In the opening paragraph of the preface to her book The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture,1 Susan Stewart begins to lay out the ethical contradictions and perils fostered by the industry of ruins and our openly romanticized attraction to the artifacts of decay and destruction:
“Today, in what we call the developed world, we often pursue practices that undermine our values. We know that to survive as a species we must nourish the resources of the earth, yet we continue to further an economic system based upon “creative destruction.” We hold to a belief in the intrinsic worth of individuals, yet we further, through animosity or indifference alike, the physical and mental degradation of those who are impoverished and powerless. We pursue new knowledge, yet we crush its consequences by demanding it yield immediate, material benefit. Not only do we practice these and other forms of unmaking and destruction, we have also turned their image into a vital theme of our art tradition. Beyond expressing the contradictions of hypocrisy and greed, or the pressures arising from a death drive, there seems to be some mastery, freedom, or even pleasure involved in the pursuit of representations of ruin. From stories of the fall of Troy to contemporary “ruins porn,” we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged or decayed.”
From Athens’ Acropolis to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner2, harbingers of popular culture aim to possess and profit from the variegated calamities of both history and future.
Who, outside the possessor of critical need, that which warily—if at all—opens to the chaotic uncertainties of the visceral world, can judge or assess the possessor’s state of vulnerability – the tenuous condition leading to potential decline or annihilation? Sensing an acquiescent moment of vulnerability within a systemic set of causes often comes—seconds, decades…centuries—too late to support or repair the thing or system slipping towards the processes of “creative destruction” and inevitable ruin.
Aside, yet not separated from, the philosophical biases and ethical contradictions the romantic lens proffers, the question of strategic assessment arises: who is qualified to excavate the artifices of surface in order to reveal the causal essence of—object to infrastructure—a state of vulnerability: a lover, poet, historian, cultural anthropologist, architect, engineer, politician – an “expert”3, and once an assessment is made and delivered what are the processes engaged that are sensitive to the vulnerable condition: to let-well-enough-alone, destroy, conserve, tenderly repair, or to radically reconstruct? Who are the enablers, the beneficiaries, and who are the potential victims and, how do intersecting interests and processes manifest as concrete forms?
AR 2021 is Calling for papers that address manifold states of vulnerability and the means and methods of assessing and advancing critical solutions to the potential travails inherent in the politics and products of reparation.
1 – Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (The University of Chicago Press 2020), Pg. 13
2 – Ridley Scott, director, Blade Runner (Warner Brothers 1982)
3 – Laurie Anderson (Only an Expert, from Homeland 2010)