Collective, Unconscious: Ruins, So Very Tragique

We -- and I speak here for what I can claim to understand, which broadly speaking is "western society" -- are a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing lot. We believe not only in progress, but also in our inherent ability to make it. Moreover, we approach and explain instances of decline with a scientific and analytic (im)precision that cannot help but contain slightly paternalistic moralizing: oh you crazy, pillaging, marauding barbarians, what were you thinking?! In stern, Stone Phillips-y voices laden with gravitas we scold ourselves when confronted with harbingers of future catastrophe, but in the same instance grandly proclaim We Can Change The Present Course of History Because Our Serious Tone Suggests Knowledge and Insight And Maybe Also Condescension Because Even Though We Caused This Mess We're Still Better Than Our Predecessors Because They Surely Must Have Pre-Caused This Mess And At Least We're Trying To Fix It And While We're Fixing It Let's Also Make Some Fun Blockbuster Movies About It So As To Transform Those Harbingers Into Easy Cash Cows. So when both 3 Quarks Daily and Gothamist made mention of a recent article in Scientific American entitled An Earth Without People, I couldn't help but be curious and also a little wary. The article is partly an interview with science writer and professor Alan Weisman, who recently published The World Without Us, a book that examines what sorts of things would happen to the planet if humans suddenly disappeared, alien abduction-like, from the face of the earth.* Without regular maintenance, streets and highways would buckle within a couple of months; houses and office buildings would collapse within several decades. And: "Certain common plastics might remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years; they would not break down until microbes evolved the ability to consume them." Crazy! As a bonus, for NYC-based readers, you might be interested in looking at the "Fall of New York City" timeline featured in the article; it's got some pretty fascinating facts and images of a suddenly-humanless Manhattan, including flooded subways (2 days), the collapse of the Brooklyn Bridge roadway (300 years from now), and my favorite, 5 billion years down the road: "The earth vaporizes as the dying sun expands and consumes all the inner planets." Whee! The article was an interesting read overall, and Weisman's intent with the book is, ultimately, pro-environmental in nature, as it attempts to lay out what sorts of toxins, pollutants, and radioactivity we are (and would be) leaving behind -- though he's got a funny way of getting us to think about any of this to begin with: "What I’m finding is that this way of looking at our planet—by theoretically just removing us—turns out to be so fascinating that it kind of disarms people’s fears or the terrible wave of depression that can engulf us when we read about the environmental problems that we have created and the possible disasters we may be facing in the future. Because frankly, whenever we read about those things, our concern is: Oh, my God, are we going to die? Is this going to be the end? My book eliminates that concern right at the beginning by saying the end has already taken place. For whatever reason, human beings are gone, and now we get to sit back and see what happens in our absence. It’s a delicious little way of reducing all the fear and anxiety. And looking at what would happen in our absence is another way of looking at, well, what goes on in our presence." It's an interesting premise: eliminate how we die to discuss what we leave behind. I probably wouldn't describe anything I do as a "delicious little way" of doing anything, but that's just me. I don't have any fundamental issues with Weisman or the article, though the topic of abandoned landscapes did remind me of something I had first seen in bldg blog: Gunkanjima Island. It's a tiny island off the western coast of Japan that had been just an overgrown reef, until folks found coal deposits in the early 19th century, and subsequently began to migrate to the island to start a small coal mining industry. "Befor [sic] long, the reef had grown into an artificial island of one kilometer (three quarters of a mile) in perimeter, with a population of 5300. Looming above the ocean, it appeared a concrete labyrinth of many-storied apartment houses and mining structures built closely together. Seen from the ocean, the silhouette of the island closely resembled a battleship -- so the island came to be called Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island." By the turn of the century, Mitsubishi had purchased the island, and established a long-term project to tap the coal resources from below the sea bottom. The coal mines eventually closed down in 1974 following a gradual shift from coal to petroleum as the central component of the country's energy policy, and by April of that year, all of the island's (human) inhabitants had departed, leaving behind "the empty shell of a city." A Japanese photographer documented the last days of the (inhabited) island, and then returned ten years later to see what had happened to the the buildings and surrounding mining structures. The photographs are visually stunning, and as documents of life, and then of absence, they offer a different way of thinking about ruins. That is, we might possibly read ruins not necessarily as sublime, romanticised relics of a time long gone and through (and for) which we now express nostalgic longings for the past, but rather the depiction of a more recent past -- in this case, the end of an island's sole industry and reason for human habitation -- as the catalyst of a process we would otherwise never see: the extent to which our absence from those spaces makes apparent just how much we rely on industry to govern when, where, and how we come together as a collective, and how