Project Description

Numerous studies have focused on modernity’s destructive effect on traditional life- worlds, the desertion of villages and the ruination of rural areas. However, the fact that the modern condition also produces its own ruined materialities, its own marginalized pasts, is less spoken about. Since the 19th century, mass-production, consumerism and thus cycles of material replacement have accelerated; increasingly larger amounts of things are increasingly rapidly victimized and made redundant. At the same time processes of destruction have immensely intensified, although largely overlooked when compared to the research and social significance devoted to consumption and production (González-Ruibal 2006, 2008). The outcome is a ruined landscape of derelict factories, closed shopping malls, overgrown bunkers and redundant mining towns; a ghostly world of decaying modern debris normally left out of academic concerns and conventional histories.(1)

This ruin-landscape is the topic of the current research project. Based on selected case studies of industrial ruins, abandoned fishing villages, war remains and mining sites in Norway, Russia, Iceland, Spain and the United States we want to explore how the ruins of modernity are conceived and assigned cultural value in contemporary academic and public discourses. Our research will cover three main themes: the aesthetics of waste and heritage, the materiality of memory, and the significance of things. Through these themes we want to develop theoretical arguments that help to understand why the derelict materiality of the modern to such an extent has been devalued and marginalized, but also to suggest possible means for reaffirming its cultural and historic significance.

The aesthetics of waste and heritage

One outcome of the modern attitude towards things and materiality is an oppositional hierarchy between, on the one hand, functional and/or aesthetically pleasing things and, on the other, waste – all rubbish supposed to be eradicated by increasingly more effective systems of disposal and recycling (Lucas 2002, Shanks et.al. 2004, Scanlan 2005). Heritage practices may at first be seen to be mediating this opposition, reflecting a care for and attentiveness to the useless and stranded. Heritage, however, contains its own regimes of cultural valuing and othering. In the dominant conception ruins are old, they have an “age-value” which is imperative to their legal and cultural-historical appreciation. Judged by this criterion, modern ruins become ambiguous, even anachronistic. In their hybrid or uncanny state they become antonyms of the modern and blur established cultural categories of purity and dirt; in short, they become matter out of place – and out of time. Of central importance to this project is the study of how these processes of othering reflect aesthetic preferences and values; preferences also articulated by the way “proper” (ancient) ruins are treated and conceived. The “heritage ruin” is often staged, neat and picturesque; providing visitors with a disciplined and purified space (Edensor 2005). Extraneous materials – plants, fauna, debris, modern materials – all pollutants, are to be expunged. Seemingly frozen in time, further decay is staved off through restoration and preservation. Arresting decay, of course, has always been the imperative of modern museums and heritage management. Modern ruins, in contrast, are withering and crumbling; walls and concrete decompose, nature intrudes, mingles and reclaims. They become untimely reminders of ambiguity, death, and decay—conditions conspicuously at odds with the common cultural tropes of purity, sustainability and conservation (Lucas 2002, Shanks et.al. 2004). However, precisely through their alteration and decomposition these remains may be seen as uttering their own resistance and cultural critique. Thus, an important objective of this project is to explore how the ruins of the recent past may fuel a critical discourse on the aesthetics of heritage and materiality. Do the recent claims of a “thing agency” (Gell 1998, Latour 2005) extend to the aesthetic field as well?

The materiality of memory

In cultural and social studies much attention has been devoted to how memory crystallizes into sites or places of memory, locales of collective remembering (Nora 1984, Assman 1992, Eriksen 1999). Memory is here associated with a “re-collective” conception, in other words, with memory as a conscious and willful human process of recalling the past. The materiality of the place is not considered to be decisive (despite the presence of inscribed monuments and memorials); the crucial issue is the past event, a gone past, and the will to remember it through site embodiments. This project, however, is mostly concerned with different kinds of sites, which might be called “places of abjection”—“a no-man’s land too recent, conflicting and repulsive to be shaped as collective memory” (Gonzáles-Ruibal 2008: 256). Such places still contain the material causation for their abjection, and are haunted by a present past too grim or uncanny to be embraced (Domanska 2005). There is, of course, no ontological stability to such places. New historical circumstances and public attention might transform places of abjection into sites of commemoration and collective memory (cf. Runia 2006) —a point which adds a layer of irony to our own investigations.

Places of abjection also relate materially (although ambiguously so) to another type of memory, a habit memory. While re-collective memory implies a conscious gaze directed towards a particular past, habit memory is an implicit act of re-membering embedded in our bodily routines and ways of dealing with things: “it no longer represents our past to us, it acts it” (Bergson 1896/2004:93, cf. Casey 1984, Connerton 1989). In Bergson’s formative conception, habit memory was largely a function of adaptive value: only those aspects of the past that are useful or compatible with our present conducts are habitually remembered. The ruins dealt with here were once useful, and thus embedded in repetitious practice and infused with habit memory. When discarded and outmoded, their habitual mnemonic significance is lost while their physical presence, albeit ruined, continues. As such they survive and gather as the material antonyms to the habitually useful, creating a tension-filled constellation that carries the potential of triggering a particular kind of involuntary memory (Benjamin 1999). Reverberating against the taken- for-granted materiality of habit memory, these ruins become potential agents of disruption and “actualisation”. Precisely by being redundant and discarded they reveal the gaps in the construction of history as progress, as a continuous narrative; they bring forth the abject memories that both the recollective and the habitual have displaced.

