Photograph by Craig Campbell
Visual material of my presentation (Academia.edu)
Photograph by Craig Campbell
Visual material of my presentation (Academia.edu)
this text is an exercise in creative writing further blurring the lines between prose and poetry
if ever those lines existed
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, 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.
 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.
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
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.
Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in the winter of 1926. Here is a map of places he mentions in his diary as shown on the today Moscow’s map.
Interactive link to google.maps: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1dVk5nX1H_0MyDt39L_m7HERYx60&ll=55.75893499535194%2C37.62163820000001&z=13 [retrieved 12/1/2016]
The same places marked on the map of Moscow as it appeared in 1925 (for the absence of a 1926th map available).
I think Sofian Merabet’s book “Queer Beirut” was the only book that I encountered so far, which had a selfie of the anthropologist included in the narrative. I think that must be a feature of the new ethnography as a genre.
“Queer Beirut” is an intricate and brilliantly written account of queer bodies and queer stories functioning and circulating in city spaces—beach, downtown, different locations, architectural fantasies, and other culturally important localities where socialities happen, like cafes demanding tight on money people enjoy intricately concocted “overpriced cappuccino” (Merabet, 2014, 30). It is an analysis of “ever-so-intricate exclusions” (13), novel in methods—as new, I’d classify two things: flânerie along the roads which are not supposed to be traveled on foot, and “ethnographic montage,” which, the author argues, serves to “assemble anew disassociated, yet very much related, elements in an effort to cover the whole panoply of the metonymies that define the complexities entailed in the practice of inhabiting socio-cultural space” (246).
I was interested in flânerie (first problematized by Benjamin drawing from Badelaire) as a method, which in Merabet’s justification is a particularly important way to engage with “urban jungle”: “It is, therefore, only as a person on foot in a city that almost makes natural locomotion virtually impossible that the observing anthropologist can start to think about distinguishing many of the urban spaces in Lebanon that bear the potential of creating alternative, and perhaps queer, discourses.” (7). I think it is fascinating in what way exactly and why only as a person on foot does anthropologist penetrate the overlapping layers of the city which are simultaneously a space weirding, space queering, space domineering, and space escaping, and a space yielding to understanding. As a connoisseur of city spaces and an untiring flâner myself, I could not fail to appreciate the take.
“Participant objectifier,” which Merabet creates by adapting Bourdieu’s “participant objectification,” becomes a welcome alternative to an overused anthropological figure of “participant observer.” Participant objectifier emerges as a gazer, explorer of one’s own enchantment. Merabet points out the readiness to flirt of a “queer stroller” as a social scientist conducting the field research—I could add, initially in Benjamin’s work, flâner was an easy buyer of a prostitute’s services. This is not a call to gleefully engage into participant objectification that we read here, but rather a call to participant objectification, that is to say, a fair assessment of the process already happening, the process which demands to be reflected upon rather than taken for granted.
On many staggering examples Merabet shows struggles of queer Beirut in which horror stories and funny episodes alternate, not omitting the pensive use of certain aspects of what might be called auto-ethnography, something which I think makes ethnographies deeper and richer.
These struggles are shown in their complexities—“Yet, by being a potential motivator, queer space and its production also function as a frustration device, namely in the shape of a catalyst that every so often reinforces the very social normativities it wants to defy.” (247).
Beirut, with its balconies and streets, protests and fights for prestige, little worlds which coincide and contest the space, visibly emerges, in all its glimmer and spectacular misery, out of this work.
Merabet, Sofian. Queer Beirut. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014.
In his book “The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Partha Chatterjee rejects Benedict Anderson’s notion of a homogeneous time-space of modernity which politics inhabit, suggesting instead that such time is “the utopian time of capital” (6), and that time is heterogeneous, unevenly dense, since modernity is, in which he follows Foucault, heterotopia.
