Contemporary Ruins: Politics and Aesthetics Beyond the Melancholy Imagination
Henderson, Christine Rose
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This thesis attempts to elucidate the specificities of contemporary ruins using critical theory and cultural studies applied to various sites of analysis ranging from art and film to abandoned factories and disaster zones. It is motivated not only by the question of whether thinking about the contemporary world through the conceptual paradigm of the ruin might offer insight into the crises that afflict our everyday lives, but by the political desire to seek, amidst the ruins, an opportunity to re-imagine the possible.The ruinous processes of creative destruction, dispossession, commodification, forced obsolescence, deindustrialization and disaster are examined in their relation to the workings of capitalism. Capitalism is seen to systematically manufacture ruins, producing physical, ecological and affective geographies of ruination. These ruins are the starting point to ask the question: What does it mean for the political imagination to be confronted with social reality as a mounting pile of wreckage? I suggest that it has a profound impact upon our sense of historical agency, upon our capacity to dream, to imagine, and to act. Ruins are bound up with losses of all kinds, and, as such, with larger cultural practices of memory and mourning. While ruins in capitalist modernity still embodied a dialectic tension between old and new, loss and invention, nostalgia and optimism, ruins in postmodernity lack the same productive tension: they seem to signal unqualified loss and the foreclosure of all possibilities for the future. I argue that moving beyond this depressive melancholy imagination, one of the many 'ruins of modernity', requires that we confront and work through these losses in order to be better able to seize the opportunities for resistance and social change that exist in the present. The representation of ruins, the relation of form to content, is considered from the standpoint of its ability to restore perceptibility and responsiveness or, inversely, to anaesthetize and make us numb. Radical, self-reflexive aesthetic practices, concerned with symbolizing loss and deepening historical awareness, are presented as a creative and promising approach to re-appropriating the ruins.