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the ruinista thing.

1 Oct 2010

It’s Friday.  I figured I’d take a low-readership day to muse a bit on a couple of things: my past, and the past. 

[York, UK, 1997]

So about that ruinista thing: yeah, I’ve got a thing for ruins.  I’m fascinated by them, in that way that just about everyone is fascinated by how tangible evidence of physical decay maybe more poignantly speaks to our fascination with our own mortality.   But I’m much more curious about what still-existing ruins suggest about what we want to say about ourselves as a collective — local, national, or otherwise.  And how ruins help shape that collective history and give order to the present.  I even wrote a doctoral dissertation about it. 

At the most recent ladies night, Shannon asked me about my dissertation, at which point I think my eyes glazed over slightly.  I used to be able to give a 50-word summary of what it was that I had spent the bulk of my adult life thinking about; now, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what, exactly, I had been doing from 1998-2006.  So I dug out my dissertation abstract from an old email by way of response:

Ephemeral Monumentality: A Critical and Visual Inquiry into Ideologies of History and Progress  

In this dissertation I argue for an expansion and transformation of post-structuralist and Frankfurt School critiques of history and progress through a rigorous integration of images and visual materials into the critical methods themselves.   I suggest that etchings of a ruinous ancient Rome by 18th century Italian architect Giovanni-Battista Piranesi are emblematic of a critical and visual rethinking of emerging, Enlightenment-era-related conceptions of time – conceptions which continue to give order to our experiences today.  Using these etchings as a visual framework for my project, I explore and critique the disciplinary parameters guiding the construction of historical narratives; from there I offer a reworked understanding of emerging notions of subjectivity and their relationship to a linear conception of historical time.  This image-oriented critique of history as a continuous, seamless narrative culminates in a discussion of the dialectic between monuments and ruins, where I argue that in perpetuating a nostalgic longing for the past, romanticized writings on ruins also render invisible a productive reading of urban space as the necessarily discontinuous co-existence of past and present. 

(For what it’s worth, I fully recognize how absurd all of this sounds from an academic jargon standpoint.  I wrote about this a little while ago on my old blog.)   Basically, I argued for 200+ pages that the simplistic, nostalgic romanticizing of ruins gets in the way of much more interesting inquiries into what ruins might tell us about our collective identity, or perhaps more precisely, our idealized collective identity.  Why do we hold on to decay?  Why do we need barely-standing physical markers of the past in the present?  What in our notion of ‘history’ demands palpable evidence of some kind of continuity (however imagined or artificial) with a world no longer extant?  And, to loop back to the beginning, what does our nostalgia suggest about the history we want to write for ourselves?  And what does photography have to do with any of this?

There’s a lot of thinking out loud here — but I’m thinking I’ll use this space, perhaps on Low-Readership Fridays, to work through some of these ideas and questions.   In a post at aforementioned old website, I wrote at (medium) length about the fetishization of decay, and began to poke a little bit at how photographic images of ruins play into that fetishization.   I’m hoping to explore that more here, especially as I work through questions I have about my own photographic desires.  Why do I photograph ruins?  Or more tellingly, why, after my dissertation, did I basically stop looking at (or for) ruins?  Am I burnt out on them, or is it a fear that I’m perpetuating all of my worst critiques about nostalgia for, and aestheticization of, decay? 

So, yeah: ruins.  Read all about them, here, on Fridays!

Back to our reguarly scheduled programming shortly.

Edited to add, three hours later: I can’t believe I wrote an entire post about ruins and all of that, and didn’t once mention Walter Benjamin.  Shows you how far I’ve come (gone?) from academia.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 Oct 2010 11:15 pm

    gosh… not even a vague reference to The Arcades Project?

  2. 2 Oct 2010 2:56 pm

    Dude, I barely remember that I have a ph.D.

  3. 3 Oct 2010 7:25 pm

    Is that a type of phO?

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