Foucault’s notion of heterotopia is evoked of describing the spacio-temporal characteristics of ambiguity, in which the subject finds herself in several places or points at once, for instance, looking at the mirror. To say that the modernity is heterotopic, is a productive way of speaking about modernity, in my opinion. Modernity is characterized by this ambiguity of positioning, when futurity and remnants of the past commingle and coincide, but also contradict one another and clash with one another.
Homi Bhabha, according to Chatterjee, formulated heterotopic ambiguity around the axes of nation in which “the people were an object of national pedagogy because they were always in the making, in a process of historical progress, not yet fully developed to fulfill the nation’s destiny” (6), yet at the same time, “the unity of the people, their permanent identification with the nation, had to be continually signified, repeated, and performed” (6). Chatterjee announces it to be an inherent feature of modernity, or “modern politics itself” (6)–and one might agree, but there is no big contradiction here, it appears. Both these statements describe the nation in becoming, in flux, in progress. What does contradict each other though, is that the people in the making and in process are simultaneously already perceived or framed as nation today, already–the nation which has a glorious history and bright future; which is a key feature of nation building. Apart from having the future, the past, and the present, nation is as a rule relates somehow, sanctioned by divine providence and blessed by God. To evoke the specter of Vl. Solovyev: “The idea of nation is not something that the nation itself thinks about itself in time, but something that God thinks about it in eternity.” (Соловьев, 1911, 3)–a standard motif of governmentality engaging into what might be called “narrativization of the nation.” (“efforts to narrativize,” as Chatterjee puts it, 8).
The analysis of the untouchables in India, affords for understanding that “Citizens inhabit the domain of theory, populations the domain of policy.” (34).
Chatterjee shows that Lockian idea of two types of citizens–sound-minded citizens who get to govern and those who should be governed because they could not be subjects of consensual politics–is deeply ingrained into structures of democracy; this is indeed modernity’s constitutive, foundational idea, and not some glitch or malfunction happening occasionally.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Соловьев Вл. Русская идея. М., 1911.
According to Foucault, racism is an inevitable tool of the nation state, which it uses to stratify and modify its citizen. Racism is not occasional slippage of the system, it is a part of the system, its integral, system-generating part. (I’d say that the same is true in regard to misogyny.)
Biopolitics is concerned with great masses of people, as opposed to the old (pre-eighteenth century) sovereign power, which concentrated on attaining control over the individual bodies. The control over bodies did not disappear, but was permeated with new types of control, subtler, and more nuanced. If in the sovereign power was the right to let live and make die, in a new era, the era biopolitics, it was a power of ‘“make” live and “let” die.’ (241)
This new mode of power, the mode of ruling over the human-being-as-a-species, rather than human-being-as-an-individual, required new methods of control, care, and management. And such methods emerged—hygiene routines, insurance, safety trainings, mandatory medical service, and so on.
Foucault critics Socialism as being but another version of capitalism, because Socialism re-implemented all these methods and tools, and never offered any critique of them—to the contrary, embraced the new Leviathan of biopolitics, still more devoid of individual features than ever, and no any less horrifying than in the Hobbesian imagination.
It is in these settings that camps appear, according to Agamben. Agamben conducted a revolution in the understanding of camps. Rather than attempting to decipher the nature of camps from the events that took and are taking place there, he asked, to the contrary, what are the nature of things which happened as derived from what camp is (Agamben, 2003). In it, he follows Benjamin, who, and this is a Marxian insight, positioned “space” before the “events,” “space” before the “bodies” which it produced (and not vice versa). Agamben shows that camp is intrinsic to the new social order—the camp, where all laws are suspended, is a place inevitably resurfacing in the biopolitical mode of power, in a nation state which is busy with its endless purification and sustaining of its population.
Dehumanized “zoe” is both camp’s production and its first victim, whereas “bios,” political life, as long as it remains in power at least. Perhaps it is possible to think about “zoe” and “bios” as about a cast division of our times, and this division has class, racial, gender, sexuality, and mental health dimensions. There is always a possibility for “bios” to slip into “zoe,” but there is hardly any possibility for “zoe” to rise to “bios.”
