Susan Sontag

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York, 1999.

Susan Sontag foresees ruins as the result of actions and as the ultimate result of everything pictured by photography. “Many buildings, and not only Parthenon, probably look better as ruins.” Photographs themselves are mementos of what is passing, and thus the representation of debris of a disappeared moment.

Urbicide

Penski, Max. Three Kinds of Ruin: Heidegger, Benjamin, Sebald. Poligrafi, 2011.

Max Pensky analyzes “urbicide” of the European cities in the Second World War and the way urbicide was reflected in thinking of three key successive cultural figures: Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sebald. For Heidegger, it is a project of “re-pastoralization of Germany’s shattered cities,” Benjamin wrests “the power of the image of the ruin from the experience of the big city,” and Sebald seeks “to recuperate a discourse of the ruin as site of moral catechism.”

Austerlitz

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, London: Hamish Hamilton. 2001

In Sebald’s novel which verges on the border of fiction and nonfiction, the person named Austerlitz appears and reappears in connection to a desperate attempt to grasp the meaning of German concentration camps as perceived by relatives of victims. For Sebald, ruins are allegory of being. From fascination with abandonment and depopulated landscape to mental reconstruction of the stories based on their subtle traces, Sebald is engrossed with the idea of ruination in its historic and mnemonic dimensions.

Narcissus Taking a Selfie

I posted on academia.edu my short playful writing on selfies. it is currently under consideration in one new anthropological internet venue; I have not heard from them for a while. I first presented my selfie project at John Hartigan’s class last year as a talk, and here is finally a writing:

Selfie in the Interior: Narcissism and Its Cultural Critique

“Persistency of mirrors is known to everyone as a quality of re-demonstrating a looker, always, to the looker. Narcissism, “destined to oneself” (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 1968, 249, quoted by Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, University of Chicago Press, 1993), is the plague of the modern times, critics fear. Self-portrait in the time of proliferation and ubiquity of technology emerges on a verge of narcissism and cultural critique of narcissism, as [that] what appears to be a result of the collaborative struggle between two discourses, disproving and supporting each other. The cultural critique of narcissism is a Narcissus itself: it is undetachable from the object at which it looks. Whenever Narcissus turns, it is always Narcissus that he sees. Whenever the conversation about selfies starts, inevitably someone points out or implies that it’s a morally questionable enterprise. (“Self portrait of NN knows it,” Derrida would have said.) Yet… What is there to be painted except for self-portrait? What is there to be taken if not selfie?”

Selfie is an ideal ruin. For tomorrow self is dead.

A Bit Lengthy Abstract for the New Directions in Anthropology (UT Conference) 2017

In Proximity of Ruins: The Generative Potential of the Deteriorating Space and Utopian Visions

In my work, I look at the history of ruins as a notion and in motion. The goal of such examination, the examination of the cultural etymology of “ruins,” is to ask, or rather to pose, two inter-related questions: “what is ruin?” and “what do ruins do?”

Since the shift of the conversation around ruins from the ruin as an object towards the ruin as a process (Stoler, 2008), the writing around ruins, which has been existing for as long as ruins exist, that is to say, from the beginning of humanity,[1] exploded in inquiries of all kinds: post-colonial past and its perseverance within the shifted selves of the same practices, imperial ambitions, “white man’s burden,” and other structures of thought and mindsets that possess a great potential of ruination. I think it might be useful to get back for a moment to the looking at the ruin as the object, albeit the-object-in-flux. For what is object?

Likewise, humanity has long been persistently, nostalgically, and pensively charmed with ruins as the material remnants of the past. The material remnants are important because it is by reconstruction of the past that we forge our identities and create contesting scenarios of the future. In recent decades, socio-cultural anthropology unpacks many different and perhaps conflicting interpretations of ruins, connecting “ruins” to the “adjacent territories”: theories of materiality, affect, infrastructure, power, memory, utopia/dystopia/heterotopia, precarity, history, progress, modernity, museumizing gaze, ruin porn, archeology, practices of belonging and political affiliation, and so forth.

