarded strata and spaces of the urban/built environment.

ralph dorey said...

I don't know about urban exploration though, something doesn't sit right with me in the way it's portrayed, I'm suspicious.

Greyhoos said...

How it's portrayed? Not sure I follow. As portrayed by whom? Because almost everything I know about it is via urb-ex'ers themselves.

ralph dorey said...

uh oh. I actually posted two comments last time I was here but I think I must have forgotten to do the verification on the first one.

Can't remember what I wrote but I'll try and go over what I meant by portrayal. I don't know anything about official representation but I've noticed over the last few years that people I know have recently become interested in the idea of sneaking around empty buildings. The way its talked about, by these people, seems like a complete consumer experience, with the aim of aquireing the photographs (for flickr) that prove you were there. It seems like yet another aspect of modern life where the whole point of the Now is to be able to tell others about the Then. To experience something and be only thinking about how one will relay this to others after the fact is not to experience it at all.

That's what I meant I think.

Greyhoos said...

I think I know what you're getting at, Ralph. The 'Now' being (perhaps) something like hiking or mountain climbing, the sorts of excursion that a person does and where (in most instances) documenting it for consumptive purposes doesn't factor into it, because it's done for the experience in itself. I have an idea of what you're talking about as far as pictures being posted on the web & whatnot. I can't really speak about how such stuff is presented or portrayed lately. But I think that it was originally intended as a basic means of documenting the spaces found and/or explored -- for one's own purposes, but also (as you mention) for the
sake of sharing it with other UrbEx-ers.

Ultimately, I suppose one could dismiss the whole thing as an largely male adolescent activity of the "wanna go see a dead body?" sort -- an extension of the impulse to poke around in empty mansions or factories. And while there are some UrbEx-ers that speak of the practice in terms of a sort of layman's/casual equiv of "psychogeographic" derive or urban archeology, I suspect that it mainly traces back to a morbid fascination with the instability of the built environment in which one lives -- the various "ghosts" or abandoned/vacated spaces scattered throughout its core and along it periphery. (For whatever reason, the studio recording process of "ghosting" comes to mind here -- that process by which a sample is positioned as a structural or melodic baseline for a track, with the track then being played or constructed around the sample, only to have that original/originating sample removed with the track's completion.)

At any tare, it's too much to explore or formulate here. What most interested me, however, were your remarks concerning mapping and metaphor -- a couple of things I may be giving additional thought, as they might be pertinent to another post I had in mind.

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