Agamben, Georgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended. Pikador, New York. 2003.
The “remittance landscape,” the term explained by Sarah Lynn Lopez in the book of the same title, refers to the spaces created in the absence of their inspirators–“dream houses” and projects, such as restaurant buildings, subsided through the migrant money by the migrant, a figure of political transformation who work slowly at her own rate on creating “not the product of generic top-down “globalization” but of the enterpreneurial opportunism of remittance space “from below.” (264). He changes the face of the world, so that it even becomes a question, “To what extent is the American metropolis predicated on the rapid transformation of sending communities throughout the world?” (265). S/he is a figure fully endowed with agency, “influencing both what is possible and what is probable” (265) in a nicely observed by the author duality of the future as a bunch of possibilities and probabilities.
Lopez looks at buildings: “Buildings crystallize historic moments like no other artifact–technologies are required, desire is enacted, capital is expended, all to create objects that shape future life-worlds.” (11). Remittance buildings–in an analogue to “remittance landscape”–buildings constructed with remittance money in an evocation of often if not American than Americanized dream of migrants from Mexico, returning to their communities or having plans to return, either for aging and dying or for living. Migrants, simultaneously envied and despised by their own community, have contradicting desires which define the way they structure landscapes of their living both in the adopted country and in the home community, so there is a blurred distinction between “home” and something that is not home, as well as between “here” and “there.” They won’t to preserve the spaces of their childhood, but also to improve and modernize them, they want to create an image of American dream success but they keep allegiances to their markedly distinct way of living; they want to demonstrate their success, but they want to be accepted by their community. They want to improve their communities by bringing other ideas, as their ancestors brought wristwatches, sewing machines, and cars–but these other ideas do not always work on a different soil. Such position is fraught with paradoxes, ironies, promising failures, and devastating successes.
Plenty of remittance houses, dream houses, end up abandoned for various reasons, and so there is a creation of ruin, dreams unsustainable, economically questionable, demanding expenditures, and bringing not the results which were expected or hoped for.
In a Benjaminian understanding of architectural space in a way of, as Susan Buck-Morss reminded in her guide (1989), a space of collective dreaming, remittance landscapes are also collective dreams, even if not dreams of collective dwelling.
As I read Lopez, I thought about the house which Alina and Alexander (names changed) who lived in the village of Anosovo, have been building in Irkutsk with a thought of once living in the Irkutsk house, as Anosovo fits Lopez’s fomula “the necessary institutional, economic, and political support to bring infrastructure to such places did not exist” (19), unfortunately, all too well. How would one call such project? This is only one example of such projects, which Anosovians, those who have a job in timber industry, create and sponsor in Irkutsk, while for years remaining in their village. Muscovites were known at some point to buy houses in Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, to create some kind of vocational / retreat spaces with the same or even still more unpractical considerations, since Moscow apartments and houses answering their demands were not affordable even for those who could buy villa-like houses elsewhere. Such displaced landscapes could hardly be called the remittance landscapes, although in the technical sense of the term they perhaps are. But those are the landscapes of dreams, and dreams should not be fulfillable to persist.
A sense of indecisiveness befitting a dream, precarity of living, temporality of all solutions, becomes itself a feature of certainty, constancy, a very fixedness of things in flux: “While Taylor was researching migrant housing conditions in California, he approached a couple living in a self-built shack under a tree and asked the owners why they did not invest more in their housing. They replied that they did not know if they would stay and that they might return to Mexico. He then asked, “How long have you been here?” to which they responded, “Thirty years.”” (19) In an expression popular in Russia, there is nothing more constant than temporary.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing. The MIT Press, 1989.
Lopez, Sarah Lynn. The Remittance Landscape, University of Chicago Press, 2015.