On the ethnographic material that I collected during the summer 2016 travel to Siberia, in particular related to the Bratsk “house of pioneers” lying in ruins, I theorize how space differently produces ruins in connection to its changing political and social formations, and how ruins, in their turn, generate miscellaneous types of cross-species socialities while weirding pre-existing notions / divisions between “human” and “non-human,” “dead matter” and “living organisms,” “separate entity” and “assemblage/hybrid,” “animate” and “inanimate,” “acting” and “acted upon,” “subjected to” and “possessing agency.” In proximity of ruins, private and public, individual and collective, reclusive and social, misanthropic and sociable, melancholic and hopeful, always already abstract and questionable, acquire additional flickering, blinking distinctions, as well as glitching similarities.

I am conducting this project in hopes to achieve a better understanding as to why ruins are the metaphor actively deployed in the recent scholarship, particularly in connection to the imperial formations, and I am doing it full of suspicion that the figure of ruins in fact stands for a grander figure of absence of something.
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[1] In some sense, ruins foreshadowed their own emergence. Consider Susan Sontag’s maxim: “Many buildings, and not only Parthenon, probably look better as ruins.” On Photography.

Active Ruination (ISIS)

I uploaded my article on “active ruination” (namely ISIS’s affective ruining the space practices) on academia.edu. Years will pass before I get it published so it might as well just dwell there

ISIS: Active Ruination and Performativity of Public Execution

As atrocious actions, public executions and world-making endeavors of ISIS analyzed in terms of performativity open the space for questioning the dominant ideas of history and politics. ISIS released the video of the shooting of 25 Syrian soldiers at the Palmyra ruins in the beginning of June, 2014. On the video, the executioners, most of whom appear to be teenagers, parade the soldiers on the scene of the amphitheater, kneel them down and shoot. The Palmyra amphitheater is present as a visible two-fold reminder of spectacle: as arena of violence and the metaphor for the arena of violence. A crowd, children among them, watched the execution. I argue that the public executions serve several goals for ISIS: not only does ISIS compose propaganda messages, but the very lawlessness and atrociousness of the executions function as a powerful claim of the group’s legitimacy as a state in the ISIS imaginaries. Through the staged executions, ISIS seeks to create the world of power which is alternative to the Western world. In the process of creation of this world, ISIS generates landscapes of violence, and produces spaces haunted by killings. An attempt to redefine ancient ruins and to reenact medieval executions, is a claim to build a world of alternative historicism.

Angel of History / Benjamin on Ruins

Benjamin, writing about the Klee’s “Angelus Novus” painting, portrays the angel of history, as it were, caught by the wind of time and being carried away by the force that exceeds the angel’s capacity to resist it:

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 1968, 258)

The angel that we see in Klee’s painting is indeed disheveled.

angelusnovus

In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.

benjamin-sm

What interests me here, however, is not an imaginary or real semblance of the work of art and the portrait of the thinker who muses upon it. Perhaps as much as it is possible to claim that the work of art is always to this or that degree a self-portrait of the author, the work of art appropriated for an analysis (especially this far-winged as Benjamin’s analysis is) is also reading in the work of art of something to which the work of art serves as merely a pretext, that is to say, a self-portrait of sorts as well.

The past, which is constantly re-evaluated, by everyone, and in particular by the state, with some moments summoned and some, erased, appears in the image of a bunch of debris, detritus, floating in the wind of history (of progress) in Benjamin’s vision. The past, moreover, does not “exist” but is summoned. Not only every summoning of the past is arbitrary, divergent, creative, and interpretive, but there is no way “it really was” either, contradictorily to, or, rather, additionally to Benjamin’s assessment “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke)” (Benjamin, 1968, 255). History, written and re-written in the interest “of the ruling classes” (Marxist thesis), we see increasingly in the modern times, is but an agglomeration of myths. Public does sympathize with the victor, and will always be sympathetic of victors–however, from a metaphysical point of view, the true victor is the one who lost the fight, and in this case the sympathies are uncertain. However official propaganda would frame the events, there will always be a recalcitrant part of the society stubbornly empathizing with the “losers,” preparing the soil for the dragon’s teeth to grow into a new, tomorrow-victorious, army. (As an example might serve the Whites opposing the Reds in the Civil War in Russia. Despite the victory of the Red Army, the White cause was not entirely defeated, and although there is no point in history when it could win either, there were always sympathies during the Soviet times for the defeated, which is also connected perhaps with the Orthodox moral demanding mercy for the conquered.)