quickly that collective can dissipate once market forces dictate otherwise. The complete departure of the island's inhabitants was precipitated by the decline of the mining industry on the island, but with the collapse of that market, the local economic infrastructure could no longer be sustained -- and with that, the end of the Gunkajima. To be sure, there are other instances and experiences of abandoned cities -- Chernobyl comes to mind here (Robert Polidori's photographs of the city and neighboring Pripyat are quite poignant, as are these from bldg blog) -- collectivities and local economies wiped out by larger forces, natural or otherwise. But, unlike the ruins of the Roman Empire, which we look upon with tragic awe and, more often than not, a moralistic stance against the decadence and power grabs that, if the narrative is to be believed, caused its downfall and its unfolding in the present as beautiful decay, the ruins of Gunkanjima speak to a more immediate unfolding of corporate bottom lines masquerading as national priorities -- decadence, sure, but the recent-pastness of it all makes the ruination more acutely felt, less able to be abstracted into an experience of the sublime. Somehow though, in the collective imagination, a ruin is a ruin is a ruin: at the end of the day, it's all decay. There's a great line in Sebald's Austerlitz: "...for somehow we know by instinct that outsized buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins." This speaks in one sense quite directly to Albert Speer's plans for a re-imagined Berlin under a victorious Third Reich, such that all new buildings should be designed with an eye to their potential as aesthetically pleasing ruins a thousand years later -- his theory of 'ruin value' that I'm pretty sure hasn't been entirely abandoned today. But in another way, buildings need not be outsized or monumental for there to be the potential for ruination. All good things (and bad ones) must come to an end; the problem is that we like to fetishize what that end looks like, reify that moment into an image of a ruin, without wanting to really look at the unravelling that got us there. In other words, it seems that we're willing to look at ruins without really, truly looking at decline; in the same way that one tends to gloss over the fighting that leads to the end of a relationship and instead monumentalize (ruin-ize) that moment we call The Breakup, in privileging ruins we choose to see an aesthetically appealing moment in a narrative we would otherwise like to forget. The beauty of thinking about a world without humans -- and skipping over the part about our sudden disappearance -- is that we're ultimately also able then to gloss over what it might truly mean to be a civilization in decline. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for understanding, and assuming responsibility for, my role in, say, global warming and perpetuating general environmental mayhem; it's not like I want humanity to be in a state of decline. But at the same time, it seems that we need to think about decline in more rigorous ways, and not simply as a necessary binary to progress. It becomes a sort of mythical beast, a Decline Monster that must be vanquished if progress is to march forward -- and as such, the monster is never truly real, never really confronted. It's all just sort of make-believe -- like progress itself. The thing with images of actual ruin, then, is that we can either confront the decline and decay that they depict as image, as something with potential aesthetic value (I'm certainly not above thinking that the photographs in these post are, in fact, beautiful) -- or we can think about how the traces of a now-absent collective might (or should) speak to what sorts of structural change need to happen, in order for the paradigm to shift from mythologized progress/decline to real sustainability. We can't avoid ruins, now or in the future; but if we can confront what it might look like to be in a state of decline, I suspect we might also then be able to then find ways to not so much want, need, or produce more (-- and monuments speak to this problem), but rather to want, need, and produce better. [Photographs in this post are taken from Saiga's website about Gunkanjima Island. There is also a piece in a 2002 issue of Cabinet Magazine that details some of the history of the island, for those who might want to read further.] [*And yes, I know about, and am planning to see, that ridiculous-looking Will Smith film, I Am Legend, about the last man on Earth. I'm a sucker for the apocalypse.]


Anonymous said...

I personally visited the Chernobyl area for two days in June 2006 with a friend and former resident of Pripyat. We toured the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room), several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal of my trip at:

My Journey to Chernobyl: 20 Years After the Disaster


ht said...

mark -- that was a really great travelogue, and the photos were really quite incredible. they very vividly convey the sense of absence and tragedy, at once desolate and yet with traces of life, too. (the pic of the turtle was nice!) thanks so much for sharing the link. are you planning to go back there, or to other abandoned locales?

Anonymous said...

ht -- thank you for your comments about my article.

I am indeed interested in going to other abandoned locales at some point and I definitely want to get back to the Chernobyl area. Even though it is not the safest place to spend a large amount of time in, there is something special about the Chernobyl area that calls out to me. Maybe part of it is that my father's family comes from the Kyiv and Pryluky areas of Ukraine. I am also trying to write a book about the area, the accident, and its aftermath, so it would be helpful to return.

Besides that, I also have friends in Kyiv that I want to visit, so if I can go see them, I can get back to Chernobyl.