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The Aesthetics of Ruins                                                    



The aesthetics of the ruins; a phantom born out of the alliance of Nature with Time.


In the traditional reading the ruin stands as a performative monument to finitude.  Nature and time form an alliance that is guarantied to bow the head of the proudest civilisations, bring to nought all dreams of eternal continuance (Volney, Simmel).  Fate, in its negative aspect, triumphs over all that would dare to defy its claim over the realm of eschatology. Not just cities, civilisations and cultures, but Mankind itself is to be read as humbled, must recognise itself as over-reaching, as smug and self-satisfied, and so in need of an allegorical lesson in humility, contingency, and mortality. All things must pass. Et in Arcadia Ego. All flesh is as the grass (which grows quitely over the grounds of the greatest battles, as over the most legendary of long-forgotten ruins). Nature is shown exhibiting the upper hand: cultures, children of contingency, are exposed in all their finitude. Not for the first time ecology appears as the limit of civilisations to expand indefinitely. History itself, the history of peoples, disappears into geology and cosmology. Nature over time reclaims her own. The labour of a million slaves disappears beneath swamps and groves, or lies exposed as dumb mounds of stone on windswept hilltops, or remains hidden from view, buried beneath the sands of a desert where once shaded gardens, tree-lined avenues and elegant mansions bore witness to the civilisation of their inhabitants. The action of Nature over time bears the name of Fate. Only in eternity does this name take on a positive cast. The rest is the silence of the ruin.


Entropy is another name for this degradation over time, for this loss of vitality, this fall into obsolescence. The lintel cracks and the old gods refuse to respond to lukewarm offerings at cold altars until the society in question dies-out or moves on (in its culture and religion, or across a geography in the act of  migration). Eitherway the buildings of the old order become ruins. What survives is simultaneously a monument to grandeur and to the failure of that grandeur. We witness the fall of a civilisation from the pinnacle of its cultural production; the long fall from a pride underwritten by power to the depths of a trace existing only as a passive reminder. Blind scripts etched on silent walls; staring faces that reappear from beneath flaking plaster, the vast halls in which they are found, illuminated only by sun beams trailing dust motes, ghosts of populations long gone; the sparse artefacts of a civilisation surviving only as a testament to its own lack of sufficiency, to its inability to survive, to repeat, to return. (As exemplified by Shelley's double voiced, ironic epigram: 'Look on ye mighty and despair').


Ruins survive as the visible traces of myth and as monuments to an all-consuming entropy. Order is eaten by Disorder.  At the command of chaos termite armies gnaw incessantly into the wooden frame of Structure. System dissolves down into the prior level of organisation; and so on. From the dissolution of human institutions to organic decay to the permafrost of the inorganic, and finally to the dispersion of stellar dust, this tendency for things to fall apart appears to govern existence in all its forms. The contrary motion is provided by reproduction and renewal; the application of greater amounts of energy. Not only is the labour of love required for reproduction, the building of community, and for its physical manifestation, architecture, but also for its maintenance. Labour and ritual are the twin pillars which negate the negative slide into the entropic. The love of labour is blest by the labour of ritual. The work of the blessed shores up the rotting timbers of the social. And the relentless lapping of the tides never ceases. A sea that would dissolve into itself all things caresses the foundations of form itself.


On the personal level, the contemplation of ruins often conjures up a mood of wistful nostalgia. A vision of a lost utopia-in-the-past; like a decayed pleasure garden where only the overrun paths are left to remind one of lost joy.  The remains of a dwelling, a once-protective cocoon, now appear cracked open like an egg, have become a metaphysical shelter without roof, an unhomely and (Unheimlich) uncanny home. Every ruin a haunted house, its gardens enchanted by the murmur of lost voices. Echoes of a future perfect. The experience of ruins: a personal combination of emotion and association; of a past to be redeemed in the future. A Janus-head, facing forward and backward: a place where past and future work together in a trope combining the literal present with a figural past and future. The resulting image-affect: an impossible, unachievable, always already lost ideal. A playground of ghosts.  The landscape of a dimly remembered opium dream. A veil of second meaning which relies upon temporality for its tremulous existence; the wash of rain on watercolour. We watch the superimposition of significance onto a screen; whilst the flicker of light throws back dancing images, behind the screen, the shadows of trees move in the wind. The curtain of time opens onto a personal stage, landscape with ruin, on which invisible actors will play out the dreams of individuals, the play-within-a-play of their culture's hopes and fears.