The significance of things

A closely related third theme of this project is the significance of things. Our everyday dealings with things mostly take place in a mode of inconspicuous familiarity; unless broken, interrupted or missing, ordinary things often exhibit a kind of shyness. Also in the study of society things seem to have escaped the scholars’ attention, being largely ignored or confined to the margins when the “real” spectacles of life are accounted for in political narratives or sociological analyses.(2) What is inevitably also neglected by this omission is the wordless experience of people and the life unfolding outside talkative history and social discourses.

The fate of things (and the disciplines concerned with them) may well exemplify how the assignment of cultural values has caused processes of marginalization which deeply influence even scholarly work. While the causes of this neglect must be scrutinized further (cf. Olsen 2003, 2007), a central concern here is to develop the emerging but still largely unexplored awareness of things’ potential for informing studies of contemporary and recent society. This, of course, is not to dismiss the profound importance of textual or other accounts, but rather to work out how such an archaeology of the recent past may provide alternative stories and alternative modes of historical engagement. Crucial here is, of course, a concern with the way things can mediate or express the “unsayable”, the “ineffable” experience which lies outside, or is neglected in, discourse.

This reassessment includes a consideration of things in their ruination. Decay is usually understood in a negative way; things are degraded and humiliated through material alteration, while the information, knowledge and memory embedded in them becomes lost along the way (DeSilvey 2006). We suggest that things actually may release some of their meaning or generate a different kind of knowledge precisely through processes of decay and ruination (Benjamin 1999, Andersson 2001). In the destruction process new layers of meaning are revealed, meanings that are only possible to grasp at second hand when no longer immersed in their withdrawn and useful reality. Ruination can thus be seen also as a recovery of memory (DeSilvey 2006); a “slow-motion archaeology” that exposes the formerly hidden and black-boxed; it unveils the masked object, inside is turned out, privacy revealed (Edensor 2005). 

Aims and objectives of project

The overall aims of this project are twofold. Firstly, to critically scrutinize the normative categorization of modern ruins and the discourses and practices that may have led to their academic and historical marginalization; secondly, to reassess the cultural and historical value of this “prehistory” and of the role things play in expressing the ineffable. Each of these aims involves more specific objectives (further contextualised in relation to the specific case studies): (i) to investigate to what extent the cultural reception of modern ruins reflects aesthetic preferences that also impinge on academic and public conceptions of heritage; (ii) to identify “effective-historical” traditions and values responsible for their marginalization as well for the silencing of things more generally in social discourses; (iii) to explore how these othered materialities may contribute to a critical aesthetics of things and heritage; (iv) to examine the role things play in upholding the past and thus in enabling various forms of memory; (v) to explore the significance of ruins and things in informing social and historical inquiries; (vi) to explore alternative means of disseminating this significance.

A note on archaeology and art

This is an interdisciplinary project that involves a range of approaches, specific to objectives and case studies. Some of the objectives require extensive theoretical studies and discourse analyses. However, at the core of this project is an engagement with real ruins, a material past, and this requires an approach sensitive to our tacit subject matter. In our opinion archaeology provides such a methodology and is a key to our fieldwork. Archaeology is usually seen as a discipline working with the distant past.(3) However, since the 1970s archeologists have worked to develop critical approaches to contemporary societies and the recent past. At the heart of archaeology is a set of trans-disciplinary practices and understandings that address the nature and significance of things. Archaeologists are trained to read material traces and engage in meaningful and original ways with the qualities and textures of things, and have developed methodologies for documenting and interpreting these traces. Being characterized as a discipline “closer to memory than to history” (Olivier 2008), archaeology’s “topographic” mode of engagement constitutes an alternative to narration both in terms of documentation and dissemination. Traditional means of archaeological documentation (drawings, plans, distribution maps, graphs, site and artifact photos) may have extraordinary power when applied to the recent past and also help to display or actualize that past in new and challenging ways. In addition, the growing field of interaction between archaeology and visual art(4) suggests new ways of mediating our material encounters with the recent past. Of particular interest here is photography (Shanks 1997, Andreassen et.al. 2009), partly because it transcends the boundaries between documentation and art but also because it promises to do more justice to the “physiognomy” of things than conventional narratives seem to do. Moreover, photography is promising also as a possible means of mediating or re-actualizing material “presence effects”, bringing forth the ephemeral simultaneities between presence and meaning (cf. Gumbrecht 2004) that often characterize our material encounters.