It is necessary to put “the pile of debris before” the angel–which are, despite that they are situated in front of his eyes, are the debris of the past, unequivocally, since he’s dragged by the wind into the future–in context with ruins Benjamin mentions in the “Exposé” of 1935 to The Arcades, the fragment that did not make it into the later, 1939 version of “Exposé”:

“Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But it was Surrealism that first opened our eyes to them. The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them has collapsed. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monumets of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (Benjamin, 1999, 13).

To decode the Benjamin’s link onto Balzac, it is best to examine this piece by Balzac quoted in The Arcades Project under code C2a,8:

“The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime–they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. But the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.”<Honoré de Balzac and other authors,>  Le Diable á Paris (Paris, 1845), vol. 2, p. 18 (Balzac, “Ce qui disparait de Paris”). ▯ Collector ▯                                  [C2a,8] (Benjamin, 1999, 87).

Here, regardless of how often the bourgeoisie’s palaces are seen in ruins, only for them, it seems, to be built anew with no regard to the proverbial past, Benjamin talks about the anticipated ruins, the ruins that are to be, the ruins that we can see in the future before they are ruins: about the material debris and traces of that present which is about to turn into the past.

Balzac is even more visceral in his description of these ruins: “ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.” One might expect decay and putrefaction in these amorphous piles that are indeed perhaps are better called rabble than ruins, in comparison to the ruins retaining form referring to the previous socio-political formation, that of feodalism. Like aristocracy is the ruling class of feodalism, bourgeoisie is the ruling class of the formation known as capitalism in the Marxist taxonomies. In the Balzacian detritus it is not difficult to see the Benjaminian pile of debris carried away from the face of the angel of history, also carried away by the supreme force of progress. But what it tells us beyond what it tells about unfulfilled dreams of progress and failed expectations? When does the production of these debris ends? In the impossible, ideal moment when the past is finally restored just “as it all was”, the dead resurrected, the mankind redeemed, and the final judgement of history has been irreversibly pronounced?

References

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Schoken Books, New York, 1968.

A Portrait of the City in the Uncertain World

What is city? How does it function? Is it a mirror of Utopia? Is it an agglomeration of infrastructure of different types? Is it a mythical space? Enchanted vision? An embodiment of precarity and uncertainty? A system where affect circulates? Perhaps everything above and more.

*

People are infrastructure, according to AbdouMaliq Simone. Whereas “infrastructure is commonly understood in physical terms, as reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.” (Simone, 2004, 407), “infrastructure” might be read in broader terms. For instance, like interactions of city residents that “engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. There conjunctions become an infrastructure—a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city.” (Ibid, 408).

However, when the talk is about people as infrastructure, I cannot shed the feeling that by nature of infrastructure (which does not generate itself, as it were, but is organized or at least repurposed, as repurposed ruins, for example), the subjects are exploited / used as infrastructure, rather than form infrastructure by interactions through their own volition.

But in Simone’s thought “people as infrastructure” construct themselves as such: “Such infrastructure remains largely invisible unless we reconceptualize the notion of belonging in terms other than those of a logic of group or territorial representation. People as infrastructure indicates residents’ needs to generate concrete acts and contexts of social collaboration inscribed with multiple identities rather than in overseeing and enforcing modulated transactions among discrete population groups.” (Ibid, 419). I wonder if another productive way of thinking about people as infrastructure would be, considering people’s relationships and interactions being structured in collaboration and negotiation with other agencies, not only them as acting subject. What happens to people as infrastructure when biopolitics is taken into account? How does that change our view of a city?

*

Susan Buck-Morss in the chapter “Dream World of Mass Culture” of “Dialectics of Seeing” draws attention to the urban space as an enchanted space: “In the modern city, as in the ur-forests of another era, the “threatening and alluring face” of myth was alive and everywhere. It peered out of wall posters advertising “toothpaste for giants”…” (Buck-Morss, 254). City is an enchanted place where allegories and myths unfold. French poet Louis Aragon whose work Buck-Morss analyzes in connection with the dialog between Walter Benjamin and Surrealism, suggests that industrialism, at least on its early stage, is mythic: “He acknowledges that the new gas tank gods came into being because humans “delegated” their “activity to machines,” transferring to them “the faculty of thought”: “They do think, these machines. In the evolution of this thinking they have surpassed their anticipated use.”” (260).

Dream is a state of mind for Benjamin, and, it could be added, sleepwalking is a state of living. It is under the hypnosis of their desires, intentions, plans, and hopes, that citizens make everyday transactions.