In this way, in our 'now' (for us of the present, and for the present) the ruin is found bearing traces of Utopia. These may suggest a prospective Blessed State, or propose the State as blessed. Or the pale light of the rose among the stones of the ruin may indicate the Time of the Blessed; the end of time (eternity as the end of temporality). Strange reversal that finds in the ruin the harbinger of Cure, the silent prophet of Return (whether envisioned as Second Coming or as reinstatement of the pre-lapsarian Garden). The hope dimly perceived at the close of day, the place of rest at the end of the garden, when the blurring of twilight confuses the portals of the temporal, has its analogue in the social hope of a better time. Hence the garden-like condition of many ruins: or the inclusion of ruins into gardens (the utopian aspect of the pastoral). The garden setting of the ruin offers up a past civilisation imagined as the future site of the perfect State. The Garden City. The earthbound ruin evokes the Jewel which reflects the Light of Paradise. For more secular strands of thought there are images of a possible Heaven on Earth. The future imagined through the detour of the past - with ruins as prompt. The ruin is the island upon which the foundations of the fantasy may be built. Be it the sacred fantasy of the Perfect (the Life of the Good) or the profane fantasy of a perfect existence ('the good life') the realisation of the wish, the desire for a better way survives (like the ruin that gave it birth) by being deferred onto a somewhere, as elsewhere - as potential. A possibility lost in the past, or a possible world existing only in the future. Or at a further remove, an eternally possible: the Heavenly City of Platonic forms casting the shadow of the Ideal over existence (Holderlin's landscapes, Leopardi's addressees).  The light of the Ideal, putative torchbearer of progress, only succeeds in hurting the eyes. Spleen and Ideal (Baudelaire's insight; Rilke's cure). The ideal: non-existing, but offering a guide to life, or its critique; or a stimulus to political desire (utopic, disutopic, satirical), or just feeding the fantasy of completeness, of the One. The Ideal: eternity's 'weaker' twin, its more humane shadow; also existing outside of time, yet always waiting on its edge. Forever fuelling the sacrificial smoke of the subjunctive.


Fantasy, even when existing as an image, still implies an accompanying narrative; and narrative is what entropy guarantees. The arrow of time with its clothing of signs, from the stories and tales of everyday life to the myths and epics of social justification, every version of narrative, all are dependant upon the irreversibility underwritten by the entropic gradient. Yet the being of society is so utterly underwritten by narrative, that the effect of entropy must also be understood as the foundation of the very forces that act to oppose it. The countermanding influences of order, construction, reproduction (of things, of beings, of social forms, of signs) and the exchange relations which sustain them and establish their interconnection, all ultimately owe their rationalisation to the stories we tell ourselves, to our motivation by the key narratives of our times. And these in turn owe their very possibility to the subversive action of entropy. Furthermore, the narrative of the aesthetics of ruins, as a mode of appropriation of the past, is itself, both product and use of entropy. It is entropy that guarantees the possibility of the narrative behind the aesthetics of ruins (for us and for the perceiving culture) and entropy that causes the advent of the ruins themselves, the ruination of a society, of its institutions, of its culture - if the tendency to decay is not repaired by a labour reinvigourated by ritual.


The foundation of narrative in irreversible decay: first irony of entropy.


Traces of Utopia in the relics of the past: second irony of entropy.


Such a love it is which gives hope whilst removing the ground for all hope. By turning decay into rebirth, past into future, the ruin doubles the work of ritual. The stagnant water of the marsh by evening becomes the clear water of dawn. The product of entropy counters its source; the spring of appearances runs clear. The gift of Maya stills the unquiet ocean of the Enlightenment.


Yet, finally, is not the utopic re-projection of the past simply a soft-focus, semi-secular, version of the same force that denigrated its achievements. For taming the past, its civilisations and its myths, putting of them in their proper place regarding the present and its systems of belief, then plotting their course into the otherwise uncharted future, has all this not traditionally belonged to the labour of religion? A labour achieved by burying the roots of all things in the fecund soil of absence, time's exterior, the sublime deixis which patiently guides all existence back to the guarantor of eternity; ritual's promise, its irreducible core. The most secure foundations are those that rest upon nothing (or upon an unsolvable mystery; as contradictions in the world of signs point outwards to those contexts that give them existence). Concealed behind the relentless (eternal) work of Nature (in its demonic guise as entropy) it is religion which offers the canonic means of comprehending the world and providing its vicissitudes with a palatable explanation. Even if, surviving the death of god, it presents itself as its rationalised reincarnation, ideology. The destructive workings of tides commanded by an entropic moon, countered by the figures of creation written in the sand, like the twin masks of Shiva, are combined into one.  The result may be an anthropomorphic God, the abstract divine of religion, or the science that guarantees a law-governed Order; with physics as the new avatar of Nature - source and seeker of the overarching definition of these forces. God as Sublime: God as Metaset. Is there yet another name for God? A Second Nature. Whose face is it that operates the invisible hand, making anew social institutions, civil society, desire and identity? Whose the cycles of crisis that follow one another in an ever rapid pulse of destruction and creation? The new Shiva. Capitalism: the economics of entropy anticipated.

