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.

The Village of Karda, Siberia

Choy, Tim. Experimental Futures: Ecologies of Comparison. An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011

I’d begin with stating that I am absolutely charmed by Tim Choy’s writing. I don’t know if it’s his gentle personality that accounts for that — I heard his talk at UT and was introduced to him after the talk — but actually no, his and his colleagues’ and “co-conspirators’,” to use his word, writings — I refer to Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway here — make me pause frequently and read slowly. The kind of dense durée that they create in their books (especially Choy and Tsing, Haraway is another matter, she liquefies and speeds up the time and condenses things in a different manner), speaks to the amount of effort that was invested by the authors in thinking and writing.

Soft humor and attention to detail that Choy exhibits in his writing, are especially appealing: “Not one to waste food, even of dubious genetic origin, he ate his way through the mountain of chips and candy bars while working at his desk for the rest of the day” (20). Choy portrays one of his interlocutor working on a campaign against genetically modified food. One could see behind that funny, endearing, and somewhat poignant phrase a real person, the glory and doom of his cause, and “local and translocal ecologies of gender and expertise” (14), emerging through “ongoing practices of self-care and self-comparison” (14).

An example especially speaking to me that Tim Choy gives in his book, is the plot around the village Tai O, for which the Hong Kong Planning Department had a strategy of “revitalizing.” Too often the administrations’ plans of “revitalizing” of the territories brings further destruction. In this case, the project included “the planning proposal’s suggestion that a strip of stilt homes adjacent to Tai O Bridge be demolished.” (25). It aroused the resistance, and the government drove back claiming it revokes the plans. “Then, on July 4, a runaway fire in Tai O burned one hundred families’ stilt homes to the ground.” (27)

It reminded me of the fate of the village of Karda in Siberia, in fifty kilometers from the village of Anosovo, my primary field site. The village of Karda was evaluated by the government to be a settlement with no prospects. The government provided people who lived there with apartments in tenement housing in the city of Ust’-Uda. In 2008, Karda ceased to exist. However, after different periods of living in the city, some former residents of Karda returned to their half-ruined homes. I am spending the summer of 2016 in Siberia, and I hope to uncover some of the dramas that are connected to, in a number of cases, double relocation.

The change of social practices when one moves from the rural space to the urban is drastic. How much more difficult it is, if the change is not fully voluntary? How hard it is, if there is no place to return, because the government deemed your land hopeless and decided it’s easier to deprive the village of the last care? Right now, I could only guess. Perhaps some of the meetings during the summer would bring me heavy answers to these questions.

Affect: Nostalgia and Loss

Nostalgia is always connected with a sense of loss (Stewart, 1988). An acute feeling of having lost something might not be rational, it does not depend on the consideration that the loss was imaginative, or if the object sensed as lost did not exist in the first place, or if this loss has affected the future in a positive way. The contemplating of ruins easily begets nostalgia and the feeling of loss.

The concept of imaginative loss explains why it is possible to probe the waters of nostalgia being in a place you have never visited before. The question whether one would experience a surge of nostalgia is the question of having a particular swarms of associations evoked. Nostalgia verges on the border of déjà vu, slipping into recognition: what has happened, would not be happening any more, regardless of how often it had been happening before.

Ruination is the byproduct result of loss, the fixed material consequences of loss. Attempting to reconstruct, what it was that was lost, that was being lost right now, all sorts of arbitrariness take place. A sense that history might have go in other direction is vivid. The functionality of ruination is such that ruination has the ability to produce the image of the past in our consciousness. This image is very appealing, full of allure, and has very little to do with the actual past. It is the invocation of the past, reflected upon the future.

“Hegemonic and resistant nostalgias, “middle-class” and “working-class” nostalgias, the nostalgia of a “mass culture” and the nostalgia of and for local, nameable places are a three-ring circus of simultaneous images in the arenas of life-style, spectacle, and loss. The angst-ridden modern city is replaced by the delirious surround of consumer capitalism (Jameson 1983). Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context—it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present.” (Stewart, 1988).

This landscape of the present is not given also, but it is fluctuant and fluid, glitters vaguely; and the subjectivity experiencing nostalgia is shifting in the depth of it, now directed at the object, now at itself, but mostly reflecting itself and preoccupied with itself, and the object, or perhaps surroundings, the agglomeration of objects, the untold and not easily detectable but delectable characteristic of which triggers the avalanche of falsified memories, the atmosphere, the luminosity, the texture, the shadow, the trembling, the rapture and the twitch.

Nostalgia is a feeling that one is likely to have as a side effect of relocation. In case when ubiquitous ruins denote the bygone that was there, the relocation is happening without the change of locus, with all the force of emotion composing the feeling of being lost, the pressing necessity of re-finding oneself in the changed conditions of life; the despair, the regret, and the hope. Thus ruins reframe the ordinariness, making it possible for everyday life to hide the huge caverns of nostalgia where you can slip any time. Any day turns out to be charged with nostalgia for the moment that has just past. Nothing is stable, the certitude of the world is profoundly undermined.

Element of Ruins

What is the element[1] of ruins, the smallest part of a wholeness that is shredded, flawed, broken, destroyed, damaged, smashed, or distorted?

The building in decline, or a park sculpture abandoned, or a detail of said sculpture?

While this question might appear to be speculative, think about how unnatural is the long-accepted division of the melody of speech into separate sentences, or, if that does not convince you, about the breaking down of words into syllables or sounds.

The search for the minimal element of matter has always been a fascination for humanity. From the gigantic atoms of the Abderite, to the modern social theories, to divide things into subsets of things, sub-things of all kinds, is the scholarly pursuit, so why not ask a question about the element of ruins? Unlike debris, ruins did not lose their form, they do not possess the form of the object of which they are ruins, but their very lack of form, which makes them the former object, is also a form in itself.

 

References

[1] Jackson, Mark, and  Maria Fannin, “Letting Geography Fall Where It May—Aerographies Address the Elemental,” Environment and Planning D, 2011.