*

Zeiderman, Kaker, Silver, and Wood begin their “Uncertainty and Urban Life” with another vision of a city, a city as a site of constant precarity, city called Octavia, whose dystopian image belongs to Italian writer Italo Calvino. To quote the article, “It is a “spider-web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and cat walks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor.” (Zeiderman et al, 2015, 281). Johannesburg, also the field site for the authors, could be characterized by “contingency, fluidity, and unpredictability,” like markets—and in this flux, “uncertainty has become internal to ways of analyzing and interpreting cities as well as to ideas of how to create the cities of tomorrow.” (Ibid, 300).

*

Nagel Thrift introduces in the article “But Malice Afterthought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred,” published in 2005, re-introduces the concept of misanthropy as the affect which circulates in the city spaces. Tracing the history of misanthropy, he remarks: “Thus, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, misanthropy was understood as a problematic state, but certainly not a state that was mad, iniquitous or perverse.” (P.9 of a manuscript downloaded from the author’s website). “But by the middle of the nineteenth century, such sentiments were fast going out of fashion in the face of a more pious stance to life which valued a controlled and benevolent heroism of the everyday and which increasingly regarded people-hating as a psychological affliction (often, indeed, caused by unrequited love) which must needs be combated by social programmes and self-restraint, although in mid- and even late-Victorian literature a series of radical or maudlin haters still continue to crop up as characters and attitudes, as instanced by authors like Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Browning, Hardy and Conrad.” (Ibid).

I think this conceptualizing of misanthropy is fascinating but the reason the concept, quite unlike “melancholy” or “nostalgia” went out of circulation (and would not be returned) is that it dispersed into many different kinds of hatred, such as misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sociopathy, xenophobia, etc.—directed at particular groups of people based on gender, race, social orientation, etc. Some of these “hatreds,” phobias, and dislikes, are pathologized and announced to be a mental disorder (sociopathy), while others tacitly (or publicly) approved.

Misanthropy thus indeed links to affects of the past, and evokes literature—thus, whole number of heroes in Russian literature: Onegin, Pechorin, Chatsky, Bazarov, etc.—those of Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, and Turgenev’s literary works—could be said to be misanthropes, romantic heroes full of disdain and contempt to the society for which they were excessive, which they knew all too well, and could, as deeply, in some sense, moral beings, although corrupted by cynicism and skepticism, no longer respect. It is not rare to encounter a young woman or a man in Russia now who would claim that they are misanthropes, but not unoften you would see the glint of life in their eyes, and a great interest and compassion to other people. In other words, misanthropy is more of a romantic pose taken on the way potions were drank for the purpose of making the face to appear paler.

Thrift criticizes the nonexistent understanding of what is affect: “I have been involved in investigations of urban affect or mood for a number of years now, but can say that touching this sphere remains an elusive task, not least because so many definitions of affect circulate, each with their own problematizations.” (Ibid, 6). Since 2005, there is not much of clarity in this regard, if not to the contrary the increasing complexity and bifurcation of what people mean by saying “affect.” On the one hand, it is great to have a notion in active discussion which everyone uses to the best of their capacity. On the other hand, the enigmatic and unagreed-upon nature of affect makes one think that when we are talking about affect, we are talking about a number of different things each of which deserves its own name. Thrift proceeds with giving his own curious definition, or rather a bunch of definitions, of affect—the definition perfectly working together with all the definitions of affect I had had insofar encountered, they all for some reason put incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive characteristics together: “For example, affect can be understood as a simple or complex (cursive mine—V.O.) biological drive, a pragmatic effect of the pre-cognitive or cognitive interactions of bodies, a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by, the communicative power of faciality, and so on.” (Ibid). Of all those understanding only “a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by” links to Spinoza, who introduced affect as a philosophical category, rediscovered by Deleuze and Guattari, and redistributed henceforward.

 

 

References

Buck-Morss, Susan. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Mit Press, 1991.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. “People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg.” Public culture 16.3 (2004): 407-429.

Thrift, Nigel. “But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred.” Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 30.2 (2005): 133-150. (I quote this article here by the manuscript downloaded from the author’s website, hence different pagination and perhaps text discrepancies.)

Zeiderman, Austin, et al. “Uncertainty and urban life.” Public Culture 27.2 76 (2015): 281-304.