            In these ways, working in as many ways are there are ways of seeing the world, contingent belief gathers behind itself the forces of the eternal (whether by means of the angel, the balance, or the slide-rule). That which it must explain is yoked behind the plough of authority (that which would explain). In this way Culture becomes Nature, becomes Supernature; becomes (that which explains) the Supernatural. The thing and the right to speak of it are confused in a trope that underwrites all discourses on the eternal. It is therefore Religion disguised as Nature that is the (hidden) operator behind the aesthetics of ruins. (Religion) or that which stands in its place today, the dominant ideological tropes of a epoch or culture, it is this that reclaims previous cultures and glories in their submission to entropy (physical and social). Reincorporating them through entropy, and not just appropriating and maintaining the portion that suits its needs (as with Historicism, be it of nineteenth century or post-modern provenance). Our submission to time masks a submission to that which would speak in its place. Making old 'old', and not just something incorporated or recycled. Rather made 'old' as the very condition of its reincorporation, of its recycling. And then damned. All the better to damn us. (And damned we catch a glimpse of the agent of our condemnation, vaunting itself in its clandestinity, concealed among the folds of the curtain of time).


Denial as assertion: the final irony of Entropy. The supposed humbling of the present by means of the spectacle of a degraded past. Yet this putative denial actually reinforces the dominance of the present. Denial as means of assertion, as assertion by other means. (Epoch, period, culture, belief, or  self, all attain the positive through the labour of this negative). The interpretation of ruins joins the history of asceticism and its contribution to the history of the self.


Far from being the arrogance of the past that is observed to temper the arrogance of the present in the aesthetics of the ruin, it is rather the hubris of the present that is reinforced by the belief in its own superiority over the past and so to entropy itself. The present is, after all, 'the best of all possible worlds', survivor of the social competition, front-runner of the race of history, evolution's last word (so far). In truth the arrogance of the present is not at all tempered as in previous versions of the aesthetics of ruins (unless in the sense of tempering steel to make it stronger). Even in the past, it was the arrogant fundamentalist excision, through the casting of the name of heresy, of all contenders (past and present), that guarantied religion its pride of place, underwrote its suffocating omni-presence, whilst hiding its hubris in folds of piety. Religion, deferring to an absent god and so deferring to no-one, waits in the place of the present; in the place of those present. Religion reinstated, in a ritualistic reading of the past, reconfirming, as all ritual must, the identity of its practitioners and their vaunted central place in the cosmos. Religion as the face of the present. Even in its current guise as ideology.


It is therefore Entropy, the modern face of Fate, of Mutability, of Nature,  and so of Time, which is the disfiguring face behind the mask of time, the march of time (the masque of time). Guarantor of meaning, in the world of signs or representation, of the unidirectionality of narrative (of the inevitability at the heart of all genres from tragedy to melodrama); in the world of energy of irreversibility of processes, the guarantor of life (reversible processes of physics are made unidirectional by the addition of chaos 'attractors' where a gradually emerging repetition signals the direction of time). However entropy's most obvious manifestation is as the lack of energy or labour spent rebuilding and renewing, as the lack of time put aside for the maintenance and survival of given structures, as the lack of rituals spent reinvigorating a culture and its identity. And therefore, as the fate of architecture, an entity partaking in all these realms; a fate ultimately leading to its degeneration and abandonment. This process is echoed by the ideal and the utopic as the positive built upon this negative- as the dream image, the subjunctive face of hope hovering over the chasm of the indicative, blurring the grim reality of the ruin, of the truth of entropy - time's last word.


Yet for us, here and now, no last word but the next word.


The ruin reveals to the watcher a war for the future that is being fought on two fronts: yet on closer inspection the faces of the two spectral antagonists merge unveiling the lineaments of the same metaphysical form. From one viewpoint, a fainter, but fairer, aspect beckons, its wraith-like arm extended towards the place of sunrise; the utopic subjunctive offers a redeemed world somewhere just over the spatio-temporal horizon. The other vision manifests a sterner aspect, its glassy eyes reflect the last light of sunset, an extended index-finger points unambiguously upward; the rhetoric of submission will control the future through the abasement of the past - the abjection of the present follows (the over-eager reminder of our own mortality). Somewhere in the maze of the ruin the path to the immediate future has been lost.  The waiting stones and silent trees offer only the denial of history and the pre-empting of anticipation. Can the watcher of the ruin discern the light illuminating other pathways, ones resisting the refraction of the ruin's prism into the hijack of memory and the appropriation of personal hope?


The sighing of the wind in the ruins sings, like all culture, like all representation, the song of our fears for the future, a song of pain and its recurrence; the entropy of the everyday - a theme endlessly reprised or present as the echo of its absence. And now the ruin no longer resounds with the distant glories (rhetorical or subjunctive) of the future in the past, the past in the future. The song we now hear gives voice only to the future in the present.


For the ruin is a mirror, which like all mirrors not only reflects the likeness of those that stand before it, but also, as we raise our eyes up away from the surprise of recognition, as that which stands behind us.




                                                                        Copyright 2002, 2005 Peter Nesteruk