What does one mean by ‘ruins’? Something that is dilapidated and neglected beyond a time span? Something that never becomes a matter of reconstruction? Or is it something that perpetually takes one away from building something up? In the age of postmodernism, ruins are theorised in a number of ways; more interesting is the aspect how they have become matters of constant discussion – carrying very much the elixir and exoticism of postcolonial smell and gaze, and by turning out the cites of global attraction. However, to draw a line between different ways of looking at ruins is an impossible task as our times are not linear and our thoughts non-symmetrical. This is the avenue where a book – such as Ruins of Modernity edited by Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle.
This book contains essays that look at the variety of ruins in the global and from the pre-global, capitalist times, thus invoking the histories of the present, immediate past and the remote time. Theorising what the ruins are all about, most of the writers have taken their interest in Europe. Categorised mainly into five sections – from the question of the ‘catastrophe’ to the act of ‘ruin gazing’, this volume presents an immense scope of understanding the rise and fall of empires, the questions of destruction, the clash of world titans, the fall of democratic governments and the eternal thrive of men toward destruction. The essays are both philosophically and historically well studied and analysed; the least of what one can talk about is the context of ruinations, perhaps a subject which so far has not been theorised before.
Anthony Wheeler’s Air War and Architecture is one of the brilliant pieces included in this volume that looks at the various tropes of the aerial bombardment carried out upon buildings and architectures, the last of which is 9/ 11 and its consequences. Inside every architecture, there remains a desire of its ruination at some point of time. Taking cue from Le Corbusier and other theoreticians, Wheeler is of the opinion that ‘the city has become no more or less a cemetery of its own past’. Vladimir Paperny and Svetlena Boym look at the destruction of architectures and the desire of their resurrection from the point of view of installation arts, photographs and the pscychology of desire. Everywhere, there are attempts for the reconstruction of the ruins; at times carried out successfully, yet other times, remaining as the empty gaze and ‘washing out’ memory as we have seen with the fall of the twin towers in New York.
Julia Hell looks at the texts of Gibbon, Volney and other writers to discuss Hitler’s fallen Germany, his visit to Rome around the ruins and the plan of the ruin gazer across Europe to become either a part of the past or to saddle oneself with the thought of the ruinations. For Hell, the Classical historians such as Gibbon and Oswald Spengler even in our time are important as their valuable contributions have added a new colour to the war-torn Europe. But no where in her article she gets into the psychological drama behind Hitler’s insisternce of building architectures for ‘eternity’. Yet her argument raises questions of the anticipated destruction of edifices visionised by the Fuhrer, Speer and others and the fear of retaliation that made them shudder against the built up monuments.
One constant reference in this book is W G Sebald. Sebald’s texts, though written much after the Second World War talk about ruin, destruction, mass amnesia, resurgence of new spaces and the need to reinvent memories with a guilt-consciousness. The essay by Todd Samuel Presner looks at Hegel’s historical postulations and Sebald’s narratives of ruins to suggest how in Sebald, an anti–Hegelian, anti–utopian quest toward the redefinition of space is created. Sebald’s closeness to the theories of Walter Benjamin is also well cited by Presner. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the text under the specific examination here is re-read in a non–travel writing, the other way it is always understood by critics and theorists.
Rahul Mehrotra’s essay looks at the negotiations and resistances in urban India by taking Mumbai as the specific example. While claiming that the urban space doesn’t have the vibrancy to contain all its ruins, Mehrotra situates the history of Mumbai in an uneven democratic and urban space of India and the desire of constructing the architectures and buildings in tandem with the need to reassemble everything. Mehrotra’s notion of ruptures and discontinuities that one encounters in this urban space is the other side of the democratic imagination, which perhaps all of us have, living in our uneven times.
Looking at the ruins of Namibia and Detroit, George Steinmetz developes a thesis of the mapping of the colonial times and the postcolonial urge of making them a part of their lives. But the question here is: How many postcolonial nations have the same desire? How many of us have turned the sites of ruins a part of our present while understanding the value and history of them? How and at what points of time history makes us different when we gaze at these sites? These questions are not well answered in Steinmetz’s article. The section (Post) Ruinscapes in this book, where Steinmetz’s essay figures in, is the most interesting section as it has a number of criss-crossings and vertical digressions into the comparative framework of looking at ruins.
In the last section – Ruin Gazing, we have some essays on the natural catastrophes, films and the architectures of wonder. The philosophical and psychological motifs behind the act of gazing at the ruins become a matter of discussion here. The diverse and disparate strands of thoughts, feelings and estranged emotions club together in the act of watching/seeing the ruins anywhere in our world. The question of existence and the dirge of the dreamers also are the motifs behind this. Though some of the references turn into the Middle East, this section also doesn’t have much talk about the ruins of the East. If not the East, at least those of the recent attacks of Iraq and Afghanistan should have figured in the text, as these ruins are, more than the pictures in the history books make us live with the present of the history of our neighbours. Moreover, the rumbled spaces of the East require a special mention as the threat now in the East is not about the destruction of the already ruined structures; but the fear of being ruined internally – that is, the mental ruin.
In the treatment of the ruins across the globe, other than the elision of the East and its vestiges, the book shows sincerity to the theme it carries. However, one can’t here resist the temptation to bring back some nostalgia into the ways of reading this wonderful book. What is offered as modern, at times, slip toward postmodern is another fascinating conjunction of this book. The nouveau riche experience of films and texts, though separated, seems to conjoin the demands of the readers in all its charm. The line of demarcation between the ‘experience of modern ’and the ‘experimentation of the postmodern’ seems to disappear here. The articles by Helen Petrovsky and Johannes Von Moltke bring this experience more into focus. Finishing this wonderful text is like making a space travel – as the criss-crossings and the dimensions of understanding the ruins are historical, travel-oriented and a journey undertaken from all corners of human perception.
If ruins ultimately are not our own ‘situatedness’, then what are they?