15 January 2013

Someone Still Lives Here (and: Returning to the Topic of Ruination)

Returning to two prior topics, for the first time in a long while...

It seems that 2012 two saw a bit of a slowdown with the "ruin porn" meme. Perhaps there were a few too many photo books and essays of the stuff published around the beginning of they year, leading to a saturation effect and prompting appetites to slack. If anything, the previous year showed a turn from the usual gratuitous ruin-porn offerings and a turn toward analytical discussions of "Why the popular fascination with Detroit and ruin porn?"

The Design Observer, however, has stayed with the topic throughout; with various contributors focusing the discussion on Detroit's history, framing it in the larger issues of sustainable urban planning and the socio-economic dynamics of inner-city communities. Recently they posted a slideshow of some work by photographers Aaron Rothman and Dave Jordano, each of whom chose to turn their cameras away from the city's often-photographed monuments of urban decay and focusing instead on the lives of the citizens of the city -- aiming to capture life as it's lived in the city, and to also "counteract the aestheticizing and mythologizing effects of much Detroit ruin photography."

The post was closely preceded by an article by Andrew Herscher, associate professor of architecture at U Mich; and Herscher's piece almost serves as an accompanying or introductory text for Rothman and Jordano's photographs. In his essay, Herscher discusses grass-roots urban reclamation in terms of a city's "unreal estate"; the creation of a "proto-commons" from the spatial and infrastructural voids and ruptures left by the abandonment of capital from previously industrialized cities...

"What if Detroit has lost population, jobs, infrastructure, investment, and all else that the conventional narratives point to — and yet, precisely as a result of those losses, has gained opportunities to understand and engage novel urban conditions? What if one sort of property value has decreased in Detroit — the exchange value brokered by the failing market economy — but other sorts of values have increased — use values that lack salience or even existence in that economy? What if Detroit has not only fallen apart, emptied out, disappeared and/or shrunk, but has also transformed, becoming a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted, voided or negated through the lenses of conventional architecture and urbanism?"

* * * * *

Since the completion of his 2006 book The Aesthetics of Decay, Dylan Trigg hasn’t given the subject of ruination much attention. But he recently returned to the topic with a paper on "The Psychoanalysis of Ruins" which was recently picked up by 3:AM magazine. Trigg offers:
"There are, after all, certain places in the world that cannot be digested with the senses alone, but instead hover in an anxious space, invoking a ghostly quality that cannot be tied down to appearances. Elsewhere, I have called this irruption of ghostly matter into the everyday realm an 'accident in reality.' The term refers to the sense of inadvertently catching sight of someone/something that belongs in our nightmares or our unconscious but which has somehow made its way to the surface of daylight appearances. A ruin is set aside from the surrounding world in its ability to contort our rational grasp on space and time. It belongs to an undead realm: of the past, yet haunting the present; dead but in ceaseless motion; devoid of life and yet constitutive of life. The peculiarity of the ruin is that it forces materiality to adhere to the logic of unreality. It is a place that cannot be seen, except in a fleeting fashion. Less still, can it be grasped as a concept. With this breakdown in thought and sense, anxiety enters the scene of the ruin."

Trigg's approach here is very rootsy, as he takes an exclusively Freudian route, firmly couching it in Freud's notion of The Uncanny:
"The ruin is factually present, yet experienced as being unreal. This paradox in the structure of experience establishes a disorientated atmosphere, in which things become otherworldly, fragmented, and above all, uncanny. This disorientation of space and time is uncanny precisely because it leaves the world intact. What follows is a disjunction between reality and experience. ...In the tension, unreality protrudes into the world. And yet, the world remains as it is. Freud’s confrontation with the ruin does not bring about a loss of self or a loss of world. Both remain as they were. Instead of being consumed by nothingness, they lose the quality of being irreducibly real. Here, the materiality of things is not a sufficient condition to attest to their brute existence. Suffering from a lack of phenomenal depth, things become flattened, divested of their dynamism, and now reduced to a simulacrum of reality."
Navigating by way of The Uncanny, Trigg is plotting a course that circumvents the "aestheticizing and mythologizing" pitfalls which plague so many recent essays on the matter, steering them more sqaurely in the direction of the ontological. Writing on this topic a couple of years ago, I made passing mention to Julia Kristeva's theory on Abjection, suggesting that it might prove useful in this context. Indeed, perhaps to the opening stretch of Kristeva's Powers of Horror, in which the author describes the sensation resulting from an encounter with the abject, are worth quoting at length...
"There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful — a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. ...Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

"When I am beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object. The abject is not an object facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-ject, an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object — that of being opposed to I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses."

This, she describes as akin to (or a variant of) the Freudian Uncanny:
"To each ego its object, to each superego its abject. ...A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A 'something' that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture."
In the text, the above appeared under the subheading "Neither Subject Nor Object." For Kristeva, an encounter with abjection involves the experience of psychic disharmony or trauma caused by a disruptive impurity (in her account, waste – particularly of the corporeal sort, feces & menses & such) which exposes or "represents -- like a metaphor that would have become incarnate – the objective frailty of [the] symbolic order." An encounter with abjection involves the experience of psychic disharmony or trauma caused by a disruptive impurity (in her account, waste – particularly of the corporeal sort) which exposes or "represents – like a metaphor that would have become incarnate – the objective frailty of [the] symbolic order." This, she argues, provokes a "narcissistic crisis" and an unmooring of subjectivity, a condition in which the ego ("as center of a solar system of objects") and identity of the subject is destabilized when faced with something that has lapsed or been expelled from the symbolic order, with what falls outside the domain of the ego's control and sense of worldly coherence.*

I believe this is why Kristeva’s theory of the Abject came to my mind during my prior attempts to address this topic. Kristeva's discussion is largely psychoanalytic in its focus; but, at a couple of points in the text, she specifies that the symbolic order in question is "socio-symbolic" in character, and thus hierarchical. The idea I had in mind last time around, but – in the case of contemporary urban or industrial ruins – with the element of waste in Kristeva’s theory instead equating with the excreta of capitalism’s inherent cycles and processes of "creative destruction." All of which occurs on a scale – human, architectural, societal – that invariable prompts a sense of awe, dread, abjection, if not horror. A "vortex of summons and repulsions," as Kristeva states.

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*  As per the Horror of the title, Kristeva eventually connects this notion of the Abject with elements of apocalypse, suffering, horror, fear, and the state of "Being as ill-being" in literature, primarily in the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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