Collage for NOLA: Ruin

Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism” in Reflections

[Andre Breton] was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded,” in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.

They bring the immense forces of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion. What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at the decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?

Suan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing

More generally, throughout [Benjamin’s Arcades Project], the image of the “ruin,” as emblem not only of the transitoriness and fragility of capitalist culture, but also its destructiveness, is pronounced.

Six Flags New Orleans, October 2010. Via.

Kathleen Steward, A Space on the Side of the Road

A rambling rose vine entwined around a crumbling chimney remembers an old family farm, the dramatic fire in which the place was lost, and the utopic potential clinging to the traces of history. Objects that have decayed into fragments and traces draw together a transient past with the very desire to remember. Concrete and embodied absence, they are continued to a context of strict immanence, limited to the representation of ghostly apparitions. Yet they haunt. They become not a symbol of loss but the embodiment of the process of remembering itself; the ruined place itself remembers and grows lonely.

Louis Armstrong Park, November 2010. Via.

Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum

Essential to this montage was the merging of myth with nature that had so appealed to Benjamin in his study of the figure of the storyteller. Here, history as ruin or petrified landscape took center stage, as if the succession of human events we call history had retreated into stiller-than-stiller things entirely evacuated of life – like those monumental things, those great bodies of gravel… millions of cubic yards heaped in the jungle, moved by the hands of slaves and now covered by forest.

Ann Laura Stoler, “Imperial Debris” in Cultural Anthropology, 23(2)

In its common usage, “ruins” are often enchanted, desolate spaces, large-scale monumental structures abandoned and grown over. Ruins provide a quintessential image of what has vanished from the past and has long decayed. What comes most easily to mind is Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the Acropolis, the Roman Coliseum, icons of romantic loss that inspired the melancholic prose of generations of European poets who devotedly made pilgrimages to them. In thinking about the “ruins of empire” we explicitly work against that melancholic gaze to reposition the present in the wider structures of vulnerability and refusal that imperial formations sustain… to what people are “left with”: to what remains, to the aftershocks of empire, to the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities, and things. Such effects reside in the corroded hollows of landscapes, in the gutted infrastructures of segregated cityscapes and in the microecologies of matter and mind. The focus then is not on inert remains but on their vital refiguration. The question is pointed: How do imperial formations persist in their material debris, in ruined landscapes and through the social ruination of people’s lives?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

5 thoughts on “Collage for NOLA: Ruin

  1. The Six Flags video is very cool and the whole posting is very thought-provoking…but we really do not want to be defined by disaster here in New Orleans. We know our history and we are shaping our own future. In fact, I would argue that we are in many ways doing better at this point than the rest of the U.S. precisely because we expect things to be tough. This is a resilient and creative city. Look for signs of that while you are here.

  2. Oh, I know it David and I hesitated to do this because I knew I’d be vulnerable to that critique. You make your point well.

    I suppose my apologies ring hollow because I made the post anyways…

    I really like where Stoller is going with this though. I keep coming back to that question of what people are left with. It is more like the ruination emanates not from disaster, per se, but capitalism itself.

  3. Thanks for posting these, the video was a great find, though I suggest a little over-cooked with the Godspeed soundtrack. Kathleen Steward’s work, on the other hand, is unspeakably gorgeous and delicate, we all secretly love her in geography!

    Cultural geography has a long history of writing about ruins, including the work of Caitlin DeSilvey, Dydia DeLyser and especially Tim Edensor which compliment these references nicely.

    If you would like to see more, may I suggested having a look at:

    Dobraszczyk P 2010 Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 14: 370-89.

    Edensor T 2005 Industrial ruins: space, aesthetics, and materiality. Berg Publishers, Oxford, United Kingdom.

    Hell J and Schönle A 2010 Ruins of modernity. Duke University Press, London.

    Also, I just published a video article in Geography Compass on urban exploration or place hacking, a cultural movement which seeks to explore and document urban ruins (my work was featured on SM previously by Adam Fish). You can find that video here is you are interested:

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